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Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001) is a book by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser that examines the local and global influence of the United States fast food industry. First serialized by Rolling Stone in 1999, the book has drawn comparisons to Upton Sinclair's classic "muckraking" novel The Jungle. Schlosser writes as a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and has received a number of journalistic honors, including a National Magazine Award for an Atlantic article about marijuana and the war on drugs. Fast Food Nation, sub-titled The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, is his first book.

Summary

Schlosser opens the book with a vignette about a pizza delivery to Cheyenne Mountain, home of a US Air Force base. He describes various high-tech capabilities of the base and its extensive defensive system, speculating that if the worst were to happen and the entire base were entombed in the mountain, anthropologists of the future would discover random fast food wrappers scattered among military hardware. Both, suggests Schlosser, would give important clues about the nature of American society.

The book continues with an amazing account of the evolution of fast food and how it coincided with the advent of the automobile. He explains the transformation from independent restaurants into a few uniform franchises. This shift led to a production-line kitchen prototype, standardization, self-service, and a fundamental change in marketing demographics: from teenager to family-oriented. Regarding the topic of child-targeted marketing, Schlosser explains how the McDonald's Corporation modeled their marketing tactics on The Walt Disney Company, which inspired the creation of advertising icons such as Ronald McDonald and his sidekicks. Marketing executives theorized this shift to market toward children would result not only in attracting children, but their parents and grandparents as well. More importantly, the tactic would instill brand loyalty that would persist through adulthood via nostalgic associations to McDonald's. Schlosser also discusses the tactic's ills: the exploitation of children's naïveté and trusting nature.

In marketing toward children, Schlosser suggests, corporations have infiltrated schools through sponsorship and quid pro quo. He sees that reductions in corporate taxation have come at the expense of school funding, thereby presenting many corporations with the opportunity for sponsorship with those same schools. According to his sources, 80% of the sponsored textbooks contain material that is biased in favor of the sponsors, and 30% of high schools offer fast foods in their cafeterias. Anecdotes are given suggesting that students that disregarded sponsorships could be punished, such as the case with high school student Mike Cameron. He was suspended from school for an incident on "Coke day"; while his fellow students wore red or white T-shirts and posed collectively as the word COKE while aerial photographs were taken, Cameron instead wore Pepsi-blue.

In his examination of the meat packing industry, Schlosser finds that it is now dominated by casual, easily exploited immigrant labor and that levels of injury are among the highest of any occupation in the United States. Schlosser discusses his findings on meat packing companies IBP, Inc. and ConAgra and on Kenny Monfort. Schlosser also recounts the steps of meat processing and reveals several hazardous practices unknown to many consumers, for example, the practice of rendering dead pigs and horses and chicken manure into cattle feed. Schlosser notes that practices like these were responsible for the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, aka Mad Cow Disease, p. 202-3), as well as introducing into the food supply harmful bacteria, such as H7 (ch. 9, What's In The Meat). In the later section of the book, the fast food industry's role in globalization is discussed, linking increased obesity in China and Japan with the arrival of fast food. A summary of the McLibel case is included.

In later editions, Schlosser provided an additional section that included reviews of his book, counters to critics that emerged since its first edition, and then discusses the effect that the threat of BSE had on Federal Government policy towards cattle farming. He concludes that, given the swift, decisive and effective action that took place as a result of this interest and intervention, many of the problems documented in the book are solvable, given enough political will.

Growth of the fast food industry

Schlosser describes the growth of the fast food industry as being driven by fundamental changes in American society. From the 1970s onwards, with a steady decline in the hourly wage (adjusted for inflation) of the average US worker, more and more American mothers were working outside the home. In 1975, about 1/3 of US mothers with young children did this. Today, almost 2/3 of such mothers are employed. A generation ago, three-quarters of the money used to buy food in the US was spent to prepare meals at home. Today, about half of that money used to buy food is spent in restaurants - mainly fast food restaurants (in 1968, McDonald's had 1,000 restaurants; today it has about 30,000, and 2,000 new ones each year).

