Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

by Eric Schlosser
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Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal Summary

Fast Food Nation is a book by Eric Schlosser, which uncovers the fast food industry's greed, unsanitary conditions, and almost criminally low wages.

  • Schlosser reveals that the giant profits reported by fast food companies like McDonald's are made possible by the exploitation of underpaid employees who work in increasingly unsanitary and dangerous conditions.

  • Fast food has been definitively linked to obesity, and Schlosser demonstrates exactly how unhealthy it is to eat these high-fat foods consistently.

  • Schlosser also uncovers the insidious methods fast food companies use to draw families into their restaurants: toys, playgrounds, and kids' meals.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

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.

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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.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1604

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, and fast food chains expanded. By the 1970s, for example, McDonald’s had expanded from less than three hundred restaurants in the early 1960s to more than three thousand nationwide.

The incredible expansion of McDonald’s, however, was not the work of the brothers who had opened the first fast food restaurant. That accomplishment went to Ray Kroc, who took McDonald’s to the next level. Kroc was the man who talked the McDonald brothers into setting up franchises all over the United States. It was also Kroc who lobbied Congress to pass what is now called the McDonald’s Bill—a bill that allowed employers to pay sixteen- and seventeen-year-old employees wages that were 20 percent below the minimum wage. The bill passed. Then Kroc went to work to attract more customers, aiming his campaign mostly at children. First he unveiled his now-renowned mascot, Ronald McDonald, whom many children fell in love with. The next step was to build playgrounds at McDonald’s restaurants. Finally, toys were included with every child’s meal. Attract the kids, Kroc believed, and their parents will be forced to follow.


Part II: Meat and Potatoes

So the setting was established. The staff and the routine were set up. Customers were pouring in. But a new problem presented itself: how could fast food restaurants lower costs and make an even bigger profit?

Americans eat more than thirty pounds of frozen French fries apiece each year. Most of these French fries are bought at fast food restaurants, and many of the fast food restaurants get their fries from a company owned by J. R. Simplot, one of the richest men in the United States. Simplot does have competition. There are two other companies that produce French fries. But even so, with only three major suppliers, the cost and production could easily be controlled. With a lack of overwhelming competition and a steady demand for their products, the potato companies were able to suppress the price that farmers received because there were only so many places that the farmers could sell their potatoes. With this limited access, farmers soon found themselves in the position of receiving about 2 cents for every $1.50 that consumers paid for fries. At those prices, farmers commented that they would make more money not growing potatoes at all or letting the potatoes they did plant just rot in the field.

Corporations heard this and decided to buy the farmers out. Family farms were gobbled up by huge corporate organizations. Many potato farmers ended up working like sharecroppers of long ago—working the land but no longer owning it. With large corporations at the helm, the mass production of crops allowed for an artificially low price.

This type of corporate control also provided a uniform product. Thus, all French fries would look and taste very similar. One way to alter the taste, to make one restaurant’s fries taste a little different from another’s, was to control the chemical additives and artificial flavors included with the fries. These taste enhancers are just barely controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Schlosser found that the FDA would approve the chemical additives as long as the chemicals used were considered generally safe. “The flavor compounds,” Schlosser writes, “sometimes contain more ingredients than the foods” they are put into. Chemical additives can create tastes that range from strawberries to chocolate, from charcoal to beef—all artificially devised. And there are no laws in place that require companies to divulge what these chemicals are.

The constant need for cheaper and more uniform potatoes is just one part of the problem that has produced so much change in the food Americans eat. The beef supply is the other part. As with potatoes, the fast food chains need an enormous supply of beef at a cheap price. To accommodate this need, the food chains have forced the consolidation of meatpackers—those who slaughter and pack the cattle that ultimately supply the ground beef. Just as the potato farmers, beef ranchers are unable to compete with the low prices that the fast food chains demand, and the huge corporate meatpacking systems are gaining all the business. Because the number of corporate meatpacking companies is decreasing, there are fewer places where ranchers can sell their beef and fewer places where people who work in the meatpacking industry can apply for work. As the competition decreases among the meatpackers, so too do the prices for the cattle as well as the wages and benefits that the workers can look forward to.

Huge meatpacking industries now often overtake small towns, such as Greeley, Colorado. The smell is awful, writes Schlosser, because thousands of cattle are kept tightly bound within small patches of land as they await their fate. The cattle often spend their last days standing on top of tall mounds of manure. Wages, working conditions, and benefits leave workers underfed and underprotected. And the massive numbers of employees that are needed to run these plants are producing ghettos that grow around the meatpacking plants. The harsh conditions under which employees live (wages so low they can only afford to take up quarters ten people to a motel room) turn the small towns into places of crime and drug abuse. The demand for big production numbers at a low price has led to unsafe working conditions. Employees stand in long lines and work in fast motions in front of a conveyor belt, slashing the meat that passes by with sharp knives that narrowly miss one another. Some work with power saws. The employees’ feet are covered in what Schlosser calls a river of blood. Accidents happen at a startling rate.

Thirty years ago, meatpacking plants slaughtered about 175 cows an hour. In the 1990s, this number had increased to 400 cows an hour. This means that the people in these plants must work as fast as they can, cutting, slicing, and sawing, for eight hours. It is no wonder there are so many injuries. Working in a meatpacking factory is now the most dangerous factory job in the United States.

Injuries do not affect only employees. “Every day in the United States, roughly 200,000 people are sickened by a food-borne disease, 900 are hospitalized, and fourteen die,” Schlosser writes. Because not all cases of food poisoning are reported, there may be twice that number. And even though the symptoms of food poisoning can be cured, long-ranging effects may develop, such as kidney and heart problems. One source of these food-borne illnesses is the way food is processed. Because of the need for bigger and faster production, mistakes are made, such as not having a cow’s intestines empty while the carcass is being packed. This means that manure sometimes comes in touch with the meat and is included in the packaging, especially in the packaging of raw hamburger. This is where the E. coli bacterium comes from. The E. coli bacterium “is a newly emerged pathogen whose spread has been facilitated by recent social and technological changes,” Schlosser reports. Because there are now so few meatpacking houses, E. coli can spread quickly—and sometimes fatally—through the fast food chain.

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