The next time you drive past a noxious strip mall or lament your kids' obsession with mindless movies and cartoons or read an article charting the rise of the working poor, the demise of the American farmer, the decline of public education, or the ever-widening national waistline, thank the fast food industry. As the National Magazine Awardwinning journalist Eric Schlosser details in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (publication date January 17, 2001), fast food is in some way responsible for all of these phenomena and more. McDonald's and its ilk have to an extraordinary degree shaped postwar America.
Schlosser lavishes well-deserved attention on the idealistic origins of fast food. The industry was born in the 1950s in southern California, the cradle of car culture and high-tech optimism. While Walt Disney was designing his Tomorowland in Anaheim, Richard and Mac McDonald were an exit or two away, bestowing their name on a new kind of restaurant whose kitchens boasted newfangled machines and whose signs promised "Speedee Service." As word of their new fast food restaurant spread, imitators abounded. Dave Thomas, Tom Monaghan, Harland Sanders, and literally thousands of other "door-to-door salesmen, short-order cooks, orphans, and drop-outs" soon transformed the way our food is made and marketed.
Nowhere is their handiwork more evident than in our children. Fast food pioneered the art of mass marketing to kids, using their "pester power" to wheedle cash out of parents. In the '90s, fast food and the film industry forged a multibillion-dollar alliance essentially to gang up on children, adding movie characters to fast food commercials and "collectible" movie-themed toys to youngsters' meals, with dramatic effects on sales.
Not content to target kids through TV and movies, the fast food business has infiltrated our schools. As Schlosser documents, school districts across the country now raise badly needed funds by cutting sponsorship deals with food and beverage corporations. Such deals may require a school to organize promotional gimmicks (such as having students dress in a product's colors) or to place ads for its products in school buses, hallways, even bathroom stalls.
Fast food also exploits kids as employees. Schlosser shows that "no other industry in the United States has a workforce so dominated by adolescents." Teenagers flock to fast food jobs because the jobs are so readily availablethe restaurant industry has one of the highest turnover rates in the country. The low wages, absence of training, and high risk (fast food restaurants are "more likely to be robbed at gunpoint than gas stations, convenience stores, or banks") ensure that there's always a job opening if someone dares to fill it.
Schlosser focuses on several other groups that are particularly hard hit by fast food, from ranchers and meatpacking workers to small businessmen. The latterwhether they run hardware stores, hair salons, or stationery shopsare under attack from franchising, a practice perfected by the fast food business. Ray Kroc, who built the McDonald's empire, used to fly over new neighborhoods in a Cessna looking for likely restaurant sites; then other franchises followed McDonald's lead, intentionally locating their new outlets near existing McDonald's. And McDonald's leads the way still; its site selection software, Quintillion, which relies on satellite photographs, is the standard used by numerous franchisers to plot their expansion.
As the U.S. market has become saturated, fast food corporations have shifted their expansion plans overseas, from the paradisiacal shores of Tahiti to a cheesy strip mall in Dachau, Germany. And the results of fast food's arrival in foreign countries throw into sharp focus the toll the chains have taken on America: highway clutter, dangerously industrialized food production methods, and increased obesity all shortly follow wherever fast food makes landfall.
Schlosser's investigation yields many surprises, from the insidious link between fast food and Hollywood to the Mob ties that jump-started the modern meatpacking business. No revelations are more disquieting than those about the U.S. government. The fast food industry has systematically duped, cajoled, and/or bullied many federal and state agencies, gaining tax credits for employing low-paid workers and leading the fight against a higher minimum wage. For decades the Small Business Administration has been bankrolling franchises owned by Burger King, Subway, and others. Whenever these outlets fail, the corporations lose nothing, because taxpayers cover the cost. And, Schlosser notes, the government can order the recall of defective toy cows but not of tainted ground beef.
Schlosser's conclusions are often unsettling, but his methods are enormously engaging. Whether he's sneaking into a slaughterhouse on the high plains or moseying around Europe with German cowboy wannabes, his reportage makes clear how much he deserved the National Magazine Award he won in 1995. His deft, uncluttered language conveys with equal skill the most poignant moments, such as a cameo appearance by Christopher Reeve, and the most uproarious ones, as when Mikhail Gorbachev seeks to explain the Soviet Union's collapse to a rollicking crowd of fast food conventioneers in Las Vegas.
