Thursday, August 02, 2007

Booknote: Fast Food Nation

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2001. ISBN: 0395977894.

I finally finished reading Fast Food Nation. It is a book I had been meaning to read for a while. A reason for that is that some of our freshman composition classes here read it, and I had to provide research assistance related to topics brought up by the book. I figured that I should read it at some point. Plus I had been curious about the book since I had read Don't Eat This Book (see my note on that one here) a while back.

The book is a well documented account of the practices of the fast food industry. The author is certainly more generous than I would be in saying that many fast food executives are good people, but they are just businessmen. I would say that if they let money overrule their sense of common decency for their fellow human beings, then that does not exactly make them good people (to put it mildly). The book looks at the practices in the industry (how the business operates) and at the food supply itself (where the food we eat at the fast food places comes from). It is not a pleasant picture. In terms of the business operations, we have horrible acts from unsanitary slaughterhouses to poor workplace safety. Then there is the exploitation of workers at all levels of the industry. In terms of the food, all sorts of contamination takes places. To be perfectly honest, after reading this book, if you eat fast food, you may feel like it is a miracle you are still alive. People are likely to think twice about what they eat after reading this.

The book is very well documented (see the notes at the end). It combines factual reporting (figures, history, so on) with some very moving accounts of the various people who suffer from this industry. What the author reveals is a callous disregard for health and safety for the sake of keeping costs low or simply maintaining a profit margin. I was angry when I learned that many things could change for the better, but the businesses choose not to implement them because they would maybe raise the price of a burger by a nickel. Particularly revealing was the segment where the processing plant workers claim they like that they are slaughtering cattle going to the European Union? Why are these days popular? Simple: they are days when the plant slows down, and there are less mistakes since more checks and balances have to be done to meet the stringent EU standards for beef imports. In other words, the foreign nations get better quality than the locals.

On the one hand, one could say the book leaves us with a hopeless note, and to an extent I found it hopeless. It is a given Congress won't really be able or willing to do anything at a decent pace given its bond to the industry. But on the other hand, Schlosser reminds us that consumers have a lot of power. Step one is simply to stop consuming fast food. Step two is to demand higher standards from the fast food industry and to do so in the language that they understand: the language of money. If there are enough boycotts, it may just be what the industry needs to change its ways. And finally do sponsor and consume from places that are independent and actually produce a good quality product. This includes local restaurants, some small chains like In-N-Out in California (a fast food chain that consistently earns high marks for food quality and actually treats its employees well), looking to help the small farmers and ranchers, so on.

Overall, this is an excellent book. I can't quite say it was enjoyable as it made me cringe at times, but it was certainly very engaging and well written. Highly recommended.

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