In his best-selling book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser makes you feel like you might be a whole lot better off avoiding the drive-through and just going home to cook your own meal. Schlosser covers everything from how McDonald’s got started to how the hamburger giant has affected cultures all around the world. Along the way, Schlosser exposes the cockroaches and rats found in fast food kitchens, the overworked and underpaid employees behind the cash registers, the mauled laborers trying to keep up with an accident-prone speed rate in meatpacking houses, and then, of course, the corporate greed driving the entire industry. Fast Food Nation will open your eyes and possibly make you lose your appetite.
As obesity rates climb, the finger of blame is more and more consistently pointed in the direction of Americans’ addiction to fast food. The burgers and fries taste good, and so they are hard to resist. Schlosser insists that the fast food industry is making sure that Americans remain addicted. Children are lured to fast food chains in a number of ways. Playgrounds have been built around easy-to-access restaurants. Popular toys are handed out with meals. And more tempting yet, fast food is advertised both inside schools and on the sides of school buses. In some states, burgers are even the main item on schools’ cafeteria menus.
But it is not just waistbands that are being affected. Attempting to bring in the best profits possible, fast food corporations have taken over a large portion of the production of potatoes, cattle, and poultry in the United States. Huge corporate farms are swallowing up family-run farms. Although the corporate giants provide a lot of jobs, the wages offered are at extremely low, nonunion rates, and the working conditions are dangerous and sometimes lethal. Lobbyists who are employed by fast food corporations are even affecting U.S. labor laws. And in the past couple of decades, the golden arches and other logos of fast food restaurants have blanketed other countries around the world. There seems to be no limit to fast foods growth and influence.
Schlosser presents all the details he has uncovered in an easy-to-read style, suggests the problems that his findings have exposed, and then lets readers decide what they want to do about them. This is an eye-opening account by a very respected reporter, an account that has sparked scathing rebukes—though no explanations or denials—from the fast food industry.
Part I: The American Way, the Beginning of the Fast Food Industry
The idea of fast food up until the 1950s meant food stands on the sidewalks of cities. And that was how Carl N. Karcher, one of the pioneers of the fast food industry, started out. He owned four hot dog carts in Los Angeles. He also owned a drive-in barbeque restaurant, which offered patrons the ability to drive up to outside stands and order meals from carhops (a wait staff who delivered food to people in the cars). China plates and real forks, spoons, knives, and glasses were part of the service. There was also the option of sitting down at a table inside the restaurant and placing orders with the wait staff. The drive-in part of the restaurant, though, was a novelty, and Karcher’s business thrived—at least until a new drive-in restaurant started selling 15-cent hamburgers not too far away. That restaurant was called McDonald’s Famous Hamburgers and was run by Richard and Maurice McDonald. Karcher soon discovered how the McDonald brothers could afford such cheap hamburgers. The McDonalds had grown tired of keeping a restaurant staff, having to replace broken dishes, and supplying a variety of food on their menu. So they revolutionized the restaurant business.
First, the McDonalds decided to offer a very limited menu. By doing so, they were able to do away with their wait staff and turn food production into something that resembled an assembly line. There was a cook, an order taker, and someone who wrapped the food. Everything could be eaten with one’s fingers, and all they sold were hamburgers, French fries, and milkshakes. Their food was cheap and tasted good, and the lines of people waiting to order some made Karcher go back to his drive-in restaurant and do the same.
Karcher’s new-styled restaurant was called Carl’s Jr., which, together with the McDonalds’ no-service restaurant, became the beginning of the fast food fad that would quickly sweep the nation. The success of Karcher and the McDonald brothers soon brought other entrepreneurs into similar businesses. William Rosenberg opened Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston; Glen W. Bell Jr. opened Taco Bell in San Bernardino, California; Keith G. Cramer started Burger King in Florida; Dave Thomas began Wendy’s in Ohio; and Thomas S. Monaghan opened his first Domino’s in Michigan. These were all independent businessmen who saw the potential of a good idea. The idea spread,...
