Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation has that greasy, delicious taste of muckraker ambience, but it is just too well written, too comprehensive, and too well researched to be tarred lightly with that label.

Eric Schlosser delves deep into the history, practices and culture of America's love-affair with fast food, and the lasting impact (both economic and otherwise) that the obsession creates. Schlosser's pen is wide ranging, from the cattle farms, feedlots and agribusiness of yesterday, today and tomorrow to fast-food's impact on labor practices and the meat-packing industry (guaranteed to make you view vegetarianism with a more sympathetic eye). His comprehensive tome examines the history and development of fast-food, including such varied and little known subtopics such as the taste-enhancing chemists (housed quietly in the New Jersey industrial strip) that add the final filip to the industry's special sauces. Very little escapes his gaze, including elegant factoids such as the profit margins on soft drinks (very, very high, particularly when you "supersize" your drink) to internal McDonalds' discussions on the brand merit of keeping the golden arches (The gist is that they resemble female breasts (there is a serious brand Oedipal thing going on there, trust me..)).

Like so many other people, I spent my time in the fast food industry - both as a customer and as a teenage burger flipper, so reading Fast Food Nation, I found I could identify and recognize quite readily many of the labor practices and processes that Schlosser examines. I still recall with a bit of a shudder the time one of the fry handlers pulled a full basket out of the boiling shortening without allowing the excess oil to run off. I just happened to be cleaning the small freezer below when he lifted the dripping, steaming basket over my head and bare arms, liberally pouring hot oil on me. I ended up with only painful but light burns on my arms but it was the manager's callous disregard for the accident that stuck in my mind. He wanted me to finish my shift...

Schlosser's horrifying and telling examination of the meat-packing industry culminates Fast Food Nation, looking at the industrialization of the meat industry, the severe economic and health impacts on society, and the labor practices and the ever-increasing pace of work on "the Killing Floor". This is great investigative journalism, well-written and uniformly fascinating.

Fast Food Nation is a book that, very probably, the MacDonald's and Taco Bell's of the world, do not want you to read. It makes you think too much about the real social cost of your Happy Meal. You will never eat a burger again without wondering, so if you really, really love your Big Mac, maybe you should skip this book.

Schlosser is also the author of the recently published Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. I liked Fast Food Nation so much, I immediately went out and grabbed Reefer Madness but it was, by comparison, disappointing. Reefer Madness examines, much more lightly, aspects of the U.S. underground economy, namely the current war on marijuana, the pornography industry and the illegal migrant worker industry in the strawberry fields. None of these topics are examined in the same comprehensive detail as Schlosser exhibited in Fast Food Nation. Although Reefer Madness is well-written and offers some of the same tantalizing facts and information snippets, the effort falls short, mainly as each of the topics deserve a much more in-depth and wider look - in short a book of their own.

Here's some more fast food facts on the healthiness of that burger and fries you just tucked away...

Want to know more about McDonalds? You can check out their corporate site here, or for a look at the Anti-McDonalds forces (McDonalds has become a prime target of the worldwide anti-globalization movement), check out this site. Of particular interst is the infamous "McLibal" case in the United Kingdom which is written up on the site.

My particular favorite McDonalds story (courtesy of the 60 Minutes news show), was when McDonald's in the UK sent a letter to small fine dining establishment in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, demanding that the restaurant stop using the name McDonalds. The owner and operator happened to be the Laird of the McDonald Clan...who evoked Clan privilage and demanded in turn that McDonalds' cease using the name without the express permission of the Clan. Pu' tha in yer sporran, ye bluddy wee haggis!

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