A disturbing book by Eric Schlosser, columnist for Atlantic Monthly about the history and socioeconomic effects of the fast food industry.

He paints his story against the backdrop of the American West, talking about how the rhetoric of fast food is of independent businessman and ideals of freedom and self -reliance, whereas the industry is highly dependent on Federal money, from SBA loans to franchisees to agribusiness concerns about tax breaks and lax regulation.

He makes the point that assembly line methods of fast food production actually worked their way into large-scale agribusiness. The scariest picture is that of the beef factories, which due to the irregular size of cattle cannot be automated to the same extent as poultry and potato manufacturing, and are horrible places, filled with illiterate, migrant workers, working long hours at low pay in job conditions reminiscent of the early 20th century slaughterhouses that Upton Sinclair wrote of in The Jungle. How things like E. coli infection and salmonella could be prevented at an incremental cost, and how when the modern American slaughterhouse prepares meat for EU consumption, the lines are slowed down, and workers are actually safer because they can concentrate on their work better, and the higher standards the EU puts on their meat mean the work is done more carefully.

The book also laments the anti-union stance of the fast food chains, and how they rely on a steady stream of disposable workers to keep costs low, while simulaneously taking job training tax breaks from the Federal government. The real cost of fast food is not measured at the time of purchase, he argues, but in the cost to the workers, and the consumers--with Americans and particulary American children more obese than any society anywhere in world history.

At the same time, the book is not anti-fast food, or anti-capitalistic, per se. It goes on to mention chains like In 'N Out Burger who produce high-quality, honest food at comparable prices to the other chains by putting value in their workers and their food supply instead of trying to extract every last bit of profit by cutting corners whereever possible. The author admits to enjoying the fast food he's eaten, and is not, say a radical vegetarian or the type of person people usually think would write such a book.

All in all, it's a fascinating read. I really think people should understand where their food comes from, and if you eat at a fast food restaurant, you owe it to yourself to read the book, and make your own decisions on if you can support the industry in its present form. You may see nothing wrong with what's described in this book, but I did.

Aside from Eric Schlosser's excellent research and horrifying exposes of the fast food industry, the most interesting part of the book IMHO was his use of the fast food industry as a metaphor for the mono-culture which is quickly spreading across the earth. He points to trends in agriculture, architechture, education, entertainment: everywhere the push for standardization, sanitation, conformity and corporate sponsorship. Go to a subdivision and look at the rows and rows of assembly line houses, or to schools at either end of the continent and find that they are teaching with the same textbooks. Twenty, thirty years ago things didn't used to be this way. Or at least not to this degree.

He also raises some troubling questions about agribusiness which I wish were getting more attention. In the US large agribusiness producers are now able to make closed deals with large purchasers (very often this means the restaurant industry) where the terms of the contract are kept secret (this used to be illegal). That means small growers have no way of knowing what their crops are worth and prices are kept artificially low. In an age when every TV newscast (at least here in western Canada) brings new stories about the failure of the family farm and subsidies are constantly discussed as a method for keeping small farmers in business, this seems like a serious concern that isn't getting any press.

This book discusses so many good, diverse issues, and not in a fear-mongering, or even a particularly liberal kind of way. He isn't saying "Capitalism and the free market are bad." He's saying "These companies are breaking the law in ways that are hurting consumers." and "These companies are engaging in unfair trade practices." and he has ample documentation for all his claims.

Incidentally, I recently saw the author on "Counter-Spin" debating a "Food Industry Lobbyist" and the lobbyist accused Eric Schlosser of fear mongering. Schlosser countered by asking the guy to name one fact in the book which he had evidence to contradict, and they guy couldn't do it. It was fun to watch him get really flustered trying to come up with something, though.

Fast Food Nation. By Eric Schlosser. HarperCollins Publishings. 2002, 288 p. $13.95.

"Fast food is now served at restaurants and drive-thrus, at stadiums, on cruise ships, trains, and airplanes, at K-Marts, Wal-Marts, gas stations, and even hospital cafeterias. In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2001, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music - combined. (Schlosser pg. 3)"

Fast Food Nation takes an objective, unclouded look at our nation's most prized tradition the fast food industry. Fast Food Nation also takes a hard look at how fast food has been transformed from individually owned hot dog and hamburger stands to multinational corporations, and it also talks about how technological revolutions have changed that face into globally recognized icons.

Eric Schlosser uses a series of stories told from various view points to outline his ever pervasive theme that something needs to be done to change the fast food industry. In some of the stories that are used, there is an overwhelming sense of uncaring that seems to come from companies when it comes to food safety or pretty much anything that takes more than a minimalistic effort on the part of corporations. Fast Food Nation calls for a total overhaul from the way Americans do business, all the way down to the way we eat.

Specifically, Fast Food Nation talks about the use of advertising to children, chemical additives, food adulteration, worker safety issues, law suits, unions, and most importantly diseases.

One of the book's most important points is the fact that the USDA has no real power over anything slaughterhouses, ranchers, meatpackers, renderers, or distributors do. The meat industry enjoys being the only industry in America that does not have to answer to government regulations, especially when it comes to recalling meat for whatever reason. Whether there is glass in the hamburger, E. coli or Salmonella the USDA cannot force a company to recall its meat and therefore has to wait for a company to make the decision to issue a recall.

Fast Food Nation also addressed the issues of E. coli O157:H7 and briefly mentions bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as BSE or Mad Cow). It states how researchers have known since the early eighties about the dangers of both E. coli and Creutzfeldt-Jakob, or the human form of BSE (also known as vCJD), and still did nothing to stop common practices that spread both of these diseases.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser also draws an outline of a world where "- a person can now go from cradle to grave without spending a nickel at an independently owned business. (Schlosser pg. 5)". I don’t think that Schlosser is necessarily against just the beef industry, just the fast food industry, or even just advertising; his entire point is that as companies have gotten too big, and too controlling over everyday life. The fact that soft drink companies are now advertising in school, and the fact that schools allow companies to advertise there, reflects on the real problem our nation faces… misplaced priorities. "In Kansas City they were getting 67 cents a kid before… and now they are getting $27 [a person]. (De Rose, from Schlosser pg. 53)". So, the real problem is not that they are advertising in schools, but the fact that the schools feel as though they need to sell their students to advertisers to get money.

In the end of the book Eric Schlosser mentions what European countries are doing in response to these consumer issues, and also mentions his opinion about what Americans should do in the future about our way of life. "The claim that mad cow disease has never been detected in the United States is accurate, as of this writing. The USDA, however, has not tried very hard to find it. 'If you don't look, you won't find,' say Dr. Perluigi Gambetti,..." (Researcher from Case Western Researve University, Schlosser pg. 287)". We aren't trying to find BSE, so what kind of safety measures do we have? Hiding our head in the sand isn't going to keep our meat safe.

When I read Fast Food Nation I found it very interesting, but I have to admit that I also found it rather horrifying. About a year ago, I did a research paper for English class, and I chose to research why Americans should be more globally conscious and choose to boycott the Beef industry. At that time, I used parts of Fast Food Nation to support the claims I made, but also, I didn’t have enough time to read the book. I am glad that I had to go back and read it, because of the controversial nature of the book, and because it gives the reader insight in the tactics used by corporations to leave consumers in the dark.

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