Schlosser sketches out a new atlas of America, one that displays heretofore unmapped monuments, murky subcultures, dark communities of forgotten souls, and hidden thoroughfares of collusion linking institutions we would rather see well isolated from each other. The culmination of years of research, visits to disappearing farmland and rapidly growing cities, and interviews with fast food workers and franchisees, cattle ranchers, slaughterhouse workers, and parents whose children have died after eating hamburgers tainted with E. coli, Schlosser's book is a remarkable combination of history, journalism, and lyrical prose. FAST FOOD NATION is an essential exploration of an industry that affects every one of us, whether you eat fast food every day or never go near it.
Eric Schlosser has been investigating the fast food industry for years. In 1998, his two-part article on the subject in Rolling Stone generated more mail than any other story the magazine had run in years. Schlosser has interviewed slaughterhouse workers; cattle ranchers; potato farmers; fast food employees, founders, and franchisees; and families who have lost a loved one to food poisoning. From his extensive research and travels for this book, he has unearthed a wealth of little-known, often unsettling truths about the fast food industry.
In addition to writing for Rolling Stone, Schlosser has contributed to The New Yorker and has been a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly since 1996. He won a National Magazine Award for "Reefer Madness" and "Marijuana and the Law" and has received a Sidney Hillman Foundation Award for reporting. His work has been nominated for several other National Magazine Awards and for the Loeb Award for business journalism.
Fast Food Facts from Fast Food Nation
This year Americans will spend over $110 billion on fast foodmore than they'll spend on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music combined.
Every day about one quarter of the U.S. population eats fast food.
Roughly 12 percent of all American workers have worked at McDonald's.
The golden arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.
Children often recognize the McDonald's logo before they recognize their own name.
American children now get about one quarter of their total vegetable servings in the form of potato chips and french fries.
The typical teenage boy in the United States now gets about 10 percent of his daily calories from soda.
The rate of obesity among American children has doubled since the late 1970s.
A fast food soda that sells for $1.29 costs the restaurant about ten cents, a markup of more than 1200 percent.
McDonald's is now the nation's largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes. It is the second largest purchaser of chicken in the United States.
Hundreds of local slaughterhouses used to supply the United States with beef; today thirteen large slaughterhouses supply most of the nation's beef.
A typical fast food hamburger contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of cattle.
Because fast food is so highly processed, much of its flavor is destroyed, so the tastes of most fast food are manufactured at a series of special chemical plants in New Jersey.
Chicken McNuggets contain beef additives, while McDonald's french fries derive some of their flavor from "animal products."
Praise for the National Bestseller Fast Food Nation
"God strike me dead before I consume another fast-food product . . . Fast Food Nation is the kind of book that you hope young people read because it demonstrates far better than any social studies class the need for government regulation, the unchecked power of multinational corporations and the importance of our everyday decisions." Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
"A fierce indictment of the fast food industry . . . Eric Schlosser's compelling new book, Fast Food Nation, will not only make you think twice before eating your next hamburger, but it will also make you think about the fallout that the fast food industry has had on America's social and cultural landscape . . . Fast Food Nation provides the reader with a vivid sense of how fast food has permeated contemporary life and a fascinating (and sometimes grisly) account of the process whereby cattle and potatoes are transformed into the burgers and fries served up by local fast food franchises." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"Schlosser is a serious and diligent reporter, and Fast Food Nation isn't an airy deconstruction but an avalanche of facts and observations as he examines the fast food process from meat to marketing . . . This is a fine piece of muckraking, alarming without being alarmist." Rob Walker, New York Times Book Review
"All children who can read should be issued a copy of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Also all adults, so that makes just about everybody . . . Now, put down this paper and go buy the book." Diana Atkinson, Toronto Globe and Mail
"Exhaustively researched, frighteningly convincing, this book seeks no less than to peel back the smiley-face image that the fast food industry has worn for decades and reveal what lurks behind the Happy Meals, secret sauces and fries . . . If Fast Food Nation doesn't make people rethink their eating habits, nothing will." Andrew Roe, San Francisco Chronicle
"A fascinating exposť of what we are really picking up at the drive-through window." Francine Prose, US Weekly
"A powerful and persuasive exposť of the fast food industry . . . A movement to put other priorities before those of the market isslowly and fitfullygrowing. Fast Food Nation, with its package of solid research and engaging narrative, is an invaluable tool for this movement." Stephen Duncombe, San Diego Union-Tribune
