By Tracy Brighten
Eric Schlosser’s investigative journalism in Fast Food Nation uncovers a greedy, corrupt meat industry that threatens people and animals worldwide
I was first introduced to Eric Schlosser by John Pilger in his book Tell Me No Lies, a “celebration of the very best investigative journalism.” Schlosser’s chapter from Fast Food Nation exposes gross malpractice in a U.S. slaughterhouse and is featured alongside unsettling truths on Hiroshima, Iraq and Chechnya. Schlosser’s inclusion in Tell Me No Lies speaks volumes on his credibility as a “muckraker” and the importance of his work. If you eat factory farmed meat, this book might just change your mind.
The changing face of American cowboys
Fast Food Nation is the story of how national identity has been changed by a revolution in the way food is grown, processed, marketed and sold. It’s the journey of a changing American culture where traditional cowboys are beaten into submission by a new breed of cowboy that views land and livestock as commodities, rather than a way of life.
Schlosser’s research takes him back to the 1950s, then forward through five decades. His travels take him from California and Idaho in the West, through Colorado and Iowa in central U.S., and across the Atlantic to Plauen in Germany. I discovered the disturbing chapter that I first read in Pilger to be the tip of a dangerous iceberg.
Exploitation by fast-food giants
Schlosser takes the stand as both witness and prosecutor, presenting convincing evidence without telling us what to think. His evidence in Fast Food Nation has left a bad taste in the mouths of executives at McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King, but Schlosser’s facts remain legally unchallenged after ten years, a point he makes in his afterword in the 2012 edition.
He seeks justice for exploited food industry workers, independent cattle ranchers, and duped customers, especially children. Neither a vegetarian nor a dietary evangelist – “the French fries were delicious” (131) – Schlosser desires to inform; “you really should know where your food is coming from,” he tells Gavin Grant.
History of American fast food
Fast Food Nation chapter names give clear signposts of his journey. ‘Founding Fathers’ (I detect a little irony here), describes the start of fast food when the McDonald brothers used assembly line methods to reduce costs in their food business. With the boom in car ownership and the knock-on effect of a freeway network, city suburbs were born and fed with drive-by convenience.
Cheaper prices attracted families. Schlosser describes how McDonald’s’ Ray Kroc copied Walt Disney’s appeal to children by creating Playlands, Ronald McDonald and Happy Meal toys. We know how advertising works, but this resolute targeting of children takes on a sinister guise with labels for the types of persuasion used on parents – the “pleading nag”, “forceful nag” or “pity nag,” (44) and the portrayal of McDonald’s as ‘Your Trusted Friends’ (31).
Young and immigrant victims
It comes as no surprise that McDonald’s employs a young workforce; the work is unskilled so it makes good business sense. But through the eyes of 16-year-old Elisa, we see the danger of understaffed early shifts when aggrieved ex-employees commit armed robbery. Young workers, immigrants, and the elderly are exploited with low pay, and any attempt at unionisation is stopped with store closure if necessary.
Artificial flavours and smells
In one of the more subtly disturbing chapters, Schlosser visits a high tech building where scientists in white coats are working on the taste and smell of food. At International Flavour & Fragrances in New Jersey, “flavourists” (122) create artificial strawberry milkshake flavour with 48 ingredients, as well as “mouthfeel”. Admitting to enjoying them himself, Schlosser reveals ‘why the fries taste good’ (111) – top secret beef flavour has been added. Even cooked burger aromas can be created in test tubes with no sign of the real thing.
Cattle ranchers squeezed out
In the wake of fast food industry ‘progress’ and in contrast to its de-humanising effect, Schlosser puts faces to suffering. We meet Hank, a cattle rancher in Colorado Springs; a tour of his ranch of four hundred cattle shows his struggle. The expansion of Colorado Springs has caused soil erosion from stormwater runoff, and price fixing by the fast-food industry’s large beef suppliers means a poor return for his cattle.
Schlosser laments “the ranchers most likely to be in financial trouble today are the ones who love the life and embody the values supposedly at the heart of the American West.” (145) Hank represents a dying breed.
A new community has grown in response to the meat packing industry relocating out of the city and it’s not a pleasant one. “You can smell Greeley, Colorado, long before you can see it.” (150) Feedlots of 100,000 cattle fed grain and steroids create vast “lagoons” of urine and manure. Industry modernisation has created regression with ghettos of poor migrant workers where crime, poverty and drug abuse is rife.
