Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, published in 2001, is a well researched, persuasive and at times shocking work describing the excesses of big business and the broad spectrum of compromises that make modern, cheap fast-food lifestyles possible. It is interesting to review this work six years after publication, when a movie has appeared of the same name (late 2006) and when some of the issues raised in the book have gained greater momentum and seen some strategic improvements in the fast food world (such as McDonald’s ‘healthy’ menu options).
The profile of organic foods is markedly higher now than at the time the book was written, ‘good-conscience’ supermarkets have appeared in many countries (Macro Wholefoods Market in Australia, Whole Foods Market in the USA, Naturalia in France) and farmer’s markets appear to be growing in popularity.
I am sympathetic to much of what the book attempts to achieve, but only so far as it is supported by relevant facts. Schlosser’s research is excellent, his facts well supported and his narration outstanding. I felt no reason to doubt the plausibility of most of what was written (especially after reading the notes at the end of the book).
It should be noted that the movie Fast Food Nation is a fictional story about characters working in the various industries described in the book. The book itself is not fiction. It is a piece of investigative journalism with a strong ideological position.
This work is entirely aimed at a US-domestic readership. It is fairly accessible to outsiders, but the information, the ideology and the rhetoric are crafted for the readers Schlosser knows best. His few excursions into foreign territory are limited, clichéed and sometimes flawed.
Schlosser’s skill as a storyteller is marred by a strong tendency to draw the bow just a bit too long. His desire to paint detailed pictures of so many of the (real) characters in the book panders to the USAmerican penchant for the extended ‘local’ and ‘personal’ narrative which can alienate other English-speaking readers. But I’m sure it works for his intended audience.
If just half of the barely relevant scene-setting detail had been omitted, his work would have been sharper and more compelling; less inclined to trigger cynicism in the reader. Instead, I found myself sighing as yet another person’s story was told with too much detail before Schlosser finally reached his point.
Kenny Dobbins was a Monfort employee for almost sixteen years. He was born in Keokuk, Iowa, had a tough childhood and an abusive stepfather, left home at the age of thirteen, went in and out of various schools, never learned to read, did various off jobs, and wound up at the Monfort slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska. He started working there in 1979, right after the company bought it from Swift. He was twenty-three. He working in the shipping department at first, hauling boxes that weighed as much as 120 pounds. Kenny could handle it, though. He was a big man, muscular and six-foot-five, and nothing in his life had ever been easy. P187
Most of this verbose description is irrelevant to what follows: the relevant part of Kenny’s story is a long and harrowing one. A different type of narrative excess is seen below:
On July 11, 1997, Lee Harding ordered soft chicken tacos at a Mexican restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado. Harding was twenty-two years old, a manager at Safeway. His wife Stacey was a manager at Wendy’s. They were out to dinner on a Friday night. When the chicken tacos arrived, Harding thought there was something wrong with them. The meat seemed to have gone bad. The tacos tastes slimy and gross. An hour or so after leaving the restaurant, Harding began to experience severe abdominal cramps. It felt like something was eating away at his stomach. He was fit and healthy, stood six-foot-one, weighed two hundred pounds. He’d never felt pain this intense. The cramps got worse, and Harding lay in bed through the night, tightly curled into a ball. He developed bad diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea. He felt like he was dying, but was afraid to go to the hospital. If I’m going to die, he thought, I want to die at home. P193
It wasn’t the tacos’ fault. The food poisoning was caused by E.coli in some frozen burgers in Harding’s freezer, and that’s what the rest of the chapter deals with. But you don’t forget the tacos, even though they were irrelevant to Schlosser’s factual point. Tacos are fast food and apparently they weren’t nice on that memorable Friday night in July, 1997, so let’s include them for good measure? Guilt by association is a dirty trick.
