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Published in 2001, 'Fast Food Nation', subtitled 'The Dark Side of the All-American Meal' is a book by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, which centres around the history, methodologies, ideas and production of fast food, and the chains that churn it out.
I consider myself to be quite a conscientious eater. As a vegetarian, I am already fully aware of the conditions that traditional food animals suffer under, hence the reason I'm vegetarian in the first place. Fast food chains don't generally have much to offer me in terms of food anyway, so it's very rare that I visit them, but after reading this carefully researched book, it's horrifying that so many people choose to do so.
Schlosser takes us right through from the lowly beginnings of the fast food industry, fuelled by the social changes in America, including the mass building of the first super highways on which the growing fast food chains fought for dominance, to the present day, where the largest chains can be found throughout the world.
Rather than starting off ranting about the fast food businesses, the author wisely focuses on the businessmen that founded them. After all, in the beginning, no one could have had any idea how the small family run burger businesses could turn into such dominating mega-corporations. I liked these sections of the book, and how the author returned to cities such as San Bernardino, where several of the chains started off life, to explore the wider effects on the communities here. I felt this detailed exploration and re-visiting of communities and individuals added more depth to the book, and provided an interesting break from the numbers and dates scattered throughout.
The book takes us step by step through the commercialisation of the food industry, backing up the statements with shocking facts and figures (a large reference section can be found in the back of the book, stating sources), to the production of the food, and interestingly the suffering of the workers and smaller independant companies at the hands of the fast food chains.
Ronald McDonald's Disgruntled Workers
Rather than focusing solely on the suffering of the animals, which is very important but which can alienate people who don't particularly care about animals, the book talks about the underpaid workers - from the 1970s onwards, after adjustment for inflation, there has been a steady decline in the hourly pay of the average American food industry worker, and the fast food giants frequently lobby the US government if new minimum wage laws are proposed. The companies are so key to the success of the US economy and agricultural businesses, that they have a massive effect on proposed policies and aggressively fight against anything which will damage their profit margins.
Schlosser writes in a very detailed and thought-provoking way about the attempts of disgruntled workers to found trade unions at various McDonald's franchises, in order to improve working conditions, safety and wages, and the shady methods which the fast food giants have employed in order to have the unions fail. From closing down the branches where unions have attempted to spring up, to not re-hiring individuals who have shown sympathy to the proposed union, companies such as McDonalds will not tolerate disobedience in it's staff members, nor tolerate anything that can affect it's profits, such as a union.
As late as the 1970s, a McDonalds worker - as part of his/her contract - had to agree to be polygraphed (ie. take a lie detector test) if so required by their manager! This was used to eek out union sypathisers, who were ultimately sacked, using various excuses, or forced to leave. It's little known gems like this that earnt little 'are you serious?!' remarks from me throughout my reading of the book. There are some truly unbelieveable things (but nonetheless proven things) mentioned in the book, and I frequently found myself gobsmacked that certain policies and methods of working were allowed to continue.
Is Your Meat Killing You?
Aside from the human issues involved in the fast food industry, Schlosser also discusses the science behind our food, which I found to be probably the most shocking section of the book. Changes in food production and the diets that cattle are now eating have increased the likelihood of widespread outbreaks of food-borne pathogens such as E. coli.
Rather than rectify the diets of the cattle, feeding them something they would naturally eat i.e. grass, as opposed to their current diet of corn and dead animals, the food is instead irradiated and treated with chemicals to attempt to kill the potentially fatal pathogens. Would you like ammonia sprayed on your dead-animal-eating-beef? No, me neither.
Schlosser describes one of the many 'flavour factories', where smells are created to add to the bland food in order to make it 'taste' like it would have done in the good old days before mass production. The aromas of sautéed onions and grilled burgers are located in test tubes, and added to fast food to give the impression of a better taste. Not even fries escape the additives and flavour enhancers, to make them taste more like a potato should. Surely if it's made out of potato, it should taste like a potato already? Seemingly not.
According to Schlosser's in depth research, although the U.S. government can demand the nationwide recall of a defective stuffed animal or toy which poses a health risk, "it cannot order a meatpacking company to remove contaminated, potentially lethal ground beef from fast food kitchens and supermarket shelves." Cue another 'What the...?!' response from me.
I could literally go on and on about describing the shocking and scarily well researched chapters in this book, but I'm sure you're starting to get the picture by now. I can highly recommend this book. I found it to be intriguing, throught provoking, shocking, incredibly detailed, well written, entertaining, and most importantly in a non-fiction book, factual and convincing.
My only negative comment would be that if you read this before bed, you won't get to sleep due to indignation. It's not a relaxing read!
I'll leave you with a final fact from the book, as food for thought:
An 1996 US Agriculture Department study that found 78.6% of ground beef samples from meat processing plants contained microbes that are spread primarily by fecal material.
Would you like fries with your poo-riddled burger?
A friend of mine is the guy they interviewed about why the McD fries taste so good. That's the only bit of this book that I've actually read because I think I already know far too much about how unethical US food producers, retailers and fast food stores are.
fizzytom 09.06.2010 09:15
This is an excellent book but it's Walmart-ASDA who have moved to the top of my hitlist these days.