A slaughterhouse in the “High Plains” provides the most graphic setting of the book as Schlosser is given an unauthorised tour. It’s a world apart from Happy Meals. Around 5,000 head of cattle are slaughtered and processed each day by hundreds of Latinos. Schlosser witnesses power tools cutting cows “as though they were two-by-fours.” (170) Intestines are wrenched out and meat peeled off “decapitated heads” as workers wade in “a river of blood.” (171) Schlosser hears the “steady pop, pop, pop of live animals being stunned,” (171) the “knocker” shooting all day in this incessant conveyer belt system.
Safety and health regulations flouted
There’s no incentive to improve safety, especially when compliance is voluntary. Sometimes Schlosser slips in a word or two like a sudden punch, “When a worker’s comp claim involves an injury that is nearly impossible to refute (such as an on-the-job amputation)…” (185). Other times he tells a story. Kenny’s exemplary loyalty would have been valued in another industry. He suffers a serious back injury, lungs burnt from chlorine fumes, and a heart attack, only to be fired after 16 years. You can’t read this book without feeling strong emotion.
Hamburger food poisoning tragedy
Next stop ‘what’s in the meat’ reveals the recall of 35 million pounds of ground beef. Food poisoning can cause “kidney failure, internal bleeding and destruction of vital organs” (199), Schlosser warns us. Microbes are spread by faecal material. Put plainly, “There is shit in the meat.” (197) Schlosser’s report on E-Coli 0157: H7 may seem like scaremongering, “A tiny uncooked particle of hamburger meat can contain enough of the pathogen to kill you,” (201) especially as it’s difficult to isolate the source.
Families destroyed by industry greed
But looking at the photograph of six-year-old Alex Donley, I can’t help thinking that inspectors and greedy corporates betrayed him. He ate a tainted hamburger. Schlosser’s report of Alex’s suffering is heart-breaking; “The sheer brutality of his death was horrifying,” (200) recalls Nancy Donley. The way cattle are raised, slaughtered and processed is exposed as a serious health hazard. With each chapter of his journey to uncover, Schlosser strengthens his case for reform.
Why isn’t the meat properly tested we may well ask and Schlosser answers loud and clear. Meat inspections have been reduced and corruption permeates corporates and Congress with meatpacking firms making “sizable donations to Republican members of Congress” (177) to give them bargaining power.
Global spread of fast food culture
The destructive trail doesn’t end in America. Fast Food Nation takes us to Plauen in Germany to ponder the symbolism of the first McDonald’s in a former East German town. Plauen has witnessed “industrialisation, fascism, communism, consumerism” (225) adapting and surviving each new system. Schlosser is outraged by a McDonald’s close to the Dachau concentration camp museum. His doomsday prediction, “few places on earth seem too remote for the golden arches,” (230) is hard to dismiss. McDonald’s is the most well-known brand in the world, responsible for a “homogenised international culture” (229) that promises modernisation.
Supersize health threat
Schlosser echoes the public concern about obesity as fast food changes our eating habits. With Supersize fries weighing in at 610 calories, the industry is contributing to escalating health care costs. In his afterword, Schlosser is more positive, citing the growing interest in healthier food.
Organic farming offers hope
Dale Lasater is an organic beef farmer who runs a profitable ranch using natural fertilizers on his land and feeding his cattle grass. Rich Conway’s Red Top restaurant serves handmade burger and chips made fresh that day. The meat packing industry does at least conduct tests now for the fast food industry, but the problem has shifted to ground beef taken home. Schlosser is hopeful for the future, but I’m not so sure.
Re-considering what we eat
Fast Food Nation is a book that left me thinking long after I had finished it. But if it’s a fast, unsatisfying read you’re after then this isn’t the book for you. Schlosser’s research is extensive and there’s a lot of information to digest, but it’s well worth the time. It’s a book with impact, informing us and challenging our beliefs. Schlosser’s accessible style is a perfect blend of objective and subjective – a powerful combination that will move you.
In John Pilger’s words, journalists “push back screens, peer behind facades, lift rocks” (xv) and hold “those in power to account.” (xvi) Schlosser continues to stand up for improved food and agricultural industry standards. Fast Food Nation takes us on a journey to witness the changing landscape and culture in America and worldwide. We can stand up and be counted. As consumers, we have the power to effect change and this is an industry that certainly needs changing.
Corporate influence of public policy and regulation is also problematic in the UK according to this New Economics Foundation article.
What do you think about corporate power, greed, and negligence in the American fast food industry? Do you think the fast food culture has damaged society?
Pilger, J. Tell Me No Lies. Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs. London: Vintage Books, 2005.
Schlosser, E. Fast Food Nation. The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. 2001. Afterword Eric Schlosser. New York: Mariner Books, 2012.
Grant, G. Indie Bound. 2001. 2 Apr. 2014 http://www.indiebound.org/author-interviews/schlossereric