Scary Meals

A Review of Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation, appropriately subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” is the first book by Eric Schlosser, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and winner of a National Magazine Award for a piece on the Drug War. He has since compiled another book about black market economics titled Reefer Madness. Now that I’ve read Fast Food Nation (twice), I figure to be picking up this next book of his soon.

For starters, I was most impressed by the balance in Fast Food Nation. While Schlosser disparages the consequences of so-called “franchising”, he praises the positive qualities of many of the individuals whose life efforts and career passions helped cause this trend of homogenized corporate culture. A walk around my northwest Chicago neighborhood confirms his observation: A new Walgreen’s is being built 4 blocks away from another one on the same street; I can walk a block and a half to the north or southwest if it’s Dunkin Donuts I seek (24-7-365, to boot).

There are stretches in the book that are dense with statistics, dollars, and moving citations from innumerable sources; Schlosser specifically refers to and builds upon Upton Sinclair’s muckraking book of a century ago, The Jungle. There are the obvious parallels: Nightmarish environments that are hazardous to work in are also unsanitary conditions unfit for the preparation of massive volumes of food. Schlosser starts with the incredible growth of the fast-food industry, and processed foods in general, and backs into how this helped shape the conditions of industrial-scale agriculture: modern slaughterhouses and (Southern) chicken farms, cattle ranching, and vegetable farming.

The question being asked between the lines is this: “OK, 100 years ago the nation awoke to the conditions Sinclair detailed in The Jungle, so how has a Century of Progress failed to improve worker safety or ensure food quality?”

Automation is one theme that Schlosser employs to examine this question. The automation in mind in the design of a fast-food restaurant kitchen, the mass production of cars that changed the landscape of North America and the world in the past century, and the intense drive for efficiency and profit that motivates the enormous multinational corporations of today are interlinked with mixed results in the book. Industry consolidation and deregulation are two other answers to this question, and likewise characterized the turn of both of the last centuries. Schlosser deftly jumps from varying examples in the chapters across these and other underlying currents.

The homogenizing of fast food, i.e. the desire to have a hamburger taste the same no matter where it is consumed, mirrors the “franchising” of America (and the world). The result is a threat to small-scale. Ma-and-Pa, locally owned businesses. This homogenization was possible with the automation that technological advances allowed. What the… am I reviewing the book Fast Food Nation or the film documentary The Corporation? There’s definitely a bit of common ground between the two.

The skill was effectively taken out of the fast-food restaurant kitchen (as well as the slaughterhouse), and then the wage scale was gutted. Originally, skilled laborers were required to man these tasks. In fact, a job in the latter was considered respectable and paid well (especially for the times), despite the inherent danger. But automation of the kitchen tasks, and the drive for an intense consistency of the product being served, zapped the skill out of the food handlers’ work: The change was that each “station” repeated the same one task on end. With such an arrangement, an endless supply of teenage or migrant workers could be exploited to work these robotic routines. With the resulting high turnover for such positions, the power of unions to fight for the workers’ interests is likewise inconsistent at best. The result is a whole new caste of unskilled, underpaid, dead-end laborers who lack the requisite training to advance to anything. Even overworked managers frequently face this glass ceiling.

Personally, I’ve always theorized the contrary: that a company would want to pay to retain good employees and not have to waste the resources and time to interview, hire, and train replacements. But somehow this seemingly logical train of thought got lost on its way to today’s Bottom Line. Nowadays in America, a teenage fast-food job constitutes a veritable right-of-passage. Whether or not any real training occurs is debatable, but fast-food corporations reap many millions a year in government funding for training of entry-level employees—much to the literal laughter of many corporate bigwigs at a conference mentioned in the first half of the book.

Quite a bit of savage detail depicts the hazards of fast food, starting with the restaurants themselves. A huge percent of fast-food restaurant robberies involve current or former employees, a phenomenon I wasn’t aware of before reading this book. But far worse are the slaughterhouse conditions in which increased production (the speed at which live cattle daily become edible products) creates what Schlosser describes as “the most dangerous job” in the country—even the clean-up crews (staffed again heavily with migrant, often illegal, workers) are subjected to horrific conditions. Here’s where the inevitable comparisons between Fast Food Nation and The Jungle ring most true.

The political power wielded not only by the fast-food corporations, but also by the slaughterhouses, multinational agricultural conglomerates, etc., has prevented industry reforms that hardly seem excessive. Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush/Republican (mostly but certainly not exclusively) deregulation and industry consolidation, flying in the face of the turn-of-the-century legislation (and the public health, it could be readily argued), also contributed to this lack of overdue progress. This again brings us to the painful paradox of how so much technological advancement could do so little for the actual workers, and so little for food safety.

In one chapter, Schlosser takes us on a tour of the flavor-factories along the New Jersey turnpike, where the artificial and natural flavors that enhance the taste of our food are invented and created. The most profound revelations here are just how similar “artificial” and “natural” flavors are, and how unnatural “natural” flavors are. Schlosser writes: “Calling any of these flavors ‘natural’ requires a flexible attitude toward the English language and a fair amount of irony.”

But Schlosser doesn’t only provide us a healthy dose of science and chemistry: There’s so much more human, personal feel to this book than I have described. Schlosser gives due credit to the hard-working, entrepreneurial, visionary and thus very American Spirit individuals who pioneered The Corporate Age. The parallel rise of Walt Disney and Ray Kroc (who didn’t found, but more or less nurtured, the McDonald’s of today) is traced all the way back to when they were Medics together in World War I. Notably, neither graduated from high school and both lied about their ages in order to enlist in the military. Reading about that reminded me of when my much older cousin told me he lied about his age in order to work in the steel mill in his town.

Another excellent human-interest story, which I’ll largely leave for readers of the book and not just this review, involves a Colorado-based Little Caesar’s franchisee who is a Detroit native and one-time Chicago Blackhawk. Another fine example of balanced journalism and human interest revolves around “Hank”, a Colorado rancher who understands the environmental impact of urban sprawl and the mutual ground in which traditionally antagonistic groups such as environmentalists and ranchers need to discover to succeed, if not survive.

In fact, many of these human-interest stories are set in Colorado, a perfect symbol of America’s current crossroads: Colorado is part California (and another part Chicago), a mass migration that brings with it its ever-evolving culture; part Texas (eastern Colorado is home to significant ranching and slaughterhouses), part Military-Industrial Complex; part All-American Suburban Sprawl; part Wild, Wild, West; and part government subsidy.

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