Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
By Eric Schlosser
Surprisingly, Fast Food Nation has totally changed the way that I view the fast food industry. In this all to real work by Eric Schlosser, the reader is taken on an exploration through the fast food industry and its many aspects. Despite the fact that many arguments are based on the boring stores that he narrates, this book was very informative to the blind American consumer, such as myself. Schlosser tells the reader about the many steps that go into the production of a fast food meal. He also deals with the many topics that we, the fast food consumers, never even realize exist: meat and potato production, and the process of becoming a franchisee of a fast food joint. Changing the way that we simply view fast food seems to be the goal of this book.
Introducing the entire story with a segment about a classified under military base built on the inside of a mountain, Cheyenne Mountain was a very interesting approach. Schlosser used this segment to give the reader an example of exactly how important the fast food industry is to America. Schlosser also begins to set the ground for the entire writing that is to follow: marketing, location and future. One important idea that is discussed is the idea that we, American society, do not trust some one that is a non-conformist thus helping industries sell products. “Customers are drawn to familiar brands by an instinct to avoid the unknown. A brand offers a feeling of reassurance when its products are always and everywhere the same” (Schlosser 5). Many concepts are discussed and outlined, but the most important part of the fast food industry is the men (and women) that started this relatively recent food production method.
Chapter one is entirely about the men that began the fast food revolution; whether it was a local hot dog stand or a “burger joint” in California. Many believe that the fast food revolution had its roots in the 1940’s when the McDonald brothers first started applying the assembly line method to the production of food, but this is not completely true. Granted, the McDonald brothers were ahead of their time, but the real fast food joint began with the appearance of the “carhop” restaurants and the corner hotdog stands. One of the pioneer California hotdog stand owners was Carl Karcher. Then along came the McDonald brothers in the 1940’s using the assembly line method, along with paper products and no utensil method for the serving/eating of food. Many of these entrepreneurs did not even attend college, some never even completed high school! Yet, for some reason the idea of a fast food restaurant was golden. Needless to say, the great success was primarily due to the methods in which these “products” were sold.
Bringing children into the advertising market was a brilliant idea, and can be accredited to Walt Disney. After many years of striking, Walt was left at the bottom, barely able to keep his head above water. Managing to make videos for the Government helped to pave his way for the futuristic “Tomorrowland.” This is where the products of the future were made viewable to the paying public. At the same time, old Army bud Ray Kroc was pushing the McDonald brothers into signing away the rights to franchising McDonalds all over the United States of America. “Nevertheless, Kroc convinced the brothers to sell him the rights to franchise McDonalds nationally” (Schlosser 35). Kroc followed the idea of selling a product to children, and indirectly to the parents of the children. One local McDonald’s owner, Willard Scott, invented the idea of Ronald McDonald, a character that is more known to children than Mickey Mouse. The promotion of Ronald helped to drastically boost the sales of happy meals. Because of the boosted sales to children, the 1980’s became known as “the decade of the child consumer” (Schlosser 43). The advertising to children has become so popular that many more industries have hopped aboard the bandwagon and begun to sell specifically to children. Marketers realized the shopping power that children possess and were able to capture it in time to send them to the top. The controversial use of school districts raises the hard to answer question: How do you know when to draw the line?. For example, if Coke passed up the chance to advertise in schools because of a moral or ethical belief, Pepsi would definitely be there to scoop up the deal and have their logos plastered around school yards.
Chapters three and four discuss the concepts of the employee and the franchisee. Have you ever noticed while driving down a road that you can remember being bare, the overwhelming number of fast food joints? This is because of the competition that has been created by the competing restaurants, they follow each other to victory. “Every few miles, clusters of fast food joints seem to repeat themselves, Burger Kings, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s, Subways, Pizza Huts, and Taco Bells, they keep appearing along the road, the same buildings and signage replaying like a tape loop” (Schlosser 60). The location of these businesses is what seems to bring in the money, and this is what the fast food industry spends a good bit of their money on researching. Someone has to own these repeating fast food restaurants and this person is the franchisee. The idea of selling franchises was a genius idea that has been around since almost the beginning of business. “Franchising schemes have been around in one form or another since the nineteenth century” (Schlosser 94). The franchisee is the one that owns the local restaurant, they are also the one that hires the manager, who in turn handles the other employees. Many of the employees are teenagers that have decided to quit attending high school to be able to pay for their car and/or to help out their family with the bills. Sounds noble, but actually the employee is just building a wall between himself and his future. The longer their term of employment remains, the more they will become the model burger-maker: no decision-making skills, no job satisfaction, low wages, et cetera, et cetera.
