- DEC 2001

NOV 2001

Fast Food Furor

Imagine there’s no McHeaven
It’s easy if you try
No sprawl below us
No arches in the sky
Imagine all the people
Shunning drive-thru lives

Imagine there’s no Big Mac
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill the cows for
And no E. coli too
Imagine all the people
Eating healthy food

Imagine no franchises
I wonder if you can
No stressed-out school-age workers
No Filet O’Fish in Japan
Imagine all the people
Earning a living wage

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And forget the sesame seed bun.

[A hamburglarization of John Lennon’s "Imagine", © John Lennon/Maclen Music, Inc./BMI.]

I once lifted the biscuit top off of an egg sandwich at a McDonald’s only to discover a green-colored eggy square that even the manager agreed was "gross." Later, a friend told me about biting into a Quarter Pounder and crunching down on some metal part from a machine. I have had other friends get sick after eating at Taco Bell and Subway.

Anecdotal evidence aside, we all know fast food is bad for you, and most people have had a bad personal experience as a fast food consumer. But a green egg or a case of food poisoning only scratch the surface of how bad fast food is for our society as a whole.

When I went to the downtown Ann Arbor public library to check out Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book Fast Food Nation (published by Houghton Mifflin), the computer card catalog told me the library’s copy was on loan. I sought the help of a petite older woman in plastic-rim glasses working behind the circulation desk. After telling me about the new library policy to not stamp due dates on books (I’m going to have trouble saying goodbye to that time-honored tradition) she looked into putting a hold on Fast Food Nation so I could be notified when it was available.

"We have thirty copies, and they’re all checked out," she told me, reading from a computer screen. "I’ll add your name to the waiting list. That’ll put you fifty-first in line." I had no idea it was so in demand. But after reading it, I was grateful the word was getting out. You may have a long wait to borrow a copy, but however you can get your hands on this book, I urge you to give it some of your attention.

In this serious and entertaining look at the underbelly of our fast food culture, Schlosser has produced a masterful piece of social criticism and big business blasphemy. Drawing on hundreds of research sources, he tells convincing stories of greed, injury, sickness, innovation, exploitation, and opposition. The impressive fifty or so pages of endnotes are no surprise after you’ve digested the fascinating history, incredible statistics, and complicated issues that make this book a jaw-dropping good read.

His argument is that our penchant for fast food—a way of eating that has been so absorbed into our culture that it is "as American as a small, rectangular, hand-held, frozen, and reheated apple pie"—has wide-ranging vile consequences for our workforce, economy, agriculture, public health, environment, and popular culture, both domestically and globally. Many of the arguments have been made before in isolated contexts: the danger and disgust of slaughterhouses, the decline of independent farmers and ranchers, the increasing obesity in our population. However, this book not only brings together these and other problems under one overarching cause, but updates them to present-day unprecedented statistics and impacts. Many of the problems Schlosser discusses have worsened considerably just in the last decade. It’s disturbing to think about what I’ve been doing in my little life in recent years while the world has been going to hell in a french fry basket.

Here’s just a few of Schlosser’s findings:

N On any given day in the United States about one quarter of the adult population visits a fast food restaurant.

N In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion.

N McDonald’s annually hires about one million people—more than any other American organization, public or private. The bulk of its work force are teenagers and recent immigrants.

N Roughly 90 percent of the nation’s fast food workers are paid an hourly wage, provided no benefits, and scheduled less than forty hours per week.

N Four to five fast food workers are murdered on the job every month.

N Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries, about 2 cents go to the farmer who grew the potatoes.

N In 1970 the top four meatpacking firms slaughtered 21 percent of the nation’s cattle. Today the top four meatpacking firms slaughter 84 percent of the nation’s cattle.

N E. coli is the leading cause of kidney failure among children in the U.S.

N Every month more than 90 percent of the children in the U.S. eat at McDonald’s.

N In 1991, only four states had obesity rates of 15 percent or higher; today at least thirty-seven states do.

N Between 1984 and 1993, the number of fast food restaurants in Great Britain roughly doubled, and so did the obesity rate among adults.

N McDonald’s is now the largest purchaser of agricultural commodities in France.

N McDonald’s currently opens about five new restaurants every day, and at least four of them are overseas.

To illustrate such startling statistics, Schlosser tells the stories of individuals he interviewed, including fast food restaurant employees, slaughterhouse "stickers," ranchers, potato growers, and corporate executives in the fast food, meatpacking, and food processing industries. By describing their vastly different lives and documenting their varied world-views, he lays the evidence in front of his readers without preaching the conclusions that inevitably must be drawn. Schlosser also places many of his examples in the context of one community’s stories; he uses Colorado Springs as a model of countless suburban communities in the U.S.

Schlosser began this research when writing a two-part article for Rolling Stone. His style is part storyteller, part investigative reporter, and part sad and sympathetic fellow citizen who clearly became more and more horrified the deeper he explored his subjects.

For example, he discusses how the well-paying, unionized meatpacking jobs of the last century in Chicago have all been moved to rural towns in the West where unions are not favored and immigrant labor comes cheap. Whatever you may feel about beef production and slaughterhouses, the fact is that thousands of jobs that once provided a middle-class American lifestyle now pay only poverty wages to some of our most marginalized U.S. residents. While faster line speeds move the carcasses along at such a rate that horrible injuries are commonplace (a typical slaughterhouse worker makes 10,000 cuts with a sharp knife in an eight hour shift), workers are rewarded for not reporting their injuries. Meanwhile, the meatpacking industry’s contributions to Congress have virtually dismantled the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), preventing any systematic oversight of these hazardous workplaces.

This is just one of several complex topics in Fast Food Nation that combine issues of dead-end jobs, worker rights, food safety, job safety, concentrations of economic power, political maneuvering, and multinational corporations. If I were looking to criticize Schlosser’s work, I would argue that he simply didn’t go far enough in documenting the negative environmental impacts of the business practices he examines, such as genetic engineering, growth hormones, feedlots, hog waste lagoons, over-grazing, and industrial waste.

In the book’s Epilogue, titled "Have it Your Way," Schlosser sums up the major issues of the book with suggestions for policy and regulatory reforms. But he also admits that, "The political influence of the fast food industry and its agribusiness suppliers makes a discussion of what Congress should do largely academic." In the end, he calls on the power of the consumer, saying, "Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food. The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest; stop buying it."

While we may not need to go as far as Pakistani and Indonesian residents who are expressing their anti-American sentiments by burning and storming fast food restaurants—what they see as symbols of American coca-colonization—we can all do our part to express disapproval of industry practices that are harming all of our lives. Read Fast Food Nation and learn what all the furor is about.

Nov 2001

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