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Chapter 1 Summary
The Founding Fathers
Carl N. Karcher was born in 1917 on a farm in Ohio, but his life would affect the entire world. He lived the American dream, but he also began something that would have dire consequences for years to come. Hard work was the mantra of his German sharecropper home, and Carl (as well as his six brothers and sister) worked hard. After eighth grade, Carl dropped out of school to work long days on the farm. When his uncle offered him an opportunity to move to Anaheim, California, Carl moved west. The tall, twenty-year-old farm boy had never left northern Ohio, and the week-long drive must have been full of doubt and wondering. When he arrived and saw the glorious sights and smells of this foreign land, he thought he was in heaven. Anaheim was a small town then located in southern California’s citrus belt. Nearby Orange and Los Angeles Counties are the most productive agricultural counties in the country. Uncle Ben Karcher owned a feed and seed store downtown, and Carl worked there seventy-six hours a week. One week at church he met Margaret Heinz, and they soon began dating. He often visited her large, lush family farm that included ten acres of orange trees. Carl was mesmerized by the place. Once he had been overjoyed when he received one orange at Christmas; now he was surrounded by them. Soon he began working at a bakery in Los Angeles earning $24 a week. Carl and Margaret were married in 1939 and had a child in their first year of marriage. Carl’s job was delivering bread and buns to restaurants, and he observed the number of hot dog stands all over the city. When he learned a hot dog cart across the street from the Goodyear plant was available, he immediately scrounged the money (a loan from the bank using his car as collateral and $15 from Margaret’s purse) and bought the cart—despite his wife’s misgivings. He continued working at the bakery and hired a couple of young men to work the cart when he was not available. The menu included hot dogs, chili dogs, and tamales (at ten cents each) plus soda for a nickel. World War II broke out five months later and the Goodyear plant was producing—both for the war effort and for Carl. Soon Margaret was manning a second cart.
Southern California was changing, primarily due to the migration of people from the Midwest during the Great Depression. The car became the primary mode of transportation in the sprawling city of Los Angeles, in...
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Chapter 2 Summary
Your Trusted Friends
Today there is a shrine in Oak Brook, Illinois. It is the Ray A. Kroc Museum, and it is a celebration of McDonald’s and its founder, located in the McDonald’s Corporate headquarters and only a short shuttle ride from its Hamburger University. Visitors can buy nearly anything there, all with the golden arches prominently displayed. There are some striking similarities between the McDonald’s franchise and the Disney empire, starting with the two founders. Born one year apart, both men were natives of Illinois and neither graduated from high school. They served together in World War II in the ambulance corps, and they each made their way to California and began businesses that changed the world.
Ray Kroc’s journey was more diverse and full of as many failures as successes before he discovered the McDonald brothers and their Speedee Service System later in his life. The brothers had experienced wild success, but they had become complacent and were not interested in expanding their company. Kroc had the gift of salesmanship, and he convinced them to allow him to market their restaurant concept across the country. One of his first actions was to write a letter to Walt Disney, asking if he would consider making McDonald’s part of his Disneyland development. Disney was not interested. When the theme park opened in 1955, food stands included Aunt Jemima, Stouffer’s, and Welch’s; but there was no McDonald’s.
Walt Disney’s approach to business was modeled on the Ford assembly line, and each artist and creator was monitored, timed, and expected to produce his quota. This mechanical and formulaic approach to entertainment was productive; however, the creative component of the empire went on strike and wanted to unionize. Disney’s political views were anti-union and he believed the strike was a Communist effort, so he promptly fired all the strikers. Ultimately he settled with the union, but he was ever after supportive of any effort to rid Hollywood of Communists, including the infamous blacklist. Whereas Disney was an ardent supporter of the Republican Party, Kroc was generally apolitical; however, he did funnel $250,000 to the Nixon campaign in a year when the fast food industry was petitioning Congress to lower the minimum wage for young workers. Both men held the view that the world is successful only for those who work hard; the others will not survive, and that...
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Chapter 3 Summary
Behind the Counter
Since 1970, the population of Colorado Springs has more than doubled; as of this book’s writing, it is at nearly half a million. Since the early 1990s, it has “been one of the fastest-growing cities” in the country. Denver is four times larger, but Colorado Springs is bigger. It was once a quiet, quaint town—just like Anaheim, California. Also like Anaheim, Colorado Springs depended on military spending for its survival during World War II, including the building of several military bases and eventually the Air Force Academy. Along with these entities came the technology companies whose products were in demand by the military, and most of these came from California. The city prided itself on its liberal, forward-thinking ways and called itself “Silicon Mountain,” among other things. In 1990 James Dobson established his religious organization Focus on the Family, and an influx of evangelical Christians and Christian organizations soon followed. The political climate changed drastically, and today there is not one registered Democrat who serves as an elected official in Colorado Springs. In 2000, the Democratic Party did not even submit a candidate for Congress. The area has become as Republican as the South.
