Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

reviewed by neal lipschutz

Published in Issue No. 48 ~ May, 2001

The easy thing to say about this sometimes gut-wrenching trip through
the underside of the nation’s fast-food industry is that once you’re
done you’ll think twice before strolling into McDonald’s or one of its
numerous cohorts. Well, it’s easy to say, but it may not be true. 
Just a few days after finishing this broad, well-researched critique
of fast food, I did walk into McDonald’s with two of my kids.  Second
thoughts?  Fleeting, at best.  Call me a bad parent, call me
insufficiently empathetic with the low-paid transitory work force,
call me indifferent to empty calories.  I will plead guilty.  It’s
just that the places are so convenient and the kids do enjoy it
so.

Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser would likely find my behavior
merely unremarkable, not abhorrent.  One of his overriding points is
that no one thinks much about fast food, no matter how frequently they
partake.  Fast food customers, he writes, rarely consider “where this
food comes from, how it was made, what it is doing to the community
around them … The whole experience is transitory and soon
forgotten.”

Schlosser, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is a strong
reporter and a clear writer.  He knows how to weave individual stories
into the web of generalities in order to give a heartbeat to the facts
and figures he parades before us.  He ranges widely in this book.  On
the fast food industry itself he explores its entrepreneurial roots,
the pluses and minuses of franchising, the industry’s fight against
progressive labor laws, its advertising aimed at children and its
international expansion.  He also explains how our fast food nation
has contributed to the massive changes in ranching and meat processing
as well as the health threats in our meat supply.

To a large degree, Schlosser’s complaints about the fast-food industry
are really slings and arrows at the current way we conduct capitalism
in this country.  He sees too much corporate power and too little
government as a counter-balance:

Today the U.S. government can demand the nationwide recall of
defective softball bats, sneakers, stuffed animals, and foam-rubber
toy cows.  But it cannot order a meatpacking company to remove
contaminated, potentially lethal ground beef from fast food kitchens
and supermarket shelves.  The unusual power of large meatpacking firms
has been sustained by their close ties and sizable donations to
Republican members of Congress.

Schlosser realizes, though, that his themes are more universal than
just fast food when he writes: “The great challenge now facing
countries throughout the world is how to find a proper balance between
the efficiency and the amorality of the market.”  The difficulty is
deciding whose morality gets to replace the market’s singular drive
for profits.  And in substituting a moral vision, with its attendant
additional rules and regulations, do we stifle the market’s unique
potential to broadly increase Americans’ standards of living?

No matter how powerful companies become, each individual can still
vote with his feet and simply abstain.  In fact, Schlosser advocates
people stop buying fast food from the broad system that currently
produces it. Multiplied by the millions, such action surely would
force sweeping changes in the fast food or any other industry. 
Businessmen respond when cash registers sit dormant.  But despite
Schlosser’s eye-opening polemic, I don’t expect the masses to soon
change their fast food habits.

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Neal Lipschutz is a senior editor for Dow Jones Newswires. His articles, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, and intellectualcapital.com.