fast food nation

That shock must have worn off pretty quickly; in the 20 years that have elapsed since then I have consumed at least 8, 320 fast food burgers—on average about eight per week, a conservative estimate. Those numbers are likely to drop pretty severely after what I read in Fast Food Nation…”


by marc covert


“This was the experience of Antanas…it seemed that he was working in the room where the men prepared the beef for canning, and the beef had lain in vats full of chemicals, and men with great forks speared it out and dumped it into trucks…when they had speared out all they could reach, they emptied the vat on the floor…this floor was filthy, yet they set Antanas with his mop slopping the “pickle” into a hole that connected with a sink…there was a trap in the pipe, where all the scraps of meat and odds and ends of refuse were caught, and every few days it was the old man’s task to clean these out, and shovel their contents into one of the trucks with the rest of the meat!
“Also the air would be full of steam, from the hot water and the hot blood, so that you could not see five feet before you; and then, with men rushing about at the speed they kept up on the killing-beds, and all with butcher-knives, like razors, in their hands—well, it was to be counted as a wonder that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle.”

This excerpt was not written by Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, published this year by Houghton Mifflin. Generations of American history students will vaguely remember reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1906, where this passage is found. Sinclair’s book caused a sensation then, and not just one of nausea. Public outrage and disbelief, along with vehement denials from meatpacking companies, led Theodore Roosevelt to order independent investigations which largely substantiated even the most grotesque of Sinclair’s claims: long before Charleton Heston mangled the line, “Soylent Green is….people,” Sinclair was telling the reading public, “There are people and their parts in your sausages.”

Ninety-five years later, Schlosser writes about a world that has changed in many ways—the canned meat known to soldiers and citizens alike as “embalmed beef” has been replaced by the ground beef that feeds our ever-growing demand for fast-food burgers—but his message is largely the same as Sinclair’s, only now it reads, “There is shit in the meat.”

I read The Jungle myself in 1980; it was assigned reading in U.S. History 101. I remember being absolutely shocked by the travails of Jurgis, Sinclair’s Lithuanian immigrant hero, a strong young man trying to make his way in the slaughterhouses of turn-of-the-century Chicago. That shock must have worn off pretty quickly; in the 20 years that have elapsed since then I have consumed at least 8, 320 fast food burgers—on average about eight per week, a conservative estimate. Those numbers are likely to drop pretty severely after what I read in Fast Food Nation.

Schlosser, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, spent three years researching this, his first book, and claims to have eaten a small mountain of fast food, “most of which tasted pretty good.” As well it should: by adding “natural flavor” and tons of fat and salt, he points out, plus engineering the food preparation process to essentially make humans little more than easily interchangeable button-pushers, the big fast-food chains have captured “a fundamental aspect of [America’s] national identity: how, where, and what people choose to eat.”

From the beginning, Schlosser makes it clear that this will not be just another gross-out account of what goes on in American slaughterhouses. He lays out in startling detail the all-encompassing effects of the fast-food phenomenon; it’s no accident that McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC Wendy’s, and their lesser-known competitors are present everywhere. Tasty, consistent, convenient food is not enough to give these corporations the power they now hold, and Schlosser points to the insidious, deliberate advertising campaigns of the fast food giants in chapter 2 of his first section, “Your Trusted Friends.”

This chapter is illustrated with a photo of Ronald McDonald standing before a large crowd of enthralled children; the ones in the front row are probably first- or second-graders. Even from the back he is instantly recognizable; according to a survey of American schoolchildren, says Schlosser, “96 percent could identify Ronald McDonald.” In this chapter, Schlosser examines the seemingly innocent interaction between McDonald’s and Disney, two mega-corporations that pioneered the practice of aggressively marketing to children:

Hoping that nostalgic childhood memories will lead to a lifetime of purchases, companies now plan “cradle-to-grave” advertising strategies. They have come to believe what [McDonald’s Corp. founder] Ray Kroc and Walt Disney realized long ago—a person’s “brand loyalty” may begin as early as the age of two. Indeed, market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name.

Schlosser goes on to show how the fantasy “McDonaldland” and its resident shill Ronald McDonald (invented, strangely enough, by Willard Scott) have gone on to captivate the minds and hearts of America’s children. This is done through survey groups for two-year-olds, analysis of children’s artwork, observation of child behavior in restaurants by cultural anthropologists (watch out for quiet types with clipboards!) and by instituting children’s groups such as the Burger King Kids Club, which raised sales of child meals by over 300 percent over the last decade. But one of the most sobering statistics in the book is to be found on page 45: “Every month about 90 percent of American children between the ages of three and nine visit a McDonald’s.” That’s not “a fast food restaurant,” that’s just McDonald’s.

Pervasiveness of this magnitude is disturbing enough, but Schlosser is just setting the stage for more far-reaching consequences of the fast food culture. Monopolies were the demons in Sinclair’s time, churning through immigrant workers coldly, impassively, reaping huge profits as a result. Roosevelt and his trust-buster policies are credited with ending monopolistic practices in the Progressive era but concentration of economic power is of course still with us, evidenced by Microsoft’s epic court battles. But Schlosser points out a more insidious monopoly, that of the four meatpacking companies which produce the bulk of America’s burger patties and slaughter about 85 percent of the cattle produced in the nation. Say what you will about Microsoft’s bullying business practices; there is a huge difference in the human toll of having to purchase a computer with a certain operating system and that of having to eat tainted meat, work a dead-end job for minimum wage, or hold down a job in a grim, squalid, dangerous slaughterhouse.