McDonald's Corporation:

- an estimated one in every eight workers in the US has, at some point, been employed by the company;

- it is the nation's largest purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes and second largest of chicken (KFC is number one);

- it has replaced Coca-Cola as the world's most famous brand;

- it operates more playgrounds - designed to attract children (and their parents) to its restaurants - than any other private entity in the US;

- the Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.

Schlosser quotes the farm activist, Jim Hightower, who in the early 1970s, warned of "the McDonaldization of America". He viewed the emerging fast food industry as a threat to independent business, as a step toward a food economy dominated by giant corporations, and as a homogenizing influence on American life. In Eat Your Heart Out (1975), he argued that "bigger is not better". Schlosser says that much of what Hightower feared has become a reality. He believes that the centralized purchasing decisions of the large restaurant chains e.g. McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut now have an unprecedented degree of power over the nation's food supply, as well as "wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences, and spreading identical stores throughout the country like a self-replicating code.

US slaughterhouse operations

These slaughterhouses are mentioned in the chapters, 'Cogs in the great machine' and 'The most dangerous job'.

Eric Schlosser visits a slaughterhouse in Lexington, Nebraska. According to one resident, there are three odors that pervade the town, "burning hair and blood, that greasy smell, and the odor of rotten eggs." As Schlosser points out, hydrogen sulfide is the gas responsible for the rotten egg smell. It rises from the slaughterhouse wastewater lagoons, causes respiratory problems and headaches , and at high levels can cause permanent damage to the nervous system (in Jan. 2002 the Justice Department sued IBP, Inc. for violation of the Clean Air Act at its Dakota City plant).

On another occasion he visits a slaughterhouse 'somewhere in the High Plains' which is one of the nation's largest - he is shown around it by someone with access to the plant who is upset by its working conditions. About 5,000 cattle are slaughtered there every day. Schlosser examines the different processes involved in turning a steer into packaged meat, of which one of the most graphic are the "sticker" and the "knocker." The sticker does nothing but sever the carotid artery of a steer every ten seconds or so. The knocker welcomes the cattle into the building by shooting them in the head with a captive bolt stunner for eight-and-a-half hours:

The animals keep strolling up, oblivious to what comes next, and he stands over them and shoots. For eight-and-a-half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses a few times and shoots the same animal twice. As soon as the steer falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs, shackles it to a chain, and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air. I watch the knocker knock cattle for a couple of minutes. The animals are powerful and imposing one moment and then gone in an instant, suspended from a rail, ready for carving. A steer slips from its chain, falls to the ground, and gets its head caught in one end of a conveyor belt. The production line stops as workers struggle to free the steer, stunned but alive, from the machinery. I've seen enough.''

As an investigative journalist, Schlosser also interviews some of the migrant workers who make up the workforce of these slaughterhouses. One IBP Lexington worker tells him of her journey from Guatemala in search of work as she sits sharpening her big knives in her lap. Others talk about the relentless pressure resulting from the speed of the disassembly line. The faster this moves, the greater the profitability of the slaughterhouse (the three meatpacking giants - IBP, ConAgra and Excel - try to maximize their profits by maximizing the volume of production at each plant), but also the greater the likelihood of injuries to the workers. Whereas the old Chicago meatpacking plants slaughtered about 50 cattle an hour, the modern plants slaughter up to 400 an hour. As injured workers are a drag on profits, many of these injuries go unreported - injured workers who cooperate are shifted to an easier job to have time to recover, or they are sent back to their home country to recuperate and later return to his/her job. Also, as a drag on profits, many are often given the most unpleasant job and their hourly wages are cut so that they are encouraged to quit. As one former IBP worker explains, "They're trying to deter you, period, from going to the doctor.

