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With a subtitle like that, I was fully prepared for this book to be little more than a hysterical diatribe against the evils of fast food.  Nor was my fear allayed by this defensive sentence in the Introduction :

    I do not mean to suggest that fast food is solely responsible for every social problem now haunting
    the United States.

Disclaimers like that one usually indicate the opposite of what they say.  But just a few sentences later comes a surprising admission which sets the tone for the whole book :

    During the two years spent researching this book, I ate an enormous amount of fast food.  Most of
    it tasted pretty good.  This is one of the main reasons people buy fast food; it has been carefully
    designed to taste good.  It's also inexpensive and convenient.

This is merely the first of many times throughout the book where Schlosser's fairness and honesty compel him to reveal facts that tend to undercut the polemical thrust of his arguments.  This willingness to present both sides of the issues, combined with his prodigious research on the industry, makes for a book that, though the author clearly has a viewpoint that he wants to get across, also allows readers to make up their own minds, and provides the information necessary to make informed decisions.  Though I disagreed with many of Schlosser's arguments, it was really refreshing to find an author who acknowledges competing views.

Here are some of the instances in which this contradictory dynamic crops up.  One of the topics that he spends a good deal of time on is the pay levels in the industry, both for those who actually work in restaurants and for those who produce and process the food.  He makes a big issue of the attempt by restaraunteurs to hold employees to minimum wage and not give them benefits, but at the same time he acknowledges that most of the workforce is made up of teenagers and :

    Although some at fast food restaurants to help their families, most of the kids take
    jobs after school in order to have a car.

Now, I'd acknowledge that a labor force of fathers trying to support their families on minimum wage would represent a social problem, but I won't shed a tear over teens who want their own cars.  Not to mention that he goes on to note that :

    Most of the high school students I met liked working at fast food restaurants.

To quote the immortal Clara Peller : Where's the beef ?

Similarly, in a section on the unskilled, uneducated migrant workers who are being "exploited" by the meat packers, Schlosser notes that they get something like $10 an hour, whereas the average worker in Mexico and Central America, where many of these employees come from, makes $5 a day.  Sure, it would be wonderful if these folks were getting rich working at the undeniably difficult and often dangerous jobs they perform, but, comparatively, they are getting a damn good deal right now.

In the scariest portion of the book, he details all of the potentially lethal microbes that have invaded the food supply, e. coli and the like.  He goes to great lengths to show how inadequate the system is for inspecting meat and testing for these contaminants, and I'll accept every word he says.  But he also concedes that when meat is cooked properly these microbes are killed and then points out that food irradiation will also destroy them and is safe, but that misunderstanding of the process and fearmongering has kept it from being widely adopted.  Sounds like there are safe and simple solutions to even this most worrisome of issues.

Finally, in the least compelling portion of the book, he argues that fast food is bad because it's making us fat.  No one can honestly take issue with his point that the fat content in fast food is ridiculously high, and that the enormity of portions is unnecessary.  However, in arguing that fat consumption is a unique problem, he accidentally concedes one of the great achievements of the industry :

    During thousands of years marked by food scarcity, human beings developed efficient
    physiological mechanisms to store energy as fat.  Until recently, societies rarely enjoyed an
    overabundance of cheap food.

Okay, so there are some problems associated with an "overabundance of cheap food:" the whole world should face such problems.  Moreover, assuming that you believe in evolution, shouldn't we expect this to be a temporary problem, one that will take care of itself as succeeding generations develop mechanisms which don't store fat ?

Perhaps the best effect of Schlosser's honesty is that when it comes time to make proposals for solving some of the problems he's raised, he's pretty reasonable.  The best point he makes is that :

    Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food.  The first step toward meaningful change is
    by far the easiest: stop buying it.

I don't believe that his book makes the case that such a step is necessary.  It does, however, enable the reader to better understand what goes on behind the scenes to get that Big Mac or Whopper into your hands.  As he presents it, this information is always fascinating and it is often at least troublesome.  The book is well worth reading even if you don't ultimately end up feeling compelled to boycott the Colonel.


Grade: (B+)


Eric Schlosser Links:

    -BOOKNOTES: Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market by Eric Schlosser (C-SPAN, June 15, 2003, 8 & 11pm)
    -ESSAY: The U.S. Bucks a Trend on Marijuana Laws (ERIC SCHLOSSER, 6/01/03, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: A writer's life: Eric Schlosser (William Leith, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Reefer Madness, and Other Tales from the American Underground by Eric Schlosser (John H. Richardson, Esquire)
    -REVIEW: of Eric Schlosser's REEFER MADNESS (Kirkus Reviews)

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Fast Food Nation
    -ESSAY : Fast-Food Nation (Eric Schlosser, The Rolling Stone, September, 1998)
    -ESSAY : Why McDonald's French Fries Taste So Good (Eric Schlosser, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Reefer Madness  (Eric Schlosser, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Marijuana and the Law  (Eric Schlosser, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : In the Strawberry Fields  (Eric Schlosser, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : A Grief Like No Other (Eric Schlosser, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : The Prison-Industrial Complex (Eric Schlosser, Atlantic Monthly)
    -DISCUSSION : "Doing Company Time:   The Privatization of Prisons" (Hoover Institution)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : with Eric Schlosser (Bill Goldstein, NY Times, January 18, 2001)
    -INTERVIEW : with Eric Schlosser (Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : Unhappy Meals (Atlantic Monthly)
    -INTERVIEW : CASUALTIES OF THE MARIJUANA WAR : It isn't just cancer and AIDS patients who are suffering because of America's anti-pot hysteria. Hundreds of small-time users are in jail -- for life. (LOWELL WEISS , Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : frontline: busted - america's war on marijuana: interviews: ...
    -ESSAY : At Last, Americans Swallow the Truth About Their Burgers  (Andrew Gumbel, Independent Digital (UK)
    -ESSAY : Ignorance is Bliss (Eric Alterman, The Nation)
    -BOOK CLUB : This week, Katha Pollitt and Marjorie Williams investigate Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's stomach-turning indictment of McDonald's, Burger King, and their ilk. (Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Fast Food Nation (Maria Russo, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Fast Food Nation (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal  By ERIC SCHLOSSER (ROB WALKER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Fast Food Nation (Nicols Fox, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW : of Fast Food Nation (Philip Delves Broughton, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW : of Fast Food Nation (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Fast Food Nation (Audrey Row, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Fast Food Nation (James Meek, London Review of Books)
    -AWARD : Best Investigative Series: "Fast Food Nation," by Eric Schlosser, Rolling Stone, September 3 and November 26, 1998 (Impressions Magazine)


    -National Council of Chain Restaurants
    -The American Meat Institute (AMI)
    -ESSAY : SERVICE TENSION : Cretinous clerks,  -- woolly-headed waiters, angst-ridden attendants --  you just can't get good help these days.  (MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of McLibel by John Vidal (complete review)