Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

It's hard to resist the convenience and shiny-packaged draw of fast food restaurants, but you may find yourself steaming those veggies and cooking in more often after reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.

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Review by Michael Gutierrez

October.27th.2001

"The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full 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." Actual shit.

The USDA in a 1996 study found that at meat processing plants, "78.6 percent of the ground beef contained microbes ... spread primarily by fecal material." There is real shit, not figurative, but real mammal made shit in that burger. This statistic alone made me give up fast food.

Before reading this book, I had spent a hellish week traveling across the country in a deteriorating UHaul, living off the regular roadside attractions: McDonalds, Taco Bell, KFC, and Burger King. It was cheap, there, and I knew exactly what I was getting. But I didn't know about the shit, or that those sweet tasting McDonalds fries gained there flavor not from potato's, but from chemicals harvested in New Jersey. I didn't know cattle and chicken ranchers had become sharecroppers; and that more fast food workers were killed in 1998 than police officers. I didn't know that our government -- the ones who brought you the nuclear bomb, the internet, and the space shuttle -- don't have the legal power to recall meat that could kill people. I knew about the cultural decimation; just driving through the Midwest or through any suburb, that I passed the same restaurant and same gas station continuously from Ohio to Anaheim, is enough proof of our cultural impotence. But I didn't know why it ended up like this, and that it didn't have to.

Which really pissed me off. I'm pissed at the US government for letting school kids eat the worst of the meat for their free lunches. I'm pissed at my parents for letting me eat that crap and develop an insatiable hunger for it like booze and cigarettes. I'm pissed at Tom Brokaw and his "greatest generation" crap for inventing fast food. I have probably eaten a thousand or more hamburgers and I'm pissed that they taste so good. I'm pissed that I have to give them up.

But I do, and Eric Schlosser is responsible for it. His book may never have the large-scale impact as The Jungle or Uncle Tom's Cabin, or even Silent Spring, but its an extremely readable bestseller, that might reach enough people to make McDonalds and the others think twice about poisoning America's stomachs and culture.

Though probably not.

Schlosser says that the men and women behind the Fast Food Empire aren't bad people, just businessmen. However, capitalism seems a lousy excuse for crimes against humanity. It's equivalent to saying the cigarette companies aren't bad people just because they sell a deadly product, tell Congress it's not deadly, and then advertise primarily to children.

But aren't there differences between the men behind Ronald McDonald and those behind Joe Camel? Look at it this way: America is getting fat, huge, Sasquatchian. Obesity is the second leading cause of death behind smoking. Fast food restaurants advertise mainly to children, with clowns on TV and ads inside schools. They put out a product that makes people sick, and occasionally kills them within days. They pay their workforce hardly anything, offer no benefits or real job skills. And the men who cut up and process the cows regularly lose life and limb. They even play the political game like tobacco companies -- Ray Kroc, the guy behind McDonalds, funneled money to Richard Nixon around Watergate time in order to have Nixon's support on a bill that lowers the minimum wage to those under 18. Fast food companies have repeatedly bought off congressmen in order to keep the USDA from having recall power, though happy meal toys are subject to it.

Schlosser is wrong; these people are bad. Cheeseburgers should have a warning on the wrapper, like cigarettes, saying this product can cause you to become fat, raise your blood pressure, and may contain fecal matter. But it won't happen.

Fast food companies, like jeans, and the funding of third world dictators, are as American as apple pie used to be before we began buying pie at Safeway. Eating at McDonalds is almost patriotic; they came out of the west and were started by hardworking men inside the free market system.

But just like the railroads, massacres of Native Americans, and the highways were federally funded, so too was the fast food industry. McDonalds receives federal funds to provide job training for low-income adults, even though McDonalds and its competitors spend countless hours devising ways to make their employees interchangeable, taking all learning and job training out of the equation. What would fast food be without the countless off ramps, off the countless highways, the cheap immigrant labor, and over abundance of farmers forced to sell below profit?

Schlosser details all this and more. The cultural homogenization by franchising in America and now the rest of the world seems the most saddening and long-lasting. He points out that this could all end, our Fast food Nation, if we only stopped buying. I'm not sure that it's not too late. Throughout the country, cities and towns have sprouted based on the same homogenous design -- the same stores, the same malls, the same flower bed medians. The Rocky Mountain States and everything west, with their enormous growth have become virtually indistinguishable. Why do we do this to ourselves? Is it because conformity is safe? Are we lazy, losing our entrepreneurial spirit? Do we run the market, or does it run us?

Maybe Schlosser's book can't change anything. Maybe with our rapid-fire resistance to media, with all the messages sort of coming in, but mostly filtering out, we won't pay attention. But maybe in a hundred or so years, when historians look back on our empire, crumbling or expanding, they might be able to figure out why the most powerful nation in the world, full of creative genius, and a culture that prided itself on individuality, took all the joy and passion out of its culture, and fed its children the same old thing.


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