"Fast Food Nation should be another wake-up call, a super-size serving of common sense that might lead, if not to government action, at least to Schlosser's readers following his lead and, until the industry curtails its exploitative practices, to stop eating the stuff." Frank Reiss, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Compelling reading . . . With a journalist's pen and an activist's fervor, Eric Schlosser offers a troubling view of America through its crispy fries and drizzling burgers . . . Schlosser's research should give all Americans something to chew on." Julie Finnin Day, Christian Science Monitor
"Schlosser is part essayist, part investigative journalist. His eye is sharp, his profiles perceptive, his prose thoughtful but spare; this is John McPhee behind the counter with an editor." Nicolas Fox, Washington Post Book World
"A searing indictment of one of America's most visible and least investigated industries." Will Dana, Rolling Stone
"This is cultural history from the ground (round) up." Talk Magazine
"Investigative journalism of a very high order . . . The prose moves gracefully between vignette and exposition, assembling great quantities of data in small areas without bursting at the seams." Scott McLemee, Newsday
"[An] incisive history of the development of American fast food . . . Schlosser establishes a seminal argument for the true wrongs at the core of modern America." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A tale full of sound, fury, and popping grease . . . An exemplary blend of polemic and journalism." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Excellently researched, Fast Food Nation . . . is peppered with acerbic commentary and telling interviews. Of critical importance is the end: just as the reader despairs of a solution, Schlosser outlines a set of remedies, along with steps to get them accomplished. Highly recommended." Library Journal (starred review)
A Conversation with Eric Schlosser
Q) Whether the product is furniture, books, clothes, or food, chains are taking over independent businesses across the country and the world. What prompted you to focus on fast food?
A) The fast food industry is enormousand enormously influential. The fast food chains demonstrated that you could create identical retail environments and sell the same products at thousands of different locations. The huge success of McDonald's spawned countless imitators. The founders of the Gap later said they'd been inspired by McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The key to all these businesses is uniformity and conformity. So by looking at fast food, I'm trying to explain how communities throughout the United States have lost a lot of their individuality over the past twenty years and have started to look exactly the same.
Q) Fast Food Nation begins with a look at Cheyenne Mountain and the Colorado Springs area. Why did you focus on this part of the country?
A) Well, I could have chosen just about any suburban community and told much the same story. But Colorado Springs appealed to me because its growth has neatly paralleled the growth of the fast food industry. The city feels like a place on the cutting edgelike Los Angeles in the 1950sa glimpse, maybe, of America's future. The high-tech economy there, and the kind of thinking that goes with it, seem linked to the fast food industry's worship of new gadgets and technology. And I wanted to set the book somewhere in the American West, the part of the country that embodies our whole spirit of freedom and independence and self-reliance. Those are the very qualities that the fast food industry is now helping to eliminate.
Q) Why has the fast food industry grown so quickly around the world?
A) Here in the States, I think, fast food is popular because it's convenient, it's cheap, and it tastes good. But the real cost of eating fast food never appears on the menu. By that I mean the cost of the obesity epidemic fast food has helped to unleash, the social costs of having such a low-wage workforce, and the health costs of the new industrialized agriculture that supplies the big restaurant chains.
Overseas, much of fast food's appeal stems from its Americanness. Like Hollywood movies, MTV, and blue jeans, fast food has become one of our major cultural exports.
Q) How do fast food restaurants benefit from "de-skilled" jobs and from high turnover among their employees?
A) A reliance on cheap labor has been crucial to the fast food industry's success. It's no accident that the industry's highest rate of growth occurred during a period when the real value of the U.S. minimum wage declined by about 40 percent. The chains have worked hard to "de-skill" the jobs in their kitchens by imposing strict rules on how everything must be done, selling highly processed food that enters the restaurant already frozen or freeze-dried and easy to reheat, and relying on complex kitchen machinery to do as much of the work as possible. Instead of employing skilled short-order cooks, the chains try to employ unskilled workers who will do exactly as they're told. The chains are willing to put up with turnover rates of 300 to 400 percent in order to keep their labor costs low. It doesn't really matter to them who comes or goes, since this system treats all workers as though they're interchangeable.
Q) Was it difficult to get people involved in fast food, meatpacking, and farming to talk to you for the book?
A) The workers, farmers, and ranchers I met were eager to talk. They often feel cut out of the story, as though nobody in the media is really listening. A few executives, such as Carl Karcher, the founder of Carl's Jr., were gracious with their time. The public relations people at McDonald's, on the other hand, never replied to any of my questions.
Q) When you were doing your research for the book, what surprised you the most?
