Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
We Are What We Eat
Eric Schlosser, author of the bestseller "Fast
Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," admits this
much about his subject: it’s fast, cheap, and convenient.
On the face of it, fast food restaurants can be considered a boon
to busy working people, the poor, and the teenagers who find employment
there. But when Schlosser, an award-winning correspondent for Atlantic
Monthly, returns to his alma mater, Princeton University, for a talk
on Thursday, November 14, he will argue that the true cost of fast
food is too high.
"After four decades, Americans’ obsession with fast, cheap food
has transformed towns and farms and flooded the labor market with
low-paying, dead-end jobs," he writes. "The fast food industry
has helped transform not only the American diet, but also our landscape,
economy, work force, and popular culture."
Among the social costs he documents in his book, which the New York
Times calls "alarming without being alarmist," are: the rise
in obesity, the rise in food-born illnesses, the advent of new pathogens
such as E. coli 0157:H7, antibiotic resistance from the overuse of
drugs in animal feed, and extensive water pollution from feedlot wastes.
"These are some of the costs that are not reflected in the price
of a burger and fries at the drive through window, and they affect
every one of us whether we eat fast food every day or never go near
it," he insists.
Schlosser, who graduated in 1981 with a degree in history,
spent two years researching the fast food industry. Last month, speaking
at a conference in New York City devoted to issues surrounding agriculture
and food production, he said, "It’s remarkable how little even
educated, middle to upper-class people in the U.S. know about the
food they eat. How we produce food has changed more in the last 40
years than in the previous 10,000. I had no idea, for example, that
a typical fast food hamburger patty has pieces from 100 different
The tall, lanky Schlosser says he "can remember when New York
City said no McDonald’s," which was as recently as the early 1970s.
He is not a vegetarian — in fact his favorite dish at one time
was steak tartare — but he no longer eats ground beef. He speaks
in thoughtful, even tones and, despite the gravity of his message,
in person his demeanor is easy-going and approachable. Up close, his
eye contact is piercing but friendly. Salon.com noted about his writing,
"Schlosser never comes off as a ‘sky is falling’ street-corner
raver or bullheaded finger-pointer. His fury is evident, but
his voice is measured and his methods are subtle."
Schlosser has been a correspondent with Atlantic Monthly
since 1996; his journalistic awards include a National Magazine Award
for his 1995 article about marijuana and the war on drugs. "Fast
Food Nation" is his first book. It started out as a two-part article
for Rolling Stone, where it generated more mail than any other item
in years. The original hardback edition, published in early 2001 by
Houghton Mifflin, spent nearly four months on the New York Times bestsellers
list. The Perennial paperback, issued a year later, has been on the
same list for 40 weeks as of this writing.
"Fast Food Nation" has been deemed by many a groundbreaking
work of investigative reporting that has changed the way Americans
eat. Schlosser has won praise for his solid research, reportorial
skills, and clean, clear prose that allows the facts to speak for
themselves. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the book "frighteningly
convincing — channeling the spirits of Upton Sinclair and Rachel
Carson," and the Washington Post calls Schlosser "John McPhee
behind the counter."
The book is not just a collection of horror stories about fast food,
nor does it single out the McDonald’s Corporation, although it does
use McDonald’s as a model for the industry. His methodology included
sneaking into a slaughterhouse in the High Plains as well as interviewing
fast food workers and franchisees, cattle ranchers, slaughterhouse
workers, and parents whose children died after eating tainted hamburgers.
He devotes 10 pages to the so-called flavor industry that creates
the signature tastes of much fast food. The national base of this
$1.4 billion industry happens to be in our own backyard: the stretch
of New Jersey Turnpike between Teaneck and South Brunswick. He reports
on a visit to the number-one flavor company in the world, International
Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) in Dayton.
Schlosser opens the book with a description of the origins and rise
of the fast food industry in southern California in the late 1940s
and early 1950s. In fact, he praises the early entrepreneurs for their
hard work and commitment, and with developing revolutionary ideas.