Minimum-wage fast food serfs are given their own chapter, “Behind the Counter.” Here Schlosser explores the vicious circle of the fast food worker’s world, a world where, on average, a typical worker changes jobs every three to four months. Long hours never seem to add up to full-time employment and the benefits it could provide; fast food restaurants pay a higher percentage of the country’s minimum-wage jobs than any other; foodservice workers are by design young and easy to control, and difficult to organize. But perhaps the most outrageous practice revealed in “Behind the Counter” is this:

While quietly spending enormous sums on research and technology to eliminate employee training, the fast food chains have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies for “training” their workers….In 1996 an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that 92 percent of these workers would have been hired by the companies anyway—and that their new jobs were part-time, provided little training, and came with no benefits…Fast food restaurants had to employ a worker for only four hundred hours to receive the money—and then could get more money as soon as that worker quit and was replaced.

Schlosser goes on to document what goes into all of that tasty fast food in “Why the Fries Taste Good.” The answer? Because they’re designed that way. He sees this as a natural outcome of the processed food industry, beginning in mid-nineteenth century manufacturing plants. The need for consistently flavored foods spawned the flavor industry, a tightly-knit, largely unseen world unto itself, the industry that makes your grape Koolaid taste like grapes through highly specialized chemistry. You will probably remember one acronym when you get done with this chapter: GRAS. That’s the catch-all phrase used by the Food and Drug Administration that allows flavoring companies to keep their ingredients and formulas secret, as long as they are Generally Regarded As Safe. They won’t say what goes into them, but that is a big part of why McDonald’s fries taste the same as they did when they were fried in beef tallow: beef flavoring.

“Cogs in the Great Machine” and “The Most Dangerous Job” are where one is reminded most clearly of Sinclair’s The Jungle. The act of slaughtering a cow has not changed much since 1906, but the speed with which a cow is “disassembled” has increased dramatically, making slaughterhouse work the most dangerous job in America. As in 1906, the slaughterhouses are staffed mostly by immigrants, many of them illegals, with little or no education or understanding of English. Schlosser’s semi-clandestine visit to a slaughterhouse production line is somewhat of a standard experience, but gripping nonetheless. Those wanting gory stories of workers being ground into Whopper Jr.’s won’t find that here; the real horror is much more inconspicuous than that. Modern slaughterhouses are far removed and suppressed for a reason; if bloody killing floors and unsanitary conditions are not enough, then the sheer insanity and danger of slaughterhouse work is enough to keep them behind corporate wraps.

“What’s in the Meat” looks at the costs in human suffering and lives on the other end of the fast food chain, with particular attention paid to the infamous Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993, in which over 700 people were sickened and four died; “most of the victims were children.” Schlosser also points out that the USDA, which distributes food commodities to the nation’s school lunch programs, has for years purchased ground beef according to the lowest price, without regard for food safety issues. Here you will read about the appropriately named Rudy “Butch” Stanko, owner of Cattle King Packing Company, who was convicted of selling contaminated meat to the USDA—at that time, the early 1980’s, he provided one-quarter of all ground beef to the USDA. Schlosser’s accounts of the widespread fecal contamination of the nation’s beef supply is enough to have most readers flocking to the Tofurkey section of the local grocery store.

In “Global Realization,” Schlosser appraises the impact of the American fast food phenomenon on the rest of the world. In the past decade McDonald’s alone has gone from 3000 to 15,000 restaurants on foreign soil, making up the majority of company profits. As is often the case, McDonald’s was there first, paving the way for strip-mall staples such as KFC, 7-Eleven, and Mailboxes Etc. Resistance by adults is easily corroded by a familiar demographic: children, who are much more open to breaking with traditional food and eating habits. Even in China the youngest of children can easily identify “Uncle McDonald, because he is funny, gentle, kind and…he understood children’s hearts.” Japanese diners were promised three decades ago that “If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white, and our hair will be blonde.” That could very well be true, especially in the short-term, as long as they change it to “we will become fatter, our skin will become pasty, and our hair will mat to our sweat-soaked melons.”

Fast Food Nation really hammers the big fast food corporations, but Schlosser does find some heroes, some vestige of hope. He hails local restaurateurs such as Jim and Rich Conway of Conway’s Red Top in Colorado Springs; they use fresh, hand-formed beef patties, locally baked buns, and pay cooks $10 an hour, not a lordly sum, but head and shoulders above McDonald’s. He also spotlights Harry and Esther Snyder, founders of California’s In-N-Out Burger. Both companies manage to turn a profit without charging significantly more for their products than traditional fast food outlets, even though they pay their workers more and use more healthy ingredients.

Schlosser does not see anything inevitable about the current fast food mess. “The low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect it real cost—and it should,” he concludes. While he lists many ways in which Americans can start to make real changes in the enormous entity that makes up the Fast Food Nation, perhaps his most effective and disarming is this: “Stop buying it.” There is real power pent up in the masses of American consumers, power that remains untapped but has tremendous potential to enact fundamental change. While it probably will not prompt the type of public outcry that resulted from The Jungle, Fast Food Nation is a thoughtful, forthright work that will stick in the craw of fast food barons for years to come.


Originally published:
Issue Seven
March 2001

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