Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation:
The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser ($10, link)

…”the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) later fined National Beef for its negligence. The fine was $480 for each man’s death.

This book was released in 2001, I read it in 2013, and I’m writing this report in 2015. I believe it had an afterward from the ten year release of the book, but despite this fact, since most of my highlights are from the bulk of the book — which is basically fifteen years old — I’m going to write this based mostly on the information in the original version, then close based on the afterward and what’s changed.

Eric gives a bit of the history of McDonald’s, and thus how not only this franchise was born, but the overall history of franchising itself. But then he discusses the problems of the system, both its effects on the country and planet, workers, and risks for consumers and the end product.

“The real price never appears on the menu.”

That includes the price of the subsidies we directly pay to the government, which pays to farmers (great?) and industry (not so much?), the taxes we pay for roads and other indirect public services which contribute to this industry, and worse, the price we pay for our poor health. And we cannot forget that healthcare’s rising percentage of GDP is one of the most dangerous threats to western civilizations…

Themes explored in the book:

  • Bringing junk food, especially beverages, into schools, and how these companies pay for schools; how basically our public schools have whored themselves out.
  • Restaurant franchises, their high turnover of employees, how they purchase satellite imagery and are really in the real-estate business!
  • A brief bit on flavors and food scientists, how they concoct the perfect smelling (especially) foods.
  • Ranchers: how the traits that we Americans love in our ideal rancher — independence, a little rebellion, an ideal to work the land — lead this lifestyle to die and large companies to take over.
  • A brief on ConAgra and how a massive corporation — which nobody has ever even heard of — will sell food under scores or dozens of brands!
  • The horrors of meatpackers, how dangerous the life is, and how dangerous the meat it produces really is. And this isn’t simply because of the crap the animals are fed, but because of the way they and the workers are treated, their conditions, and the desire for speed and efficiency.

“A single fast food hamburger now contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle.”

“The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat”.

And what has changed? Our country is learning; there is hope: we are buying more from farmer’s markets, more grass-fed food, more locally. And while it’s debatable whether this is too little, too late for America – especially when we consider the arguments in The Third Plate, that we cannot let customers (or chefs) decide what to eat – it’s still good progress for our country. Parents are fighting back against crap served in schools, against corporate interests and influence; eating fast food is seen as cheap and well known to be poor for health. Without seeing the data on junk or fast food consumption in our country, or seeing if obesity rates have peaked, I am hopeful: you can feel it in the air, at least in the areas I’ve lived. Once the American south starts changing its eating habits, I feel our renaissance will really pick up speed.

“Instead of importing food, they import entire systems of agricultural production.”

Still, elsewhere in the world, especially in more “developing nations,” I have less hope and more caution. It is disgusting that eating fast food is a status symbol in these nations. Our food system may be changing in America because of pressure by books like this one, but that food system is likely the same in these countries, because it’s cheap and the people remain ignorant. What is proven to make money will spread more quickly than what (is almost never really) proven to be healthier, more sustainable, more environmentally respectful…

Eric’s afterword nicely summarizes what we can do, and what we have done to change our country successfully. But little matter: our country will stand or fall with the rest of the Earth, our fate is tied to it. By exporting our ideas, we have exported our problems; we can only hope — and act — to also export the solutions (responsible, ethical leadership) before it is too late:

“The market is a tool, and a useful one. But the worship of this tool is a hollow faith. Far more important than any tool is what you make with it. “

Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food. The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it. The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit. The usefulness of the market, its effectiveness as a tool, cuts both ways.”

I hope we change course before the rest of the world — or planet earth itself — kicks our asses for the destruction we are causing.