People might think of fast food as a benign convenience of modern times. The food is good, cheap, plentiful, easily accessible, filling, and the restaurants are clean. What could be wrong? Reading Eric Schlosser’s groundbreaking study Fast Food Nation, one learns that just about everything is. Schlosser uncovers a history of corruption, greed, and disregard for the welfare of workers and customers in franchises such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Jack in the Box, to name a few. His study takes on the industry from all angles, uncovering a bloated business empire grown insensitive to anything but the bottom line, and he discusses all of this in an effectively quiet, informative way without overwhelming the reader with forced rhetoric. Since the fast food industry is such an omnipresent force in people’s lives, not only in the United States but, increasingly, all across the globe, Schlosser’s study is a timely exposé revealing a highly manipulative industry motivated by greed and a Faustian urge for world domination of the market.
The modern history of fast food began in the 1950’s in Southern California, the era and place that also produced Disneyland and the nation’s first freeways. Obliged to alter their architecture to suit the whim of the automobile driver, owners of early diners and hot dog stands had to find ways to attract customers by using bellhops and flashy neon signs. Frustrated with the extra expenses of easily stolen items such as silverwear and dishes, the brothers Richard and “Mac” McDonald hit upon a way to simplify the whole process of serving burgers by using assembly line techniques, and Ray A. Kroc persuaded the McDonald brothers to allow him to franchise the restaurant across the country. Kroc viewed business with an almost Darwinian ferocity, calling it “rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I’ll kill ’em, and I’m going to kill ’em before they kill me.” What was once a bewildering array of different companies boiled down to the successful few that survived and spread, and they succeeded largely through marketing and by various aggressive techniques for maximizing profits. McDonald’s shared with the Disney company a strategy of appealing to children first, who would then nag their parents into bringing them to the restaurants. Adults would then spend the rest of their lives with a favorable opinion of a restaurant inculcated in them when they lacked any critical ability to distinguish advertisements from regular programming on television.
In the same vein as other important studies of multinational companies, such as Anne Klein’s No Logo (2001), Fast Food Nation is very concerned with the effects of marketing. These books seek to deprogram those susceptible to advertising’s claims, demystifying logos and brands that have developed a cumulative force over the years. Schlosser focuses specifically on the techniques that McDonald’s uses to market Happy Meals to children. Psychologists have determined that children often dream of round-shaped animals, so characters such as Disney creatures, Barney the dinosaur, and those found in McDonaldland(Mayor McCheese, for example) all cater to these dreams. Schlosser unearths confidential documents in which McDonald’s executives discuss how all of their advertising should emphasize the corporation as a “trusted friend,” even though warnings on the memos against unauthorized use betrays a more paranoid relationship between the company and the customer. Moreover, McDonald’s pours so much money into advertising, expanding its franchise across the United States, that its message becomes ubiquitous and increasingly hard to ignore. In an interview, Schlosser says that he associates McDonald’s with the Kremlin because of the way the chain consistently refuses to answer his calls and e-mails. Like the Kremlin, they also know how to dispense propaganda to maintain power.
Schlosser also uncovers a long history of purposeful disenfranchisement of workers. The industry relies mainly upon the unskilled labor of teenagers and government kickbacks for “training” these workers in dead-end jobs. To maintain their profits, McDonald’s has consistently lobbied to keep the minimum wage low, and they have also made sure that unions cannot survive in a McDonald’s, even if they must close down the restaurant and open another down the street. A typical employee retains his or her job for about four months, about the same length of time as those who work in sweatshops. Additionally, there are patterns of theft from restaurants, sometimes involving violent crime, that also threaten the workers. In all, Schlosser paints a picture of a company that exploits the poor and the young because they are more malleable and less likely to unionize.
When he turns to the way firms such as Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) butcher the cattle for hamburger, Schlosser draws upon the journalistic tradition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) to describe the gruesomeness of a job that victimizes workers as the company speeds up the production line to maximize profits. The faster the slaughterhouse functions, the more money it makes, but after a certain point, workers are increasingly likely to hurt themselves and others with knives, and also to pollute the meat when they fail to cleanly cut the intestines out of each cow. After the disclosures of The Jungle caused reform in government regulations of the slaughterhouses, meatworkers became fairly skilled and well-paid in such areas as the cattleyards of Chicago. This all changed when competition led some companies to slaughter cattle in the West, with less skilled workers packaging the meat and delivering it directly to the supermarket, thus cutting out any need for a butcher. As companies like IBP sped up production and decreased the skills needed in the production line, workers got harder to find, so they began to recruit illegal aliens and migrant workers. Company doctors downplayed injuries, and the company paid minimal compensation for injuries or deaths. Such cutthroat business practices ultimately have the twofold effect of hurting workers while also poisoning the meat with the cow’s own feces, which leads to the outbreak of E. coli bacteria illnesses.
