Early in Fast Food Nation, respected investigative journalist Eric Schlosser confesses, “During the two years spent researching this book, I ate an enormous amount of fast food. Most of it tasted pretty good.”
Knowing what he now knows, he might regret every bite of every burger or french fry.
Fast Food Nation covers everything from the founding stories of some leading fast food chains to the health, economic and environmental threats the meat packing industry behind them has wrought upon our world.
Its damning assessment of the industry highlights a glaring conflict. Yes, “industrialized” animal-based food is cheap — but only because meat packers cut their food and labor safety measures to the bone.
As Eric writes, “Much like french fry factories, beef slaughterhouses often operate at profit margins as low as a few pennies a pound.”
Constant pressure to keep their costs low and production high means working conditions have changed very little since Upton Sinclair published his muckraking classic The Jungle in 1906.
Eric quotes historian David Gerard Hogan’s claim that, in Sinclair’s day, hamburger was considered “a food for the poor,’ tainted and unsafe to eat.”
A food critic from that period warned, “The hamburger habit is just about as safe as getting your meat out of a garbage can.’
People were thinking that way more than a century ago, and very little about the meat packing business has changed since. What has changed, thanks to corporate funded lobbying and advertising, is our perception of “eating garbage.”
Fast food burgers come from feedlot cows — and feedlot cows are confined in their own excrement:
“A government health official… compared the sanitary conditions in a modern feedlot to those in a crowded European city during the Middle Ages, when people dumped their chamber pots out the window, raw sewage ran in the streets and epidemics raged.”
When diseased feedlot cows go to slaughter, their diseases go along:
“The pathogens from infected cattle are spread not only in feedlots, but also at slaughterhouses and hamburger grinders.”
Then there’s this scathing comment concerning the health risks of downing a Big Mac, Whopper or Double Jack.
“The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat.”
If that doesn’t scare you, consider this. In 1997 Eric writes, “KCBS-TV in Los Angeles videotaped local restaurant workers sneezing into their hands while preparing food, licking salad dressing off their fingers, picking their noses, and flicking their cigarettes into meals about to be served.”
So it’s not surprising that many fast food workers interviewed for Fast Food Nation admitted they only ate their restaurants’ food if they made it themselves.
Where does the story go from here?
Eric surmises, “The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power.”
And which industry is known for super-sizing corporate excess? Fast food.
“The low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect its real cost, and should. The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society.”