In the early ’90s, for the first time, more people left California than moved into the state—approximately a million people. This migration of primarily middle-class Caucasians has been dubbed “the new white flight,” and it left California as one of the staunchest Democratic states in the country. Those who left headed east to the mountain states, and in Colorado Springs there is a strange dichotomy between the ultrareligious right and the ultraliberal left. As the new century begins, “the cultural and physical landscapes of Colorado Springs are up for grabs.” In addition to technology, the restaurant business has grown faster than the population. In the 1960s it had only twenty chain restaurants; now it has twenty-one McDonald's alone. The restaurant model in this city is to follow McDonald’s: if McDonald’s opens a store, it must be a good site. McDonald’s was the one the leading buyers of satellite technology in the 1980s, and it used the data to predict future construction and development so it could be the first to purchase land for its franchises.
Almost two-thirds of the workers in the fast food industry nationwide are teenagers. Rather...
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Chapter 4 Summary
Franchises have existed in America since the 1800s, when General Motors sold franchises to car dealers to expand its territory to increase sales. It was an ingenious plan in which people paid the company to sell its products. Other industries have used franchising over the years, but the fast food industry made it a business model for retail businesses all over America. McDonald’s mastered the franchise concept in several ways. Early on, the franchise fees for the company were less than a thousand dollars; McDonald’s made money through real estate. The company bought the land and leased it back to the franchisees, essentially serving as their landlord.
Auto parts stores, weight loss systems, and clothing retailers such as the Gap also saw the benefit of expanding their presence through franchises and changed the way American products are marketed. Storefronts became less individual and unique while becoming more recognizable and accessible. Over the years, though, franchising has become rife with failure and abuse. A much larger percentage of franchise businesses close within four or five years than that of nonfranchised businesses. Despite tougher federal regulations, owning a franchise is a risky business proposition. Franchisees have paid mandatory kickbacks to the company; been forced to buy more expensive, company-owned products; endured competing stores encroaching on their business territory, and more. Subway is by far the worst franchise in America, perpetrating myriad abuses on its franchisees. Even worse is that the federal Small Business Administration regularly loans money for fast food franchises; when these businesses fail, taxpayers foot the bill. The franchising company has already been paid and loses nothing.
Pueblo Springs, Colorado, is not as affluent as Colorado Springs, but it is growing. A Little Caesar’s pizza chain there is owned by Dave Feamster, a former NHL player who suffered a career-ending back injury. Before he ever opened his doors or sold one pizza, Feamster owed the company $200,000. He has worked hard and his franchises are now a success, but things can quickly change in the fast food industry. Rival chains such as Papa John’s are always a threat to his business and require Feamster to continue improving his service and employees. He supports his employees as well as his community, creating and funding (and assistant coaching) a high school...
(The entire section is 433 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Why the Fries Taste Good
A relatively small Simplot plant in Aberdeen, Idaho, processes almost a million pounds of potatoes a day, 320 days a year, around the clock. John Richard Simplot was the potato baron of the American West. Born in 1909 in Dubuque, Iowa, Simplot and his family moved to Idaho about a year later. His father was a homesteader, and as a young man the son worked hard until he left both school and home at age fifteen and found work in a potato warehouse. He was an astute businessman even at a young age, and he leveraged his meager earnings into a potato farm by the time he was sixteen. After growing potatoes, Simplot advanced to sorting, warehousing, then buying and selling potatoes for and from area farmers. Within ten years he had thirty-three warehouses in two states. He diversified into onions and made a fortune selling dehydrated onions and onion powder, in addition to other dehydrated food products, to the U.S. military during World War II.
After the war he invested wholeheartedly in technology for freezing food, including that developed by Clarence Birdseye. He gambled that frozen food would be the next major innovation in food in American homes. As the goal became making food preparation quicker and simpler, Simplot’s gamble was successful. Processed foods such as Cheez Whiz, Jet-Puffed Marshmallows, Miracle Whip, and others made fresh foods seem less than ideal. One restaurant even featured tableside microwave ovens in which customers could cook one of thirty frozen meals. Post-war refrigerators now contained freezers.
Simplot enlisted scientists to create frozen French fries that would taste just as good as fresh ones. French fries were popular in Europe long before they were common here, and they grew in popularity because they were easy to prepare and easy to eat. He began selling his frozen fries in 1953; however, they did not become as popular as he had anticipated—until he met with Ray Krok in 1965. McDonald’s was always looking for ways to make its products more consistent and efficient to use, and it began using Simplot’s fries the next year. McDonald’s was not the only fast food chain to use Simplot’s products, and these frozen fries changed the eating habits of Americans everywhere. In 1960, Americans consumed roughly eighty pounds of fresh potatoes and only four pounds of frozen fries. Today the numbers are forty-nine pounds of fresh potatoes and...
