Monday, April 30, 2012

Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal
© 2001 Eric Schlosser
362 pages

I underestimated Fast Food Nation. I'd expected a heated attack on the subject from a nutritional standpoint, but Eric Schlosser's history and overview of fast food's origins and impact is far more substantial than I had ever anticipated. The United States doesn't have a national cuisine of its own, but it has been most successful in exporting an approach to food across the world. The global presence of the McDonald's corporation has allowed American values to conquer the world in a way no military effort could ever rival. Such conquest is not to our benefit, as Schlosser's work bears out.

After beginning with the history of how fast food evolved, supported by the United States' auto culture and beginning with "drive-in" restaurants, he then charts the industry's rocketing success. The key behind every chain's success story is efficiency: applying the mindset of the factory to the restaurant. This means assembly-line preparation, the standardization of portions, a dependence on pre-processed food ("meat" arrives at these stores dessicated, in vacuum bags, and requires the addition of water to resemble ground beef again), amd immediate access to huge quantities of cheap foodstuffs just to start. (They're cheap for a reason:  standards at slaughterhouses and feedlots tend toward the horrific.) A hostile attitude toward labor also seems to be a key component: jobs are broken down into a series of mindless tasks which require little training, and a worker with little training also has little power. Wages are kept depressed to ensure maximum profits, and thus there's little wonder that these places are staffed by people with few alternatives, like teenagers. That the national chains aren't keen to provide sick leave, medical insurance, or vacation days goes without saying. There are, however, exceptions to the exploitative tendency, most notably in Schlosser's account the In-and-Out company. The same abuse of labor occurs in the chains' principle suppliers; Schlosser writes that Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) would be distressed to learn how little had changed since his 19th century  expose of the food industry's labor and health conditions.

Even more impressive is the widespread influence of these fast food chains. Schlosser attributes their ever-increasing demand for food, and their success in selling it, to the growth of the power of agribusiness. The fast food chains were such rewarding customers that their suppliers were able to establish a hegemony over the markets for beef, potatoes, and so on. As the chain stores destroyed smaller restaurants, so did their suppliers-- the corporate farms -- destroy smaller, private farms.  Economic power goes hand in hand with political corruption, which Schlosser also covers. More insidious is the growth of food-related advertising. I should think that food is so important that it doesn't need advertising, but fast food apparently needs it -- and is aggressive about spreading the work.  The chains anchor their future success in their ability to turn children into loyal, lifelong consumers,  and the growing financial weaknesses of cities and suburban municipalities offers them a new market:  advertising in the schools!  When the brands work together, combining products (toy companies and restaurants, for instance, or McDonalds in WalMart), their profits become even greater. We might applaud such  cleverness were  it not for their abusive labor policies, negligent heath standards, and political opportunism.

Fast Food Nation is an impressive work, revealing the ways that the industry affects the lives of every American, even those of us who avoid it for health or other reasons. Schlosser's coverage is extensive -- exploring nearly every facet of these businesses, from their origins to their supply lines, business practices, and labor policies.  It is both thorough and pointed, and prompts readers to consider -- what is the true cost of the 'value meal'?

Highly recommended to Americans.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay
Sugar: the Bitter Truth
Folks, This Ain't Normal, Joel Salatin


  1. This is a book I have been meaning to read for quite some time. Great review!

  2. I hope you are able to find it to read. Thanks for dropping by! :)


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