November 17, 2003

Fast Food Nation, a Review

I finished reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser about two weeks ago. It's a quick read, but I wanted to think on it a while before writing.

I picked the book up at the San Francisco airport thinking it would rail on obesity and American eating habits. That's not exactly what I got, and for that I am pleased. Schlosser discusses a lot of things - from the early days of fast food (owning a the American dream) to shifting practices of mass producing french fries and cattle to an ugly portrait of the meatpacking industry and a foray into food-borne illness.

As I got past the first three chapters of the book, I was well aware that I was going to disagree with some to possibly many of Schlosser's premises and assertions - his choice of facts to present. He irritated me constantly by ascribing "liberal Democrat" to all things good and "conservative Republican" to all things bad.

But that's about ALL he did wrong from a sense of style. He saves his judgment until the final chapters (two...there's an additional chapter in the paperback, an afterword called the meaning of Mad Cow...wherein he actually calls himself on his behavior of stratifying things on a partisan level. I actually laughed).

My favorite part of the book had to do with Schlosser's visit to a flavoring lab. This snippet alone is worth reading the whole book, which you'll want to do anyway. One, it's cheap (note the link). Two, it's a good read by a good writer, regardless of your viewpoints. The things I gig Barbara Ehrenreich for are not present in this book. You can tell the way Schlosser leans because of his tone, but you're not slapped in the face - you're spared the preaching until the end - where it belongs.

I don't want to get too deeply into the guts of this book because I want you to read it. The things it's brought to the forefront in my mind are: "What should OSHA's role be in the workplace?" The importance of balance of power in dangerous industries - such as meatpacking. Schlosser asserts that the line speeds in slaughterhouses are such that danger of injury - often serious and possibly including death - are driven by demand for cheap burgers. I had an eye scrunched while I read this section, preferring to chew on the thought for a while...two weeks. I won't spoil this for you, but Schlosser's conclusion - his particular call to action - pleased me.

The other troubling thing is the author's stress of the importance of unions and the pressure (he paints) from corporations to keep the unions out. If there are industries where unions are highly important, I would have to say it would be those that offer the most dangerous jobs. While I'm not a union fan (look up my grocery store strike post), I remember having read Power and Powerlessness in grad school, and, when the unions were not corrupt, they were a force for good for a group of people who desperately needed such a force (highly uneducated, highly exploited). Problem is, as will surface with any group of people in which there is any sort of ill intent or greed: corruption.

That's another theme of Schlosser's book. He doesn't often mention union corruption (which, of course, is documented to be rampant), but he splatters the pages full of corporate misdeeds - often cited as legally punished. That certainly gets my eye - hard facts, poor immoral decisions, and punishment.

One last thing before I leave this - the NRO reviewed the book, and I, being me, was interested in what the reviewer had to say. I read the review twice and was actually offended. Did we read the same book, Mr. Kern? I found quite a bit of it, with my five years of fast food restaurant experience, to be fairly accurate. You call it McGarbage. While I agree that arguing by authority shouldn't really buy me any credibility in your eyes, it certainly validates my own opinion. I also didn't get the same tone from the book that Kern did - the "shock," but then again this book is on the heels of Barbara's, and so perhaps it's there but muted in my point of reference. Part of the Kern's review worth quoting, though, as I tend to agree:
    Schlosser as Upton Sinclair: Fast Food Nation describes the meat industry in terms that make The Jungle read like a puff piece from the National Beef Council. He's probably right. Schlosser depicts a powerful industry benefiting from unfair laws and the shocking exploitation of desperate illegal immigrants. My solution: End corporate welfare and crack down on illegal immigrants. Schlossel's solution: Throw money at OSHA. It makes sense that OSHA should heal the beef industry, given its demonstrated skill at comforting cows.
Yep - stop shoveling tax money to corporations, please. And the beef industry chapters were very powerfully written - from the feed lots to the slaughterhouses.

Put the book on your wishlist. And switch to chicken instead of fast food hamburgers. Mark those words.


Posted by hln at November 17, 2003 10:03 PM | Books | TrackBack

We'd been cutting way back on meat anyway, but reading FFN certainly helped my motivation there. And it turns out buffalo burgers are darn good.

Posted by: nic at November 18, 2003 08:16 PM

I'm always looking for great reading recommendations this time of year, so thanks! Great review.

Regarding chicken--I cannot recall where, but I've heard similar horror stories about conditions in Tyson's plants--the line moves too fast, the conditions aren't always as sanitary as they ought to be, etc. I'll have to go research that, now, and see if I have that right or if I'm mixing it up with something else.

Posted by: ilyka at November 19, 2003 04:13 AM

Oh sure - the average length of life of a chicken is a whopping 7 weeks. (This book confirmed that - I had always heard 6). And I am looking to pick up a book on the processing of chickens; just haven't found one yet.


Posted by: hln at November 19, 2003 05:46 AM

I liked the book as well and have written a bit about it on my site... Another thing that you might enjoy looking at is the following site. It contains a database of organic and non-factory farms. You can serach through it by putting your zipcode in.

Posted by: Mark Maynard at November 20, 2003 01:53 PM