(The entire section is 960 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
On the Range
Ranchers in Colorado Springs are in conflict with environmentalists; however, the truth is that cities and city dwellers do more damage than ranchers. Colorado Springs grew so quickly that little planning was done to ensure the maintenance of its water and land resources. Pavement encroached and diverted the abundant water supplies into fewer and fewer streams and rivers. Ranchers are the ones who have created watersheds and employed other such conservation techniques in an attempt to restore and save the land for future generations. Although the land has been developed and spotted with eyesores such as stock car racing tracks, it is a beautiful place.
Ranchers and cowboys, the iconic figures of the West, represent independence and self-reliance; however, thousands of ranchers are forced out of business each year. A host of issues—including land prices, beef scares, inheritance taxes, and imported cattle—have contributed to their endangered status. Fast food chains have also contributed to the problem, as their increasing demand for beef has caused meatpacking plants to consolidate. McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of beef in America. It once purchased from almost two hundred suppliers; a few years later it bought from only five in an effort to increase product uniformity. A hundred years ago, American ranchers were in a similar plight as they strove to break the corporate trusts that effectively kept them from selling their cattle. Congress finally intervened, and for the next half century the free market prevailed and ranchers were able to earn competitive prices for their goods. Then, once again, federal regulations changed and meatpacking plants were able to depress the price of beef through market manipulation. Several of the major plants also operate their own huge feedlots and have little need for cattle from the smaller ranches.
The greatest fear of the ranching industry is that they will suffer the same fate as the poultry industry. It all started with McDonald’s Chicken McNugget at a time in America when fast food was eaten in a car or while on the move. At one time, only chickens that were too old to lay eggs were used for meat. Once the demand for chicken grew, however, the industry changed. Small producers could no longer compete with the large operations, and conglomerations emerged. Chicken McNuggets are “small pieces of reconstituted chicken, composed...
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Chapter 7 Summary
Cogs in the Great Machine
Greeley, Colorado, is the home of the largest meatpacking plant, and the stamp of that industry is everywhere—the constant smell of rendered cattle, the substandard wages for the plant workers (generally resulting in an influx of migrant workers, both legal and illegal), and an increase in crime, poverty, and homelessness. In addition to the packing plant, Con Agra operates two Montfort feedlots nearby, each holding as many as a hundred thousand cattle at a time. Three months before they are slaughtered, the animals are brought here to be fattened. In that time, each animal consumes more than three thousand pounds of grain and gains four hundred pounds in weight. A typical steer also produces about fifty pounds of manure each day, which is slogged into giant pits called lagoons. These two feedlots alone produce more excrement than Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and St. Louis combined.
Originally Greeley was the home of thinkers and moralists, who at one point built a fifty-mile fence around the city to keep cattle out of it. During the Depression, Warren Montfort began feeding his cattle grain when it was too cheap for farmers to sell anywhere else. The beef was more tender and flavorful (fatty), and it could be sold and eaten almost off the hoof. Beef from grazing cattle had to be aged before it was as edible. From this beginning came a Montfort feedlot and even a small Montfort meatpacking plant. Workers were unionized, and relations between management and workers were good.
This rural Greeley packing plant was not typical. Most packing plants were located in urban centers, near the railroad on which the cattle were shipped. Chicago became the premier meatpacking plant in the world, shipping its beef (via refrigerated railroad cars) all over the country and eventually Europe as well. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle was a condemnation of this brutal industry, a place rife with injuries and where workers were treated as part of the machinery rather than as human beings. The novel created a stir in Congress, but not much was done to improve worker conditions or treatment. The meatpacking plant owners fought adamantly against unionization but eventually lost that battle. A few plants in the industry, such as Monfort and Swift, did have healthy, responsive relationships with their unions.
In 1960, Iowa...
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Chapter 8 Summary
The Most Dangerous Job
A walk through a meatpacking plant reveals workers herded like cattle, blood and gore, and mindless jobs done with lethal weapons. Meatpacking jobs are now the most dangerous in the country, and one in three slaughterhouse workers are seriously injured each year. Other kinds of packing plants work with animals of similar sizes so the automation and mechanization is greater. Cattle, however, vary in size—often by hundreds of pounds. The cut parts of each animal are transported mechanically, but most of the major work is still done with one simple tool—a sharp knife—on a “disassembly” line. Worker injuries are generally blade related or due to repetitive movement, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Others include back and shoulder injuries as well as tendonitis. Employees are encouraged not to report their injuries because the supervisor bonus structure is based on workplace safety. Only about a third of the workers at Iowa Beef Packers (IBP), for example, are members of a union; the rest have no protection if a manager decides to fire them. The politics of keeping a job require workers to stay silent in exchange for an easier job while the wound or injury heals. The use of drugs to help workers keep up with the frantic pace of the disassembly line is a problem in many meatpacking plants, as is sexual harassment, primarily by supervisors to hourly workers. An even worse job is that of the sanitation crew, which comes in to clean up a plant at the end of a day after three or four thousand cattle have been slaughtered. Water mixed with chlorine is heated to 180 degrees and sprayed through power washers throughout the entire plant. Workers ride the conveyor belts and have to clean all the walls, ceilings, and vents as well as the mountains of refuse on the floor. Horrific injuries have happened to these workers in processing plants everywhere.