Targeting of the child consumer by fast food chains and soft drinks companies

In the chapter entitled 'Your trusted friends', Schlosser takes a critical look at this deliberate targeting of children. The explosion in children's advertising occurred during the 1980s, when many working parents, feeling guilty about spending less time with their kids, started to spend more money on them. One marketing expert has called the 1980s "the decade of the child consumer." The majority of advertising directed at children today has an immediate goal. As one marketer explained in Selling to Kids, "It's not just getting kids to whine, it's giving them a specific reason to ask for a product." Years ago the sociologist Vance Packard described children as "surrogate salesmen" who had to persuade other people, usually their parents, to buy what they wanted. The aim of children's advertising, as Schlosser points out, is straightforward: get kids to nag their parents and nag them well.

This competition for young customers has led the fast food chains to form marketing alliances with toy companies, sports leagues and Hollywood studios. McDonald's has staged promotions with the NBA and the Olympics. Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC signed a three year deal with the NCAA. Burger King, Nickelodeon, McDonald's and the Fox Kids Network have formed partnerships that mix advertisements for fast food with children's entertainment. Burger King has sold chicken nuggets shaped like Teletubbies.

The US' three major beverage companies

"Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Cadbury-Schweppes (the maker of Dr Pepper) are now spending large sums (particularly on school funding programmes) to increase the amount of soda that American children consume. Americans drink soda at an annual rate of about fifty-six gallons a person (approx. 600 twelve ounce cans of soda). Coca-Cola has set its goal of raising this consumption of its products by at least 25%. As the adult market is stagnant, selling more soda to kids has become the easiest way to meet sales projections. "Influencing elementary school students is very important to soft drinks marketers," an article in the Jan. 1999 issue of Beverage Industry explained, "because children are still establishing their tastes and habits ... eight year olds are considered ideal customers as they have about sixty-five years of purchasing in front of them. "Entering the schools makes perfect sense," the trade journal concludes."

"Liquid Candy" report; author, Michael Jacabson

Schlosser quotes a 1999 study by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. It describes the main individuals not benefiting from the beverage industry - the US' children.

  • In 1978, the typical teenage boy in the US drank about seven ounces of soda daily. Today he drinks nearly three times that amount, deriving 9% of his daily calorific intake from soft drinks.
  • Soda consumption amongst teenage girls has doubled within the same period, reaching an average of 12oz. a day.
  • A significant number of boys are now drinking five or more cans of soda a day - each can contains the equivalent of about 10 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Sodas like Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper provide empty calories and have replaced far more nutritious beverages in the American diet. Excessive soda consumption in childhood can lead to calcium deficiency and a great likelihood of bone fractures.
  • 20 years ago, US teenage boys drank twice as much milk as soda; now they drink twice as much soda as milk.
  • About one-fifth of the US' 1 and 2 year olds now drink soda. Michael Jacobson, the report's author, describes the marketing practice of licensing manufacturers' logos to Munchkin Bottling Inc., a major manufacturer of baby bottles. A 1997 study, published in the Journal of Dentistry for Children, found that many infants were being fed soda in those bottles.

The fast food chains run ads on Channel One, the commercial television network whose programming is now shown in classrooms in almost every school, to eight million of the US' middle, junior and high school students. And Schlosser states the chains also promote their food by selling school lunches, accepting a lower profit margin in order to create brand loyalty.

For example:

  • At least twenty school districts in the US have their own Subway franchises; an additional fifteen hundred districts have Subway contracts; and nine operate Subway sandwich carts.
  • Taco Bell sells products in about 4,500 school cafeterias. Pizza Hut, Domino's and McDonald's are now selling food in the nation's schools. The American School Food Service estimates that about 30% of the public high schools in the US offer branded fast food.
  • Elementary schools in Fort Collins, Colorado now serve food from Pizza Hut, McDonald's and Subway on special lunch days. "We try to be more like the fast food places where these kids are hanging out" a Colorado school administrator told the Denver Post. "We want kids to think school lunch is a cool thing, the cafeteria a cool place, that we're with it.

