Fast Food Nation
        
       By Eric Schlosser

Reviewed by Theresa Welsh

Do you believe that we are all manipulated by large corporations which use subtle means to influence what we buy, what we believe, and what we eat? Millions of Americans eat fast food, one in four people on any given day; every month, 90% of American children eat at a McDonald's. The good feeling they get when they open their Happy Meal and see the toy inside, and the fun they have at the Playland inside McDonald's stays with them when they grow up, and they continue to eat at McDonald's. Can you deny that this is true?

What's Behind the Fast Food Giants?
Eric Schlosser, in his book Fast Food Nation, takes a hard look at what's behind the look-alike chain eateries that dot the American landscape. A McDonald's is not just a restaurant serving hamburgers to hungry patrons; it is the end of a long ripple of events that produce the food that millions eat every day. Smiling Moms and Dads watching their kids munch fries and play with their Happy Meal toys generally have no idea that the hamburger they are eating came from dairy cows too old to give more milk, and that those cows were slaughtered in huge buildings employing mostly immigrant workers at low wages who must work at a pace so fast it results in numerous serious injuries. The slaughterhouses, like the McDonald's Corporation itself, are giant corporations that control much of the nation's food supply. So says Eric Schlosser in this best-selling book.

Schlossar traces the sources of the beef, chicken, and potatoes served in fast food restaurants. In all cases, the sources have been consolidated into a few huge companies supplying the nation's fast food chains. While the companies that bring you fast food are now big and powerful, the people who started these companies mainly began small and many of the founders learned their trade from hard work and not from business school. J.R. Simplot began as a potato worker and went on to found the largest potato processing company in Idaho; "Colonel " Harlan Sanders was a high school dropout who built Kentucky Fried Chicken into a worldwide chain. All of the big fast food chains were started by men who had no formal business eduction. Ray Kroc, who built McDonald's into the company it is today, was a salesman. Carl Karcher who founded the Carl's Jr. chain, began with a hot dog stand. Fast food founders looked for ways to undercut the competiton and offer a faster cheaper burger. Franchising paved the way for rapid expansion without a big investment. The rise of the automobile and the building of the interstate highway system made possible roadside restaurants. The McDonald brothers, from whom Kroc bought the fast food giant, originated the idea of a limited menu of food they could prepare in advance and get to customers quickly, and at a low cost because of the efficiency of their system. Once they had the procedures worked out, employees would need little training to prepare the food and serve the customers.

Where Does the Food Come From?
The slaughterhouse business too developed out of the philosophy of making more profit with fewer workers. Once centered in Chicago where skilled workers were unionized and had good careers, the meatpacking industry looked for ways to de-skill the work, so it could be done by low-paid workers. Following the methods of mass production, the big meat companies began moving to heartland states like Kansas and Nebraska where they could hire non-union workers, increasingly workers new to the US and unaware of their rights. Schlosser provides a shocking picture of conditions that rival the horror presented by Upton Sinclair in his 1909 book The Jungle about early twentieth century abuses in the stockyards of Chicago.

People who raise chickens and cows have been increasingly irrelevant in the meat business. Chicken are raised in huge chicken houses by independent contractors who provide chickens to the big companies like Tyson. They must invest $150,000, usually with bank loans, operate exactly as the company tells them, and usually end up deeply in debt and with small incomes. The author says the back roads of Arkansas are littered with failed chicken houses. The noble cattle rancher, a romantic figure in the West, is also becoming a pathetic version of his former self. Beholden to the big meatpacking companies that buy the beef, the people who ride the range caring for their cattle are losing their autonomy. The cowboy is now a stereotype for urban types who think they look good in a cowboy hat and a fringed shirt.

Fast Food and Cultural Change 
American fast food companies have spread their restaurants -- and their way of doing business -- across the globe. The golden arches of McDonald's have become a symbol of America. In the German city that was first to hold a mass protest against the Berlin Wall in 1989, McDonald's opened a restaurant within months of the Wall coming down, bringing capitolism to this former Iron Curtain country. McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and others have a big presence in Europe, and the implications are that we are moving toward McWorld. Some would say the ubiquity of American food chains is a symptom of the long reach of huge multi-national corporations. The friendly family-owned restaurant is not only vanishing on Main Street America, replaced by fast food places along the interstate, but are the pubs and restaurants of Europe threatened too?

