Fast Food Nation: Review

20 November 2009

Written by: Tom Cowie

I don’t have a lot of personal experience of fast-food. My childhood was sustained by over-boiled cabbage and quiche, without so much as a sniff of a drive-thru offering.

Taking the vegetarian path in my late teens only compounded the blissful ignorance I have of McDonald’s and their ilk.

Fast-Food Nation by Eric Schlosser illuminated exactly what I have been missing out on all these years, in astounding  detail.

Fast-Food Nation is a fascinating exposé into what Schlosser believes is wrong with fast-food – and, by extension, America. What began as a two-part feature in Rolling Stone, grew into a three-year obsession for Schlosser. It paints a vivid and often frightening picture of the immense changes fast-food chains have made to our eating habits, the workforce and the landscape of American and Western culture.

Fast-Food Nation begins with the economic and social trends of the 1920s, which led to the McDonald brothers opening their first restaurant. The brothers grew tired of the cutlery in their restaurant being stolen and of having to employ dish-washers, so decided to wrap the food in paper and introduce production-line techniques to speed up service and increase cash-flow.

This created a knock-on effect, with hamburger chains and restaurants popping up alongside every major freeway, all competing for the most customers by producing the cheapest and fastest food possible. The early expansion of the fast-food industry across America stirs some admiration for the innovation and enterprise of the McDonald brothers. However, as Schlosser explains, it wasn’t long before fast-food culture prompted a devolution in American eating habits.

When the books was first published in 2001, the United States was home to the fattest people on the planet, leading Schlosser to blame his fellow Americans’ obsession with gobbling burgers for creating a new category of fat: ‘the super obese’. In the last five years, Australia has overtaken the US as the world’s fattest nation.

Fast Food Nation also gets to the heart of what it takes to work in fast-food, illustrating just how these corporations can treat their employees. Schlosser describes a technique used by managers known as ‘stroking,’ which preys upon young and fragile employees. The managers are trained to heap lavish praise and ‘stroke’ employees’ egos with superfluous compliments.

Not only is this supposed to make staff work harder for rewards, it also ensures impressionable teenagers would rather spend more time at work than at home. In doing so, fast food companies create a dedicated, underpaid and exploited workforce who are readily fired and replaced. Not surprisingly, fast food has one of the highest staff turnover rates of any industry.

Schlosser’s research is extensive, and he expertly turns hard facts and anecdotes into a seamless narrative interwoven with well-crafted characters including illegal immigrants who clean the slaughterhouses, ranch owners, potato farmers, and even amputees who lost their limbs and livelihoods for minimum wage. The interviews with young employees reminded me of my own greasy teenage years, regularly slaving away for a fast-food giant until midnight to save for my first car. These are served up in neatly segmented, easy-to-read chapters with quirky titles like  ‘Meat and Potatoes’ and ‘The Most Dangerous Job’.

Schlosser’s also provides shocking details of food poisoning from hamburger meat, information that McDonald’s has fought hard to keep quiet. Schlosser visits America’s largest slaughterhouses, explaining how working in them may possibly be the most dangerous job on earth. But simply eating the meat is another form of high-risk behaviour.

The author’s journey to a bloody and filthy New Jersey slaughterhouse breaks the facade surrounding fast-food, giving unequivocal evidence of just how faeces gets into hamburger patties. Schlosser interviews devastated families who have lost their children from eating this contaminated meat. The countless unimaginable details of just what is done to make that burger taste the way it does is described in vivid, sickening detail and has the potential to bring the industry to its knees, if only people cared more about what they ate.

Eric Schlosser’s investigation cuts to the essence of what journalism is all about, revealing what is in the public’s interest and allowing the reader to use the facts  review their eating choices.

Even though this book was written close to a decade ago, the fear of fast-food companies taking over the world is still relevant today. This month, McDonald’s started construction on their very own restaurant in the Louvre museum in Paris. The fast-food giant is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary in France, by opening its 1,142nd outlet in the foyer, alongside a Starbucks. Staff at the Louvre commented by calling it  “the pinnacle of exhausting consumerism and deficient gastronomy”.

High culture, meet low culture — this is the ubiquity that is fast-food and the reason those golden arches are now the worlds most recognised symbol.

Sarah Dailey is a journalism student at La Trobe University.

Do you think Fast Food Nation is a book every journalist should read?

Upstart is building a list of #topournobooks. See what else has made the cut so far.