History in Review
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, By Eric Schlosser. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co; 2001. Pg 288.) ISBN: 0-3959-7789-4
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - November 18, 2001
America has become a homogenized consumer society. Go anywhere in the country and you are bound to find at restaurant, department store, gas station, or other establishment that is part of chain. And no matter where you go, these establishments are nearly identical, in regard to layout, the products sold, and even the words that the employees use to greet you. For many consumers, this sameness is beneficial. It provides them with a reliable product that never changes from city to city. There is a certain comfort level in having something you like, always the same and always available. Before World War II, America was a different world. Most restaurants and stores where one shot deals, often run as family business. These small, unique establishments are quickly becoming obsolete. In part because they are unable to compete, financially, against the monolithic corporate powerhouses who have the buying power to acquire their merchandise at a lower price than smaller entities. These corporate conglomerates have transformed America from a country of mom-and-pop business to one in which many Americans are more concerned with the brand name of a product, rather than its quality or cost.
In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser offers the reader an eye opening look at how America was transformed into a nation of fast food restaurants and boilerplate shopping centers. Most important, he details the impact that this homogenization has had on the country, not just in regard to the store fronts, but also how it has affected every aspect of our lives from how our food is grown to how our children are exploited as a source of cheap labor.
Schlosser spent countless hours researching this book, and he carefully documents the facts that he describes. Throughout this book, Schlosser chronicles the changes that occurred in America after World War II, and how these changes led to the creation of such fast food chains as Dunkin' Donuts, MacDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy's, Domino's Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, Subway, and Hardees, to name just a few. In each case he details how the original company was founded, how it turned into a 'fast food' establishment, it's founders, its corporate philosophy, and how their franchise systems work. He also looks at other 'fast food' styled business, such as Disney World, K-Mart and Walmart.
While the companies involved in the "Macdonalidizaion of America" are an import component of this volume, Schlosser takes us behind the facade of the store front, and shows us what really goes on behind the scenes. He discusses how products are designed and marketed to children, how the companies strive to build brand loyalty, and the strategies they use to keep you as a loyal customer - including putting advertisements in schools and on the side of school buses, and adding chemical additives to the food to make it taste so yummy. He also illustrates the impact that the fast food mentality has had in contributing to urban sprawl, and the repercussion that it has had for the job market, especially for teenagers and the undereducated. Most fast food restaurants are designed to be run by individuals with little or no training and often little education. Usually the general staff does not even need to know how to read to efficiently staff and run a fast-food restaurant. As well, because these are unskilled jobs, the pay is often low and the workers "easier to control" (pg 126) because they are often inexperienced or fearful of losing their job.
Chillingly, Schlosser also takes a very hard look at the impact that fast food restaurants, in particular, have had on how our food is grown and turned into finished products. He offers the reader a very graphic look inside a modern slaughter house, and explores how our food often becomes contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria simply because of how the food is handled in the 'factory'. If you are not already a vegetarian, this book will definitely make you reconsider whether you should become one or not. The descriptions of how the American meat supply is raised, slaughtered, and processed will make your stomach churn - but it will also help to make you a pro-active consumer who will be able to make wiser choices as to which types of meat to purchase, where you get it from. It will also make you aware of the importance of ensuring that your meat is cooked properly - wether you cook it at home or purchase it ready made from a fast food restaurant.
Schlosser clearly delineates the potential for mass outbreaks of food borne illnesses, which can be directly attributed to the industrialization and centralization, of our food production techniques and institutions. Factory farming, mega feedlots, the careless handling of meat throughout the meat-packing system, the reliance on a few varieties of vegetables, and the move to more and more mass-produced food products places us all at a greater risk from foodborne pathogens, both from old favorites such as botulism as well as from newly emerging pathogens. New pathogens develop in response to our changing technologies, and the changes they cause in our social and cultural practices - such as eating out more.
"Every day in the United States, roughly 200,000 people are sickened by a foodborne disease, 900 are hospitalized, and fourteen die." (Pg. 340)
This is a scary, yet all too relevant book. Schlosser's evidence is well documented and the book includes extensive endnotes. This book includes excerpts from the numerous interviews that Schlosser conducted, including interviews with injured slaughter house employees, teenage fast food workers, school administrators who have sold their students to corporate giants in return for a little extra money in order to buy more 'things' for their schools, and a chemist who helped to develop many of the chemical additives that are added to mass-produced foods in order to ensure that they taste and smell 'right'. Fast Food Nation should be required reading for any teenager hoping to get their first job in a fast food restaurant, as well as for any consumer who has ever, or will ever, buy and consume mass-produced food. It should also be mandatory reading for our legislators and city planners. After Upton Sinclair wrote his eye opening book, The Jungle, which chronicled the horrors to be found within the meat-packing industry of the early 1900's, federal inspection of all meat was made mandatory. Unfortunately, many of the evils that Sinclair chronicled have reappeared. Hopefully, Fast Food Nation will make the nation sit up and demand safer and cleaner food. Hopefully, it will also make everyone aware of the real cost of fast food, and the impact that it has had, and will continue to have, on our society, our health, and our economy.
How the Cows Turned Mad, by Maxime Schwartz.
An intriguing history of the medical detective work that has gone into identifying and studying spongiform encephalopathies, including Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, otherwise known as Mad Cow disease.
Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, by Marion Nestle.
An intriguing look at the politics of food safety, and the emerging threats to the American food supply.
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