Schlosser is not the first critic to notice the change in American society brought about by the chaining of America. As the small family-owned business has fallen and been replaced by giant corporations with no concern for the local community, the quality of life has changed. George Ritzer took on this subject in his excellent little book, The McDonaldization of Society. In my own book (written with Professor Barbara A. Gutek), The Brave New Service Strategy, my co-author and I pointed out how service has changed from a true relationships between buyer and seller to become today's pseudo-relationship, where a big company claims to have a "relationship" with customers, but it is really just a matter of collecting data about customers' buying habits. Chain businesses basically please customers by providing a reliably uniform service, delivered by workers who are interchangeable. They never say you have a relationship with the kid delivering your fries (since with a 300% turnover rate, he will soon be gone), only with the organization. And this so-called relationship is based on your familiarity with the business and how it operates. Each McDonald's, whether in Peoria or Peking, has a familiar look, you know what to expect, and you know the menu. But familiarity with a process is not a relationship, just like having data about someone is not a relationship. Real relationships are between people, and fast food places do not want you to have a relationship with the underpaid worker at the counter.

The Food Conspiracy -- Is it Safe?
McDonald's has tried to cultivate an image of being the customer's friend, especially toward children who believe Ronald McDonald is completely trustworthy. Schlosser points out that McDonald's and Disney were among the first companies to specifically target children as their main customers. There are today a number of ad agencies that specialize in helping companies market all kinds of products to children. The real problem with this is that children cannot make reasoned judgements about the validity of ads the way an adult can. But even adults need accurate information about what they are buying in order to make good judgements. How many people know anything about what's in the food they buy at Wendy's, Burger King, or McDonald's?

Schlosser acknowledges that most fast food tastes ok and is safe. The Jack in the Box food poisoning scare of 1993 was a wake-up call of what can happen because of the way meat is handled and slaughtered. Cattle are fattened up in feed lots prior to slaughtering, and they are fed meat parts from other dead animals, even though in nature cows are vegetarians. Once inside the slaughterhouse, blood covers everything as the carcasses are rapidly moved on conveyors from one knife-wielding worker to another. The meat of many animals is mingled and if any of it is infected with e coli bacteria, it spreads quickly. Meat coming out of such a place must be thoroughly cooked to insure safety. Yet fast foods restaurants employ low-wage teen-agers, who are not mature enough to understand the importance of adequate cooking.

Reading this book definitely made me leery of eating hamburgers. Beyond that, the book raises new concerns about the safety of our food supply, and this concern has nothing to do with terrorists. Schlosser thinks the government should do more with inspections and he also urges the fast food companies to insist on safer practices, which some of them have done. Large buyers of meat like McDonald's have tremendous power to change the way meat is handled. I agree with Schlosser that more government oversight is needed, but I don't agree that fast food will go away in the future. With so many families having to work so many hours to bring in a middle class income, the need for quick, inexpensive lunches will keep sending people back to McDonald's and Burger King. Families with kids often cannot afford to go to full-serve restaurants, and their kids of course prefer McDonald's.

I personally wish the fast food places would offer more salads and broiled meat and fewer deep-fried items and stop pushing customers into buying larger sizes of everything. Does anyone need to eat a three-patty burger? And would you like to biggie-size that?

Consumers need to increase their awareness of what they are buying and why. With a current lawsuit targeting fast food as the villain in one man's obesity, the issue of the quality of fast food is again in the news. Do those hamburger value meals make you fat and sick? As a nation, we need to confront this question and not allow ourselves to be pawns of big companies whose real interest is in "biggie sizing" their own incomes. Everyone can learn something from Eric Schlosser's well-researched tale of American fast food. I recommend Buy Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal from amazon.com.








   
 

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