A) I guess it was the far-reaching influence of this food that surprised me most. Because it's something you never really think about. Fast food is everywhere; it seems so mundane, taken for granted. But it has changed what we eat, how we work, what our towns look like, and what we look like in the mirror. I also was amazed to learn that much of fast food's taste is manufactured at a series of chemical plants off the New Jersey Turnpike.
Q) Do you feel that the fast food industry has made any positive impressions on our culture?
A) In the early days, I think the industry embodied some of the best things about this country. It was started by high school dropouts who had little training, by entrepreneurs who made it big by working hard. Guys like the McDonald brothers didn't rely on focus groups, marketing surveys, or management consultants with MBAs. They just set up their grills and started cooking. It's ironic that what they created turned into such a symbol of faceless, ruthless corporate power. It's a very American story, both good and bad.
Q) You say in the book that restaurant workers are more vulnerable to robbery than bank tellers are. Why hasn't more been done to improve their safety?
A) The answer's pretty simple: more hasn't been done because it costs money to do it. A huge proportion of fast food robberies are committed by past or present employees. They're inside jobs. But for years the industry has resisted the idea of performing background checks on job applicants. One of the perpetrators of the recent Wendy's massacre in New York City had a long history of working at and robbing fast food restaurants. The chains could do a lot more to protect their workers. They could do background checks, keep less cash on hand, close their restaurants earlier at night, pay their workers better and reduce the turnover rate, impose tougher security at opening and closing times. By not spending the money on these things, the chains are placing countless young people at risk of violent crime.
Q) One of the book's most arresting passages describes your visit to a slaughterhouse in which the working conditions are atrocious. How have slaughterhouses gotten away with such poor management and treatment of employees for so long? Do you foresee any changes in this industry in the near future?
A) The meatpacking industry now employs some of the poorest, most vulnerable workers in the United States. Most are recent immigrants. Many of them are illiterate and don't speak English. Many are illegals. A generation ago, meatpacking workers belonged to strong unions that could fight for better pay and working conditions. But today's workers often feel that they can't speak out, since they are rightly afraid they will be fired or deported. It's amazing to me how well hidden these abuses remain. I think the media's lack of interest in the plight of meatpacking workers has to do with their skin color. If blond-haired, blue-eyed workers were being mistreated this way, there'd be a huge uproar.
I think the working conditions in the nation's meatpacking plants could improve very quicklyalmost overnight. The fast food chains have the power to say to their suppliers, Treat your workers better or we won't buy meat from you anymore. McDonald's is the world's largest purchaser of beef. It recently issued strict guidelines to its suppliers on the humane treatment and slaughter of animals. I think McDonald's should now show the same kind of compassion for human beings.
Q) What changes would you like to see instituted within the fast food industry and the government agencies regulating it?
A) I'd like the fast food industry to start assuming some of the real costs it now imposes on the rest of society. And I don't think the chains are going to pay those costs willingly. The right legislation will have to do the job. I'd like to see a total ban on the advertising of unhealthy food to children. If a grown man or woman wants to buy a bacon double cheeseburger with large fries, well, great, it's a free country. But the fast food chains should not be allowed to spend millions advertising fatty, unsafe food for children. Obesity is now the second leading cause of death in the United States, after smoking. In the interest of public health, we've banned cigarette ads directed at adults. We should do at least as much to protect children. Such a ban, among other things, would encourage McDonald's to sell Happy Meals that aren't so laden with fat.
I'd like to see a rise in the minimum wage, tougher enforcement of overtime laws, and new OSHA regulations designed to protect employees who work at restaurants late at night. All of these things will help improve the lives of fast food workersthe biggest group of minimum wage earners in the United States.
And I'd like to see a complete overhaul of the federal food safety system, which at the moment is spread across a dozen separate agencies. We should have a single food safety agency, completely separate from the Department of Agriculture, that has power over the fast food industry and its suppliers. We should be able to demand recalls of tainted food, and we should be able to impose fines on companies that deliberately sell bad meat. Right now millions of Americans are needlessly being sickened by what they eat.
Q) Are you a vegetarian? Do you eat fast food?
A) I have a lot of respect for people who are vegetarian for religious or ethical reasons. Despite all my research, however, I'm still a carnivore. My favorite meal by far is a cheeseburger with fries. But I don't eat ground beef anymore. I've seen firsthand what goes into it, and I'm angry about the careless greed of the meatpacking industry. I still eat beef, though I always try to buy meat that's been produced by ranchers who care about their animals and the land. And no, I won't eat fast food anymore. Not until the industry changes its ways.