Book Review – Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

Fast Food Nation

“Future historians, I hope, will consider the American fast food industry as a relic of the twentieth century – a set of attitudes, systems, and beliefs that emerged from postwar southern California, that embodied its limitless faith in technology, that quickly spread across the globe, flourished briefly, and then receded, once its true costs became clear and its thinking became obsolete” (288).

 

In his non-fiction novel Fast Food Nation, author and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser traces the history of America’s favorite meal, uncovering its dirty secrets in the process. The book serves as a critique of the fast food industry and, in Schlosser’s mind, comes at the heels of a new social movement. People now practice conscious consumerism, which makes them more mindful about what they eat and put in their bodies.

Schlosser begins by describing the rise of the fast food industry, motivated by a combination of budding entrepreneurs and new technology. Carl Karcher, the McDonald brothers, and countless others – these men illustrated the true American spirit of ingenuity. They thought outside of the box, capitalized on technological advancements of the time, and took risks. With a little luck, they struck it rich and built fast food restaurant empires. For example, Karcher strategically built his Carl’s ­Jr. restaurants close to freeway exits, following the interstate highway system as it was being built. The McDonald brothers tailored Henry Ford’s assembly line methods to making burgers, increasing their efficiency and reducing the need for skilled workers in the kitchens. These men chose the perfect time to create their fortunes. With the rise of the automobile and the introduction of women to the workforce, the nation experienced a cultural shift – and fast food met the new needs of this changing society.

But before readers admire these American innovators for too long, Fast Food Nation goes on to describe the expansion of the system, the concern for “uniformity,” and the problems that stemmed from this growth. The chain restaurants strived for consistency; their founders wanted families to have the same dining experience at every location. In order to make this mission possible, companies changed how their food is made. As a result, manufacturers now prepare ingredients at a few select factories, freeze them, and ship them out to the various restaurants. Employees simply need to reheat the food, assemble the meals, and serve it to customers. The author claims that this streamlined process raises health and safety concerns, as it increases the chances of contamination. Schlosser recounts the story of one Colorado man, Lee Harding, who ate frozen hamburgers and became sick from E. Coli; those frozen burgers were responsible for making at least ten people sick across the country. With streamlined food factories, disease outbreaks are no longer localized; one contamination poses a health threat for the entire US (and even beyond, in our increasingly globalized economy).

However, Lee Harding recovered eventually from his E. Coli stint; not-so-fortunate six-year-old Lauren Rudolph died from a contaminated Jack-in-the-Box hamburger. The younger generation remains at the heart of Schlosser’s narrative. In his introduction he writes, “Most of all, I am concerned about [fast food’s] impact on our nation’s children” (9). The fast food industry not only endangers kids physically (E. Coli, obesity, diabetes, etc.), but also psychologically. Schlosser discusses the shift towards family-friendly restaurants and treating children as a huge potential marketing base. “Kid kustomers” encourage brand loyalty (nostalgia) and have consumer power through their ability to nag their parents. Schlosser highlights the marketing tactics of McDonalds especially, from their mascot Ronald McDonald to Happy Meal toys to McDonalds play areas (which, interestingly enough, are modeled after Disneyland and Walt Disney’s attempt to enamor children). Furthermore, teenagers oftentimes work in fast food restaurants, in bleak conditions for terrible pay. The fast food industry influences the growth and development of the younger generation in several aspects.

Overall, Schlosser’s book is a great eye-opening read and comparable to Upton Sinclar’s The Jungle in the way it critiques our nation’s food practices. It also intrigued me to read about how the fast food industry extends beyond what we eat into employment practices, technological concerns, and even politics – fast food truly has become a part of our American culture. I recommend it for anyone interested in learning about how the US gained a reputation for fast food and/or what goes on behind those friendly (or maybe creepy) Ronald McDonald smiles. Warning: Book may make readers never want to eat fast food ever again and crave home-cooked meals.

 

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

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