Did somebody say 'fast food'? Try reading this book instead

On Books

January 14, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Every day, a quarter of the adults in the United States go to fast-food restaurants -- spending, in the year 2000, more than $110 billion. That's more than $1 a day per person. More than on higher education or new cars. More than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music combined. The premier fast-food chain is the largest owner of retail property on Earth. According to one serious study of iconography, its signature symbol -- "The Golden Arches" -- has become internationally "more widely recognized than the Christian cross."

All this and much more is laid out in "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 350 pages, $25).

This is a book about America's stomach. It is a chronicle of a revolution in the economy and gastronomy of the United States that while universally visible has been scantly examined. If you are what you eat, for much of America this book is your anatomical portrait.

Schlosser's tone often is prosecutorial. He seems to detest the concept, the products, the entrepreneurs, and the training, management and treatment of the labor force. Setting aside this righteousness of voice, however, I find his case sympathetic and convincing. I don't like the effects of the fast-food revolution, including the bulk of the food it produces and its impact on public health.

Clearly, however, millions of Americans approve -- and say so with their mouths and money. Chain-market productivity and convenience are hugely efficient and profitable. If one buys with care, it is possible to get some relatively healthy foods in some outlets. The industry provides employment for vast numbers of entry-level unskilled workers.

Schlosser writes for Atlantic Monthly and has published articles in other magazines, including a piece on fast food in Rolling Stone, which triggered this book. His work has the accessibility one should expect from an experienced long-article magazine writer -- driven by bright, people-filled, exemplary anecdotes, enlivened by vivid reportage.

He presents a huge amount of information -- social and economic history, food technology, nutrition, geography and demographics. A serious bibliography includes useful descriptions of books and scholarly studies. Footnotes fill 55 pages.

Schlosser begins with the retail side -- selling fast food, from its early days to the present. He is sharply critical of the use of teen-age and unskilled workers. He bemoans that there has been virtually no union organization in fast-food chains or franchises. There are no innocents in the retail business he describes in the first half of the book -- only victims and exploiters and gullible consumers of fat-drenched, chemically polluted, nutritionally damaging industrial products.

Yet the excesses and inherent dangers on the production side are more troubling. The book's second half -- "Meat and Potatoes" -- is far stronger than the first. Schlosser's on-site descriptions of the processes of food production are fascinating, if often repugnant. Worker injury rates in chain-dominated meatpacking are roughly three times those in typical American factories. Federal and state oversight is minimal, and often corrupted, he reports.

For example, the tool used by many of those workers is a knife -- with which 10,000 separate cuts may be made in a single eight-hour shift. They slip. One plant's report of damage to workers, ostensibly overseen by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, recorded 160 such incidents in 1985 -- a year later probed by a congressional committee -- whereas its own internal records listed 1,800 injuries and illnesses.

The same failures of oversight are true for cleanliness. "Far more Americans are severely harmed every year by food poisoning than by illegal drug use," he writes. Yet "the nation's roughly 200,000 fast food restaurants are not subject to oversight by federal health authorities."

Unmistakable developmental geniuses populate the story. None is more successful than Ray Kroc, the guiding force behind the McDonald's chain, and as such a model for many other companies' leaders. Billionaires abound. Millionaires proliferate. The successes in fast food, Schlosser convincingly demonstrates, led inexorably to similar concentration and homogenization of much of the rest of the U.S. retail economy: the businesses of auto parts, weight control, clothing sales -- and more.

In his chapter, "Why the Fries Taste Good," he describes the U.S. potato market today as an "'oligopsony' -- a market in which a small number of buyers exert power over a large number of sellers." The result is a near-collapse of Idaho's traditionally strong potato growers: "Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast-food restaurant, perhaps 2 cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes."

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