Schlosser often begins a chapter with a panoramic description of a place that emblematizes points in his argument, allowing the reader to make connections between the landscape and his polemic. He consistently returns to Colorado, because the white flight of Californians there give the state its “land of the future” quality. He begins the book with a description of a top-secret combat operations center located underneath the Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado that allows fast food delivery into a zone protected from nuclear strike. In other chapters he describes the crime-ridden urban blight of slaughterhouse towns such as Greeley, Colorado. Colorado works well for Schlosser in two ways: first, because it holds large parts of the fast food agribusiness, and secondly, because recent housing developments show the effects of the expansion of fast food franchises on the prairie landscape.
Sometimes Schlosser will use a portrait of a person to illustrate an argumentative point. He takes care to emphasize the humanity of the CEOs at times, such as the unpretentious potato baron J. R. Simplot, who describes himself as “just an old farmer got some luck.” The book’s anti-Republican bias (mostly because of their probusiness dislike of industry regulations) is tempered with portraits of independent western businessmen who share the conservative values of free enterprise and self-sufficiency. Schlosser tempers his ideology with their more complex humanity. One rancher named Hank commits suicide in the course of Schlosser’s investigation, and Schlosser seems to imply that his suicide was the result of pressures that many ranchers face due to big business expansion, such as increasing land costs, pollution from city water run-off, and low cattle prices. Still, he does not explicitly explain Hank’s death in those terms. Some characters come across with a lifelong sense of injustice after working for the industry. One meatworker, Kenny Dobbins, blindly trusted the Monfort company even as he suffered back strain, an ankle injury, lung poisoning, and numerous other injuries, until the company abruptly laid him off without a pension after sixteen years. Elsewhere, a child dies horribly after the E. coli virus melts portions of his brain and destroys his vital organs. Schlosser’s impartial account of these personal stories effectively demonstrates the hidden human costs of fast food efficiency and cheapness.
Toward the end of his study, Schlosser examines how fast food has spread to other countries and how it has helped to establish bad eating habits in formerly healthy cultures such as Japan. He looks to Plauen, a city in former East Germany, that initially welcomed Hitler’s Nazi party and has now become one of the first German communities to welcome a McDonald’s into its midst. The connection between the Nazis and McDonald’s may seem strained until one considers how much McDonald’s shares with the Nazis a tendency to value technology and efficiency over the welfare of its workers or customers. The mystique of fast food may represent Americanized modernization and prosperity to foreign countries, but meanwhile, their citizens grow fat on an imported diet heavy in grease and sugar.
Political agitators in France and Britain have waged effective political campaigns against fast food. In Britain especially, the McDonald’s libel suit against two ordinary Greenpeace workers who dispensed anti-McDonald’s flyers at some of the stores backfired when the political activists turned it into an eight-year (and running) public relations offensive. These activists used the libel trial as a public referendum to grill the chain’s CEOs and bring in experts to establish exactly how bad the food is and how much destruction is brought upon the environment. McDonald’s also showed what kind of “trusted friend” they can be when they sent out spies to infiltrate the Greenpeace organization and attempted to dig up dirt to use against the two activists. As Schlosser notes, “After intimidating British critics for years, the McDonald’s Corporation picked on the wrong two people.”
After discussing how unhealthy fast food is, its hidden medical costs, and its great capacity to distribute mass amounts of tainted meat to an unsuspecting and largely uninformed populace, Schlosser ends the book with an appeal to the reader to boycott fast food until the industry changes the way it does business. To his credit, he does not harangue the reader to turn vegetarian or lambaste all hamburger chains (he finds several to praise). He points out that in Colorado, vultures and coyotes would eat the carcasses of dead cattle if humans refrained. Schlosser chiefly objects to the greed and complacency of an industry blind to its own destructive effects. As a target for a piece of investigative journalism, fast food companies make great villains. With their size, strength, and lock on popular opinion, they are still subject to the rhetoric of a reporter sticking his nose in the kitchen and noticing a rotten smell.
Sources for Further Study
American Scholar 70 (Spring, 2001): 152.
Booklist 97 (January 1, 2001): 887.
Christianity Today 45 (May 21, 2001): 91.
Commentary 111 (May, 2001): 78.
Library Journal 126 (February 9, 2001): 70.
The New York Times, January 30, 2001, p. B9.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (January 21, 2001): 13.
Publishers Weekly 247 (December 11, 2000): 74.
The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2001, p. W10.
The Washington Post, March 28, 2001, p. F01.