In Chapter 5, “Why the Fries Taste Good,” we are introduced to J.R. Simplot. It would be an understatement to say that Simplot is a potato producer. Basically, he’s the one man that McDonald’s goes to to satisfy their French-fry needs; he is inventor of the McDonald’s French-fry. Nobody would buy fries that had to be fried because they were impractical in homes and the demand was low. However, as soon as the fast food industry picked up on the time-save, French-fries became a hit. These fries that are made by chemists who test samples of the fries to make sure that they are ready for a particular season. Schlosser also does a good job of pointing out just how large of a role the aroma of a food may be, “The aroma of food can be responsible for as much as 90 percent of its flavor” (Schlosser 122). The fact that fast food industries are spending billions of money on the research of flavor and aroma somewhat bothers me. If the fast food industry deems it necessary to make their food smell so good, why not rather invest the money in the quality and let taste speak for itself! You know, higher quality beef, fresher French-fries, equally distributed condiments on both sides of the cheeseburger…
In Chapter 6 Schlosser gives us a peek inside the life of a struggling cattle rancher in a growing metropolis. Hank, forty-two year old rancher that was raised on a cattle farm, took our author on a tour of his property in Colorado Springs. Years later, Hank ends his own life because of the pressures associated with raising cattle and trying to survive in the competitive market. “Hank was under enormous pressure at the time of his death” (Schlosser 146). In reality, Hank was not the first cattle farmer to take his life. He is only one of the many farmers that feel the pressures associated with competing along side the large industrial farming plants. Another industry that has been taken over by the “industrial giant” is the chicken industry. Because of the demand for small chicken pieces and not the whole chicken, most large factories have begun to obtain contracts with fast food industries. This corporate takeover of the chicken industry has forced out the independent farmer, but as of yet no government action has been taken to protect the “little” farmers. Chapter seven sheds a little light on the inhumane aspects of industrialized cattle farming. The stench that is given off by the cattle, who defecate fifty pounds a day, is absolutely disgusting and fills the air permanently. The inhumane practices that are associated with the raising of cattle are most visible in the slaughterhouse.
“The Most Dangerous Job,” is the appropriately chosen title for chapter eight, which introduces the reader to the slaughterhouse. Schlosser was given the privilege of a tour through a nauseating slaughterhouse, one of the largest in the nation, located in High Plains. The slaughterhouse workforce is dominated by Latinos, the majority of which are untrained. The key to being safe at a slaughterhouse is maintaining a sharp knife; this is because it cuts through the meat with absolute no problem and places no stress on the hands and spinal cord. It also makes it easier to keep up with the speedy and competitive assembly line which goes by the motto: “A faster pace means higher profit” (Schlosser 174). The deadliest job in the slaughterhouse belongs to the cleaning crews. “The men and women who now clean the nation’s slaughterhouses may arguably have the worst job in the United States” (Schlosser 177). Worker’s compensation is not much better for the men and women working in the slaughterhouses.
The rise of foodborne illnesses has been on the increase over the past decade. This is due to the fact that the nation has developed central centers for the processing of meat, dairy and wheat products. One contaminant can infect a huge amount of product. From these centers foods are packaged and sent throughout the entire nation, spreading the diseases from coast to coast. During the 1920’s, hamburgers took on a “wrap” as being unsanitary and food for the poor, but time would prove this wrong. “White Castle Hamburgers” conducted an experiment that helped to release the hamburger from any bad myths that had followed it. This is one of the first times that the preparation of meat was proven to aid in the cleanliness of meat preparation. E. coli is one of the many pathogens that is spread from the slaughter houses throughout the nation. This is a disease that can kill, so it is very important that food is prepared in a clean and sanitary surrounding.
A majority of the fast food restaurants have opened more franchises in foreign countries. This is in hopes that the global expansion will generate more money for the corporations and their employees. The many symbols that these fast food restaurants bring along with them have introduced more global symbols of understanding and unity. “McDonalds now ranks as the most widely recognized brand in the world, more familiar than Coca-Cola” (Schlosser 229). This “Americanization” of the world has led not only fast food, but television, music and “pop-culture” to the far reaches of the world. In America the battle is no longer against the iron-fist of Russia, but against the large increase of obesity. In the future will the America we know and love change to something that is horrid to look at? Or is the expansion of our fast food going to have such a dramatic toll on other nations as well?
In conclusion, understanding is what we should all strive for. I mean that we all need to find the truth behind the locked door. Eric Schlosser is able to bring home the reality of the American fast food industry in a way that really strikes the reader. Reading this has really opened my eyes to the way that I view a fast food restaurant. Of course, I’ll still eat fast food; but at least now I understand a few of the processes that go into the making of the fried meal down on my wrapper and how my contribution to the fast food industry affects the entire country. Trusting someone that is a non-conformist might be a little scary, but it leads to change. It takes the actions of a few brave people to begin to make a change. These generative actions are meant to challenge the recursive practices that we have all play a role in. Change is not easy, but is essential to the survival of our culture.
Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Perennial, 2002