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A salty look at the industry that asks, 'Would you like fries with that?'

By Julie Finnin Day / February 1, 2001



Fast Food Nation

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By Eric Schlosser Houghton Mifflin 270 pp., $25

Today, 1 in 4 Americans will eat a fast-food meal.

According to "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," Americans will spend more on fast food this year than on books, CDs, newspapers, magazines, and videos combined - about $110 billion. What's more, the golden arches are more universally recognized than the Christian cross.

These and other gristly nuggets make for compelling reading. With a journalist's pen and an activist's fervor, Eric Schlosser offers a troubling view of America through its crispy fries and drizzling burgers.

That fast-food joint near your neighborhood gas station, Schlosser argues, is more than just a quick-meal fix; it's the end point where several long roads converge. Schlosser, an Atlantic Monthly correspondent, takes us down those roads into meatpacking plants, flavor-engineering factories, a day in the life of a teenage server, and fields of ranchers losing the battle against an enormous, industrialized agriculture industry.

He begins with an interesting history of fast food. What started as neighborhood restaurants opened by idealistic young people in the 1950s - Carl's Jr., McDonald's, Dominoes Pizza, et al - has spawned an industry that represents the pinnacle of American efficiency and corporate power. Further, the fast-food industry employs more adolescents than any other and represents this country's largest cultural export.

The most disturbing chapter takes us inside the meatpacking industry, where factory conditions are reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

Whereas a generation ago, the people processing beef and chicken were skilled, unionized workers, today they are mostly recent immigrants, many of whom are illiterate and nonunionized, Schlosser says. Many of these laborers, who are operating lethal machinery and using caustic chemicals, can't protest working conditions without fear of losing their jobs.

Their plight has met with public indifference and industry secrecy - largely, Schlosser argues, because of their dark skin color. And thanks to Reagan-era deregulation, which led to the emasculation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other federal agencies, the industry largely "regulates" itself.

Schlosser's larger point is that while fast food may seem cheap and convenient, its enormous cost to society goes unrecognized.

The social price of employing a vast, low-wage workforce and the health cost of industrialized agriculture and an obesity epidemic actively undermine American values, he argues.

Not all of this expose is dark and dreary. Most, but not all. While the prevailing wisdom suggests the highly efficient business model of McDonald's and other chains is the only way to profit, Schlosser finds evidence to the contrary.

From the iconoclast rancher who refuses to shoot predators or feed hormones to his cattle, to the Southern California fast-food chain In-N-Out that pays its workers benefits and living wages, many businesses are making a profit without stiffing the workers, food quality, or customers.

The author ends with recommendations for change. Congress should:

* Ban advertising of fatty, sugary foods to children under 8, much the same as it has done with tobacco.

* Pass tougher food-safety laws.

* Better protect US workers from workplace harm.

* Prevent the concentration of corporate power (13 slaughterhouses supply most of the nation's beef).

Schlosser's research should give all Americans something tough to chew on. But if you're reluctant to sever a bond with the beloved "happy" meal, don't read "Fast Food Nation."

Julie Finnin Day is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society