Oh, America. When will you wise up?
In 1998, the seed of Fast Food Nation appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine. Schlosser’s expose has since been expanded to a book and then a movie, and still international love affair with fast food continues. The latest edition also contains an afterword addressing ‘mad cow disease,’ or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. In it, Schlosser accomplishes the almost Herculean task of weaving together the birth of the fast food industry, the growing connection with car and highway culture, the growth of kid-targeted marketing (McDonalds and Disney were early leaders), the developing connection between the industrialization of our food and family farmers (particularly chicken, potato and beef), the anti-union connection and the development of the engineered food product. I liked it more than I thought it would; expecting a didactic cardboard entree, I was provided with a seven-course meal.
He shows true journalistic roots by beginning sections with a human-interest angle, from the beginning with Carl Karcher (Carl’s Jr.) and Richard McDonald, to the potato kingpin J.R. Simplot, to a Colorado rancher fighting to protect his ranch against enroaching suburbs, to a union representative fighting for safer conditions in slaughterhouses. If there was any weakness in the book, it would be the challenge in bridging the stories from the individual to the larger philosophical and systemic issue. I understand the human face helps a reader create meaning, but for me it occasionally felt contrived, particularly in the international settings.
For me, there was an especially powerful moment of revelation when Schlosser points out the drawback of dealing with corporations, not local owners:
“The nation’s meatpacking firms, on the other hand, have proven themselves to be far less committed to remaining in a particular community. They have successfully pitted one economically depressed region against another, using the threat of plant closures and the promise of future investment to obtain lucrative government subsidies. No longer locally owned, they feel no allegiance to any one place.”
Doesn’t that just about sums up the state of industry in the U.S.? The only times a corporation can’t cut and run is when it depends on a highly skilled workforce. It’s one reason the “create jobs” political platforms make me a little crazy.
I found myself wishing this was required reading. It’s not that I’m opposed to fast food; I’m opposed to a lack of informed choice. Full disclosure should include understanding some important points from Fast Food Nation:
- Flavor experts are utilized to create the optimal taste combination that hits our salty-fat-sweet spot. Thus chicken pieces contain an average of 30 different ingredients, of which salt has been added in at least three different steps and an artificial strawberry shake contains over 28 ingredients (http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/getnut…)
- The industry has been key in fighting against food regulation and testing, even when known outbreaks of E.coli in school lunches have killed children
- The burger is sourced from cattle feedlots, where 75% of the pre-cooked meat contained microbes normally found in fecal material
- Companies specifically target children so that they can manipulate their parents into taking them against parents’ better judgement
- Potatoes and chicken come from marginalized farmers who are basically one step up from indentured workers, buying raw ingredients from the company and selling the ‘grown’ product back to them, and insulating the company against risks such as weather, crop failure or disease
- Companies target teens and non-English speakers as workers because they are less liable to demand ‘rights’ or ‘living wages,’ and still the company gets a tax break for ‘training’
- Absolutely, positively, there is no way to eat healthily at McDonald’s with the exception of: a side salad (no dressing), fruit and yogurt parfait (5.2 oz), grilled premium chicken classic sandwich, apple slices and egg whites. (http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/getnut…) You may be healthy in spite of the food, but not because of the food.
Again, not saying I condone the choice–I have my once-a-year Shamrock shake, and an intermittent fry craving, proving just how great childhood marketing is and the lure of salty-sweet carb goodness. Less than 5 stars is because for me, the journalistic style over-reached, especially on the section on the German McDonald’s, both in Eastern Germany and the one near Dachau as well as Gorbechev speaking at a Las Vegas convention of franchise owners. But overall, it was an excellent book, entertaining and insightful. Reading it gave voice to my intuitive feeling that there is something rotten in the system.