Too many authors with a strong ideological position sacrifice the good, meaty facts (if you’ll excuse the pun) when they resort to cheap emotional point scoring with little content. Saying ‘you shouldn’t vote for MrX because his policies are cruel and his party is corrupt’ might have a basis in fact, but is immediately undermined if you then say ‘and he’s ugly too’. Throwaway lines give doubters and opponents simple, unnecessary ammunition. Taking cheap shots isn’t a virtue — a lesson that Michael Moore of Fahrenheit 9/11 has never learnt, and which Schlosser also fails at times. Schlosser’s opponents are numerous, coming from big business, the political right (who label him a lefty liberal or even a socialist), and quite a few who just feel he’s un-American. Dropping the cheap shots and focusing on the salient facts would have made the whole work tighter and less tiresome.
It’s not just the overextension of detail and the occasional cheap shots that distract from the point. Schlosser sometimes draws tenuous connections between events or facts and this tarnishes the respectability of his arguments. In line with the often careless USAmerican invocation of Nazism and the horrors of WWII, Schlosser attempts to draw a bad-guys line between McDonald’s, Walt Disney and Nazism: Walt Disney employed two German scientists after WWII who had both been associated with activities which resulted in the abuse or death of concentration camp prisoners. These men had nothing to do with McDonald’s or the relationships between Walt Disney and McDonald’s, but their irrelevant presence in the book serves as a cynical attempt to spray black paint on a canvas that will be thoroughly coated in blood and manure by the end of the book anyway.
One other example of rhetorical over-reach: fast food restaurants cause violent crime. Schlosser details a number of murders conducted at or by workers at these establishments. Without doubt, rotten conditions of employment can lead to extreme actions by some mentally unstable people, but there must be a reason why the popular term for crazed killings is ‘to go postal’ and not ‘to go McDo’.
Schlosser’s presentation of facts, events and purported causality is weakest and most frustrating as the end of the book approaches. He becomes repetitive and it’s clear that parallels in many other industries are somehow to be ignored, as are questions about society and human behaviour that beg attention.
For all the merit of his description of the absolute immorality of parts of agribusiness, the dehumanising tendencies of large enterprises and the bottom-line, and the unhealthiness of fast food from source to table, Schlosser fails comprehensively to take into account social factors in creating this situation. So much of what he criticises as the sins of big business exists in a chicken-egg relationship with the consumer. McDonald’s serves food at artificially low prices, from which producers earn the slimmest of margins and from which consumers can become unhealthy and obese. Who drives this? Consumers have been taught to hunt down the cheapest prices or exploit the maximum in convenience. They can still be depicted as victims, though not necessarily of the fast food business. Greed is not new, but nor is the desire for a bargain. An obsession with the bottom-line isn’t restricted to the corporations. I couldn’t help wondering which is the more effective argument: (1) your actions as a consumer promote the abysmal conditions in the meatpacking industry, or (2) big business exploits employees without regard to morality or humanity? Schlosser barely touches the first.
Schlosser concludes Fast Food Nation with a direct appeal to the reader. Gone is the narrative of facts. He finally says ‘this is me’ and writes about what he feels people should do and why. The somewhat propagandistic style at last turns into a clear personal stance — a refreshing change, as the reader could be forgiven the cynical exhaustion by the end of the preceding chapters. It is, however, also the point at which Schlosser does what so many anti-business-complex, pro-sustainability, pro-organic, pro-Slow writers do: not only does he fail to address individual responsibility, but the perspective of an empowered middle class takes over and he ignores the fact that the desirable, un-fast food is barely affordable for most of the main victims of fast food. Schlosser isn’t on the organic and Slow bandwagon, but the catch-cry is the same: choose to buy something else. When it comes to local food produced in a responsible, ethical manner, the price-point is usually out of reach of the most vulnerable sections of society — sadly also the employees enslaved in the various industries contributing to the black picture that Schlosser describes.
Fast Food Nation is good — if you already believe, or if you are willing to filter out the narrative fluff. It is skilfully crafted as the battle-cry for a sympathetic readership. It is without doubt a ‘must-read’, but better read in the cold light of day rather than in the warm glow of an ideological hearth. Its style guarantees that many unbelievers will remain resolute in their disbelief, but you could hope that the book sews some seeds of doubt in those who are at first determined to disregard even the more horrific facts retold in it.