Global expansion

Schlosser states that, just as in the United States, the fast food companies have targeted their foreign advertising and promotion at a group of consumers with fewest attachments to tradition: young children. His research reveals that:

  • In Australia, where the number of fast food restaurants roughly tripled during the 1990s, a survey found that half of the nation's 9 and 10 year olds thought that Ronald McDonald knew what kids should eat.
  • At a primary school in Beijing, Yunxiang Yan found that all of the children recognised the image of Ronald McDonald, saying that '... he understood children's hearts'. Coca-Cola is now the favourite drink amongst Chinese children, and McDonald's serves their favourite food.
  • Germany, home of the original 'hamburger' (ground beef steaks were popular in Hamburg in the early 19th century) is now one of McDonald's most profitable overseas markets, with more than a thousand restaurants. "The Golden Arches have become so commonplace in Germany that they seem almost invisible," Schlosser notes. McDonald's Deutschland has put restaurants in new Wal-Mart stores because the latter expects the kiddie factor to create an upsurge in customers.

Exploring the link between fast food/soft drinks and obesity

The relationship between a nation's fast food consumption and its rate of obesity has not been definitively established through any long-term epidemiological study. However, Schlosser points out that it seems wherever America's fast food chains go, waistlines inevitably start expanding.

The United States now has the highest obesity rate of any industrialized nation in the world. More than half of all American adults and about one-quarter of all American children are now obese or overweight. Those proportions have soared during the last few decades, along with the consumption of fast food, with the rate of obesity among US children twice as high as in the late 1970s.

An obese person is someone with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Today about 44 million American adults have this and an additional 6 million are super-obese i.e. they weigh about a hundred pounds more than they should. Schlosser comments that "No other nation in history has gotten so fat so fast". In simple terms, when people eat more and move less, they get fat. In the US, people have become increasingly sedentary - driving to work and not walking, performing little manual labour, driving to do small errands, watching TV and playing video games instead of doing physical exercise. As people eat more food outside the home, they consume more calories, less fiber and more fat.

The obesity epidemic that began in the US during the late 1970s is now spreading to the rest of the world, with fast food as one of its vectors. Schlosser's research reveals for example that:

  • Between 1984-1993, the number of fast food restaurants in Great Britain roughly doubled - and so did the obesity rate among adults. The British now eat more fast food than any other nationality in Western Europe. They also have the highest obesity rate.
  • In Japan, eating hamburgers and french fries has made people fatter. The nation's traditional diet of rice, fish, vegetables and soy products was one of the healthiest in the world. And yet, according to Schlosser, the Japanese are rapidly abandoning this diet. The arrival of McDonald's in 1971 accelerated the nation's eating habits towards an increase in red meat consumption (begun during the American Occupation after WWII). During the 1980s, the sale of fast food in Japan more than doubled, and the rate of obesity amongst children also doubled.

Today, about 1/3 of all Japanese men in their 30s - members of the nation's first generation raised on Happy Meals and "Bi-gu Ma-kus" - are overweight, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer and breast cancer (the principal 'diseases of affluence').

References

Criticism

Loyola College Economics professor Thomas DiLorenzo has criticized Fast Food Nation for denying individual responsibility. He further criticizes the claims made in this book on the basis of them being well-known already and compares it to the well known fact that cigarettes are bad for your health. DiLorenzo also claims that Schlosser ignores the fact that fast food restaurants are introducing healthier options and calls the book a "uninformed attack on the free market in the food industry.

Editions

  • ISBN 0-06-093845-5 (paperback edition 2002, 400pp.)
  • ISBN 0-7139-9602-1 (paperback edition 2001, 368pp.)
  • ISBN 0-14-100687-0 (paperback edition 2002, 400pp.)
  • ISBN 0-395-97789-4 (hardcover edition 2001, 288pp.)

See also

External links

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