While the plants were attempting to increase production (and profit) by speeding up the line, the government was doing less to enforce the Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) regulations across the country. Often the OSHA inspections did not take place because company records (kept by company management, of course) showed low rates of accidents and injuries, so they were not required or even able to spend time at these plants. So while the number of recorded injuries did go down in the ’80s, the actual number of injuries did not decrease....
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Chapter 9 Summary
What’s in the Meat
Almost 200,000 Americans get sick each day from food-borne diseases; of those, 900 are hospitalized and 14 die. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one quarter of all Americans suffer from food poisoning every year, and most go unreported or undiagnosed. The number of these illnesses is on the rise, and the effects are much more long lasting than the typical symptoms of diarrhea or intestinal discomfort. Although smaller, more local outbreaks still occur, the centralization of food production is largely responsible for most food contamination. Viruses such as E. coli have been identified, but many other food-borne pathogens have yet to be identified. A 1998 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that more than seventy-eight percent of all beef contains microbes that are spread through fecal material. Most consumer products are regulated closely enough that the federal government can demand a recall if necessary, but America’s meatpacking plants are so powerful that they only recall tainted products when it is in their own best interests to do so. Before World War II, pork was the most consumed meat in America; with the advent of drive-ins and McDonald’s, beef consumption (of hamburgers, in particular) surpassed pork.
Very young children and the elderly are the most likely to suffer serious consequences, including death, when infected with E. coli. The symptoms of this virus are horrific, and antibiotics have proven to be ineffective in treating it. While E. coli can be spread through swimming in a contaminated lake or crawling on a contaminated carpet, it is typically spread through the ingestion of undercooked beef. Once a person has been infected with the virus, he is a source of contagion for everyone around him. Cattle ingest the virus in various ways: through dirty (fecally contaminated) drinking water, through fecal material, or through their food supply, which often contains ground up poultry, pig, horse, and cattle parts. Waste products from poultry plants have been used as cattle feed as well; in 1994, three million pounds of chicken manure was fed to cattle.
In addition to the feedlots, the slaughterhouses also provide many opportunities to spread diseases like salmonella and E. coli. When cattle are eviscerated, their intestines are removed. If the cut is not precise or if the...
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Chapter 10 Summary
The German city of Plauen is located between Munich and Berlin. It was once just a small market town but gained some notoriety and favor as it created textile mills that exported lace and embroidered fabrics around the world. It became a city of amazing art and architecture as well. The Hitler Youth movement began here in 1923, and during World War II this little city became the Nazi headquarters for the Saxony region. For most of the war it was a town that found favor; when the Allies arrived, though, it became a primary target. Nearly three fourths of the city was in ruins at the end of the war. When Germany was divided, Plauen was part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). A mere nine miles away is the border of West Germany. Not much of Plauen has ever been rebuilt, and the people struggled to survive. In 1989, Plauen was the site of the first mass demonstration against the Communist rulers of East Germany. While other cities held similar demonstrations that day, Plauen’s was notable for its sheer numbers. Twenty thousand people gathered, refused to disperse, and marched on city hall to make their presence felt to the leaders who were cowering in a corner of the building. A month later the Berlin Wall came down, and the first new building to be built in the formerly artistic and avant-garde Plauen was a McDonald’s.
Expanding to foreign countries is the next frontier for fast food chains. McDonald’s, for example, now has fifteen thousand restaurants in 117 countries, and its brand is more recognizable worldwide than Coca-Cola’s. Both Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s make more profit outside of the United States than in it. Fast food chains are inevitably the first Western enterprises to build in newly opened countries around the world, and they have come to represent American culture wherever they are built. The inevitable result of international franchising is the creation of a “homogenized international culture.” (Classes at McDonald’s Hamburger University are taught in twenty different languages.) Fast food franchises generally try to buy their products in the countries in which they operate to avoid the appearance of American imperialism. To ensure effective and efficient suppliers, companies often need to establish agricultural and other production systems before they can open their first store. Marketing in foreign countries is targeted to children, just...
(The entire section is 982 words.)