The Book Club

Fast Food Nation

Dear Katha,

To kick off our discussion of Fast Food Nation, I’ll try to confine this first entry mostly to a description of Eric Schlosser’s outraged, densely reported tour through the alimentary canal of America’s fast food restaurant industry. I do have some quarrels with it, but overall it’s an admirable and sometimes sickening book: well-written (if not awfully well-structured), ambitious, broad in its thinking, and wonderful in its details. More than anything, it’s a triumph of a kind of reporting we don’t see much any more, combining a diligent combing of secondary sources with masses of first-hand observation and interviews.

It’s hardly news that fast food has become a way of life in America. But the facts and figures are startling nonetheless: On any given day, Schlosser writes, about a quarter of the adult population visits a fast food restaurant. Every month about 90 percent of American children between the ages of 3 and 9 visit a McDonald’s. We spend $110 billion a year on fast food. The typical American now consumes approximately three hamburgers and four orders of French fries every week.

But Schlosser is not chiefly interested in the consumption of fast food; he’s interested in its manufacture–and manufacture is the right word. Start with employment: An estimated one out of eight U.S. workers has at some point toiled in a McDonald’s. The roughly 3.5 million fast food workers are by far the largest group of minimum wage earners in the United States. (And no wonder: The industry pays the minimum wage to a higher proportion of its workers than any other industry.) “The only Americans who consistently earn a lower hourly wage,” Schlosser writes, “are migrant farm workers.”

Schlosser is great on this whole subject, especially in explaining how it is that not a single one of the roughly 15,000 McDonald’s in North America has a union. (In one case, McDonald’s closed down a successful franchise that was on the brink of unionizing and opened an entirely new one down the block, minus the troublesome work force.) The industry works hard to standardize every minute step of its food service not only so it can achieve the uniformity that is the essence of its product, but so that the work force is entirely disposable. Benefits tend to accrue only to workers who have been on the job for a year or more, so the industry efficiently chews through its work force, effectively forcing out employees who grow too expensive. And the best part is that you and I subsidize these Simon Legree policies to the tune of $2,400 in tax credits the companies earn for each low-income employee they hire and supposedly “train.”

And then there is the food itself, which bears only scant relation to what you find in the ground or on the hoof. Schlosser takes us through the food-formulation factories along the Jersey turnpike, which are populated by an odd gang of urbane scientists (who measure and adjust “the bounce, creep, breaking point, density, crunchiness, chewiness, gumminess, lumpiness, rubberiness, springiness, slipperiness, smoothness, softness, wetness, juiciness, spreadability, spring-back, and tackiness” of various foods), and then to farms, ranches, and the giant new-generation slaughterhouses that produce our beef.

Schlosser argues that the buying power of the fast food chains has caused, or at least accelerated, huge changes in agriculture that have worked to adulterate the food supply, worsen labor conditions, and demolish the old agricultural economy. Chief among these changes is the consolidation of the beef industry under just a few giant companies, who are easily the biggest villains of this book. You come away from Fast Food Nation feeling that the executives of companies like Con-Agra and IBP must be the lowest form of life on the planet and that their workers have the most miserable jobs in America, bar none. These places literally chew through their workers, who are often illegal immigrants who speak no English and have no notion of niceties like worker’s compensation or OSHA rules. Schlosser is full of tales about companies that keep two sets of records on plant accidents so that they can show inspectors–who are piteously few, thanks to the Reagan and Bush I years–a sanitized history of worker safety.

Not to mention what comes out at the other end. Because of the increased mechanization and speed of the slaughtering process, far more contaminated meat is sold than in earlier years, and any given hamburger is likely to contain parts of many more cattle, which makes it easier for contamination to spread: “The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat.” Yum.

Now, Schlosser runs into a fairly serious problem at this juncture, which is that the fast food chains have, in recent years, held slaughterhouses to a higher standard than have other big clients–including, notably, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So you have a better chance of eating a healthy burger at McDonald’s than your child does in a school lunch program or than you do in your own kitchen. (Pathogens borne by beef and chicken are so common, one scientist told Schlosser, that “You’d be better off eating a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in your [kitchen] sink.”) Basically, the chains learned the lesson (from Jack-in-the-Box, whose hamburgers killed four people in 1993) that there was too much bad press in selling tainted food and began demanding that its beef processors conduct more testing than the government requires.

Schlosser is an honest enough reporter to include all this, but he somehow manages to make this, too, an indictment of the fast food industry: “Having played a central role in the creation of a meatpacking system that can spread bacterial contamination far and wide, the fast food chains are now able to avoid many of the worst consequences,” he writes. (Damned if they do. …) But he never steps up to the real implication of what he’s just acknowledged, which is that the fast food chains conceivably can–and in this case do–use their huge power to set a good standard. In other words, our great cultural comfort with sameness and standardization may not be completely irrational.

Which leads me to my biggest question about the book. I thought he greatly slighted the demand side of the fast food business, beyond tossing off the usual damning comments about our silly American obsession with doing only what’s already familiar to us and citing the (correct but by now familiar) facts about the shameless ways the industry seduces kids. (Though I did love the passage in which he cites the work of a Texas A&M professor–God bless professors of marketing–who actually identified the seven different nagging strategies that children use on their parents: the “sugar-coated” nag, the “persistent” nag, the “forceful” nag, the “demonstrative” nag, and so forth.) I think the questions of what that familiarity means to us, and of what role these places really play in family life, are richer and more complicated than Schlosser has any room to grant.

So I have serious reservations about whether Schlosser achieved the larger goal his book sets out, which is “to shed light not only on the workings of an important industry, but also on a distinctively American way of viewing the world.” I came away feeling I’d learned Some Interesting and Even Outrageous Facts About Fast Food. But I also came away with my back up, just a little, and–very strangely–with a hankering for a Burger King cheeseburger, with a small diet coke on the side.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts,