Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Forty-Four: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

I understand the temptation. The food is cheap, tastes good, is ready on the fly, and fills you up. Eric Schlosser gets it too -- he loves the fries. But after reading Fast Food Nation you'll never look at the golden arches the same way again. That may be a good thing.

If this was just a book telling you how horrible fast food restaurants are to people, it would have disappeared shortly after its 2001 publication. But it became a New York Times Bestseller and was even turned into a film because Schlosser goes beyond mere name calling. In fact, one of my favorite lines comes at the end of the book. "The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are business men. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it." In other words, while he documents the overwhelming marketing pressure created by these companies (especially towards children), he also notes we have a say. 

Schlosser is a journalist and he has done his research (the book includes nearly 60 pages of supporting notes), but he is not looking for the headline. There is no single culprit, no single problem, and no single solution. The book takes on not simply fast food, but the culture of fast food in the U.S. and how we have exported it around the world. At times the chapters start in an area which seem to have nothing to do with food, but it always ties into the the food industry. The group taking the biggest hit is the meat industry, and forget McDonalds, you'll never look at the hamburger on your own grill the same way anymore.

Schlosser takes on marketing tatics, meat processing techniques, cattle feeding methods, use of legal and illegal migrants, workplace safety, OSHA standards, FDA standards, USDA standards, school lunches, congressional acts, presidential appointments, franchise operations and contracts, and grass-fed beef. He travels to the restaurants, the factories, the fields around the U.S., to the McDonald's near Dachau concentration camp in Germany, and talks about fast food around the world. He covers so much information that it is clear that this is not some mass conspiracy whipped up in a smoky backroom, but instead the worst case scenario for capitalism which forgets the reason we support it -- for people.

I could offer many stomach turning anecdotes, although to do so would not only just turn you off (ask my family), but would miss Schlosser's point. He did not write this as a "gross out" bestseller, and he gets disgusting only when necessary. Unfortunately, his simply telling of facts is disgusting enough. Tie all this into our increasing obesity issues, which can be clearly tied to our increase in eating fast food (just check nutrition facts at McDonalds or Burger King), and you can see something should be done. Schlosser ends his book with some quick recommendations and I only wish he would have spent more time here. But the one basic one is to ban fast food advertising aimed at children. We banned cigarette advertising and saw a huge decline in smoking. We regulate alcohol advertising because of health issues. Yet food aimed at kids which give them all the calories they need for a day in one meal is allowed? And we wonder why kids are obese? Sure, we need to get kids moving more, but take the low-hanging fruit here and cut back on what kids are told to eat.

One of the best parts of the book is the afterword in which Schlosser quotes the bad reviews which met the original edition. He notes that while the industry and those related to it have called the book nothing but lies, none of them have offered a single refutation of any of the facts he relates. That should give anyone pause to wonder. I'm avoiding details because there are too many, but suffice it to say the book is required reading for anyone who eats. You can still eat whatever you want, but at least you'll be informed about what you are eating.

Oh, and the fries taste good because they were fried in beef tallow -- the Hindus and vegetarians were not pleased to learn that. 

Next Up
Going a different direction as I read a new book about Jesuit life in the everyday world. A friend of mine is a Jesuit priest and my daughter has just signed on to volunteer for a year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, so this seems timely. Plus, I have not reviewed anything for Blogcritics lately so I should do that.

1 comment:

  1. hmmmm, have thought about reading this one but might give it a miss - not because it doesn't sound good, it does, but sometimes ignorance is bliss......