Fast Food Nation Review

The 50 cent summary

cover Fast Food Nation provides an in depth analysis of fast food culture, from it's birth in southern California to it's broad infusion of global culture today. Author Eric Schlosser is broad and deep in he reporting. He covers everything from the plight of the small time organic cattle farmers, to the dangers faced by the low-wage teenage work force powering the industry.

Although there are exceptions, the thread weaving together this book seems to be greed over public concern at every step of the way. If there is good news for the future of the industry, it is that it ultimately reports to the consumer, and we can choose not to support it. Although the book maintains of journalistic balance throughout, Eric comes clear in his personal view in the Epilogue: boycott fast food.


My response

I was already generally boycotting fast food before I started reading the book, but if anyone asked why, I didn't have especially strong factual answers-- more of a gut feeling. Now I'm informed of a whole range of abuses in the system that I can cite. :) Two fast food joints that I do eat at on a somewhat regular basis are Taco Bell and Subway. They both have decent food for vegetarians and use minimal packaging for their food. The book reports that Subway currently has some of the worst franchising practicies-- They had the lowest franchising fee of the major chains and took one the highest percentage of profits. "Dean Sager, a former staff economist for the U.S. House of Representative's Small Business Committee, has called Subway the "worst" franchise in America. "Subway is the biggest problem in franchising," Sager told Fortune magazine in 1998, "and emerges as one of the key examples of every [franchise] above you can think of."" For example, in 1996, 109 new Subways relied on money from the U.S. government's Small Business Administration for financing. It would be nice if multi-million dollar transnational corporations felt they could get by without using tax-payer money earmarked for small businesses. Perhaps I should be extending my boycott one chain further...

I paid especially close attention when reading about IBP, a major beef packer and supplier of meat to McDonald's (and other chains). There is an IBP plant located in Souix City, Iowa, near where my mother lives. They are partly responsible for a migration of Mexicans to the area.

Allegedly, they run the processing lines at especially an fast rate of speed to maximize production and profit, although they are sacrificing food quality, employee safety, and public health. In a tragic story from the meat packing industry, Kenny Dobbins an employee of the Monfort meat packing plant, had sustained multiple serious injuries on the job, working for the company for over a decade. Despite having saved another employees life on job (for which he was honored with a paper certificate), the story of his employment at Monfort ends like this: "In December of 1995 Kenny felt a sharp pain in his chest while lifting some boxes. He thought it was a heart attack. His union steward took him to the the nurse, who said it was just a pulled muscle and sent Kenny home. He was indeed having a massive heart attack. A friend rushed Kenny to a nearby hospital. A stent was inserted in his heart, and the doctors told Kenny he was lucky to be alive. Not long afterward, Monfort fired Kenny Dobbins. Despite the fact that Kenny had been with the company for almost sixteen years, despite the fact that he was first in seniority at the Greeley plant, that he'd cleaned blood tanks with his bare hands, fought the union, done whatever the company had asked him to do, suffered injuries that would have killed weaker men, nobody from Monfort called with the news...Kenny learned that he he'd been fired when his payments to the company health insurance plan kept being returned to the post office."

Although the meat packing industry is regulated by the USDA, the agency faces multiple problems enforces the laws. The have a fundamental conflict in that they are supposed to both promote the meat industry and regulate it. Additionally, they have overlapping responsibilities with other government agencies, often leading to delays in taking action. They are also underfunded for the job-- inspections occur rarely and the corporations are required to keep their own logs of on-the-job injuries. At least one corporation was caught keeping two copies of logs-- one to show the government and one for themselves. One of the few times mentioned that the plants did slow the line down was one the meat was being exported to Europe-- they demand higher quality than McDonalds.

The potential public health hazard of this system is huge. Which much of the nations meat coming from about 13 major meat packing plants, combined with the poor health conditions that the cattle are kept in (sometimes being fed cattle scraps for food, furthering contamination possibilities), combined with the low quality standards of the industry, contaminated meat could poison legions of people before a recall was even announced. Meat recalls occur more often than is reported in the news-- The meat packers themselves are often largely responsible for announcing the recalls. In one example, by the time a recall for 35 million pounds of meat had been announced, 25 million pounds of it had already been consumed by people.

A couple things I still wonder about

Although the book was thorough in covering everything from the effects of advertising to young children, to the process of how hamburger flavor is created by chemists off the New Jersey Turnpike, there are a couple facets of fast food culture that I'm still wondering about the details of:
  • What's the impact of the all the disposible containers? -- Although Eric touch some on the environmental impact of factory farming meat, I'm still wondering about some of the other environmental impacts of this culture. What's the cost, both direct and hidden, of assembling meals that are collectively shipped over a 1000 miles to arrive on your plastic McTray? What is the impact of constantly using and throwing away plates, forks, spoons, napkins, condiment packs, straws, lids, cups and sporks?

    Christoff, a yoga student in the Palm Beach, Florida area, isn't waiting for the results to come back. He brings in his own metal plates to use when he eats at Pollo Tropical. He also uses a stationary bike at home to power his TV. If only he had to pedal his bike to produce a new a spork and plastic plate each time he ate out, we could all watch and find out how much energy it took.

  • What about food suppliers like SYSCO? -- I've noticed that hometown food here in Richmond, Indiana isn't as hometown as it appears. Whether I eat at Tom's New York Deli, an El Rodeo Mexican restaurant, or the fancy Ole Richmond Inn, (all of which I would exclude from fast food) they all get their food and restaurant supplies largely supplied by SYSCO. This seems like a possible reason that food sort of tastes the same when I eat out. I don't really have any dirt on SYSCO. I drove past a facility of theirs near Cincinnati. It was a giant warehouse with no windows. Many factories don't have windows (the IBP plant has very few). I wonder why. I like working in natural light, and from what I've heard from other people enjoy it as well. Besides increasing employee morale, it also seems like an easy way to save on the electric bill in a giant facility. At any rate, it's not where I'd like my food to be coming from.

    With so many "independent" restaurants depending on a single supplier, it would seem that they are subject to the constraints of the supplier, and my choices about where my food actually from are mostly an illusion.

It's easy to spend time being mad at the giant food corporations. Although they often have more power than the government that regulates them, they are ultimately responsible to the consumer. In one case in the book, McDonald's moved away from using genetically engineered patatos in the US at just the threat of a public outrage (as had already happened in Europe).

All this makes me more excited about shopping at the local Farmer's Market, participating in the local food co-op, bring left-overs for lunch at work, and sometimes I even think about gardening myself (especially in the context of having less yard to mow.)

Whether you hate fast food or love it, I encourage you to read this book and find out in detail what exactly you are encouraging our despising.

Read more about this book at Amazon.com.

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