But fully two-thirds of the book is devoted to the impact it has had
in the decades since. He notes how the fast food industry provides
the working poor and teenagers with dead-end jobs with "low wages,
no skills training, and short-term employment." He explains how
high turnover actually helps the chains by keeping wages low and unionization
He gives special attention to the plight of meatpacking workers who
operate the slaughterhouses run by giant corporations with almost
complete lack of federal oversight. He describes nightmare working
conditions, union busting, unsanitary practices that introduce E.
coli and other pathogens into restaurants, public schools, and homes.
In an interview with Atlantic Monthly, Schlosser declares, "These
[workers] are poor immigrants. . . When they get badly hurt in these
meatpacking plants, which happens all the time, they’re unable to
do manual labor the same way ever again."
The cattle ranchers and potato farmers who raise the beef and grow
the spuds to the specifications of the industry are not much better
off. They are, Schlosser writes, "losing their independence, essentially
becoming hired hands. Family farms are being replaced by gigantic
corporate farms with absentee owners."
He also highlights how from almost its earliest days the fast food
industry has consciously marketed to the youngest consumers, labeling
it an industry that "both feeds and feeds off the young."
He told the group assembled at the agriculture forum in New York,
"Targeting children overseas is now the focus of fast food companies.
Children are the least tradition-bound of the population, so the potential
for acceptance is higher. Yet rates of childhood obesity have been
shown to increase as a fast food diet is introduced." He pointed
out that decades ago Ray Kroc, the legendary founder of McDonald’s,
noted that by succeeding to acclimate a child to the taste of fast
food, he could create a lifelong customer.
Despite heavy criticism from some quarters, Schlosser has not been
hit with lawsuits from the industries he targets, which include not
just fast food chains, but the meatpacking industry, industrial cattle-raising
and farming, and the flavor industry, as well as the federal government
(for its lack of industry oversight). But he is not content to accept
praise while ignoring his detractors. He includes in an afterword
to the paperback edition a few not-so-kind reactions "in the interest
The National Restaurant Association, which represents
fast food chains as well as independent restaurants, calls him "the
food police" and says he "recklessly disparages an industry
that has contributed tremendously to our nation." National Review
Online labels his work "McGarbage," and the Wall Street Journal,
a publication Schlosser admires but whom he says used a "right-wing
member of its editorial staff" rather than an investigative journalist
to review his book, called the book "a hodgepodge of impressions,
statistics, anecdotes, and prejudices." Schlosser points out,
however, that "although `Fast Food Nation’ has been strongly attacked,
thus far its critics have failed to cite any errors in the text."
Despite his dire findings, Eric Schlosser remains optimistic. In the
2002 edition of his book he praises McDonald’s for its efforts to
improve its public image, including putting pressure on slaughterhouses
to process cattle more humanely.
"For years," he relates, "excessive line speeds and improper
stunning have led to cattle and hogs being dismembered while fully
conscious." He uses this as an example of how the industry can
use its clout for good (when prodded by activists who prod consumers);
he would like to see the same pressure applied to improve treatment
of its human workers.
The chain reaction that forced McDonald’s to change its formula for
french fries began when a man who is vegetarian for religious reasons
became alarmed reading in "Fast Food Nation" that animal products
were part of the ingredient list. Schlosser also takes pleasure in
reporting that the growth of the fast food industry is slowing. This
year, for example, McDonald’s will open 600 new restaurants worldwide,
down from a high of 2,000 in 1996.
Even more heartening, in Schlosser’s opinion, are indications, such
as stagnant sales, that the American public’s desire for uniform,
cheap food seems to be on the wane. He believes that consumers hold
the key to change.
"Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food. The first
step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it.
The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They
are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers
if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit. It’s
not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it
— Pat Tanner
609-258-3000. Talk by the author of "Fast Food Nation: The Dark
Side of the All-American Meal." Free. Thursday, November 14,
radio talk show host based in Princeton. Her show "Dining Today
with Pat Tanner" airs Saturdays from 9 to 10 a.m. over WHWH-AM
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.