Not a Happy Meal
What does the price of a fast food hamburger indicate? Everything, apparently. In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser explores the toll that the American fast food industry takes on our lives. It is an attempt to measure the human cost of providing people with an intangible feel-good mood, created by the modern convenience of cheap, quick, heavily processed “food.” Many critics have condemned Schlosser’s approach to the topic, citing his statistics as faulty and the overall effect of the book as “muckraking.” However, his most compelling evidence lies in the careful dissection of those who invented, built, and who currently support this industry in occupations ranging from slaughterhouse employee to advertising professionals. Fast Food Nation chronicles an America that is increasingly homogenous to the point of disaster.
The book begins following a Domino’s delivery up a mountainside to a government installation, and leads the reader through a maze of American history that isn’t covered in textbooks. Early 20th century California is revealed not only to be the birthplace of a true car culture, but also that of a nation responding to industry efficiency technology. By exploiting the automobile, a public ready to embrace “Progress,” automation and cheap labor, men like Ray Kroc and Carl Karcher sought to make their name under the twin umbrellas of freedom and democracy (not to mention profit margin). As all-American as anything you can name, fast food has become a serious staple of our daily life and created a cult of franchises that extends into the clothing industry and beyond.
Schlosser offers that in search of a better, more efficient way to serve customers, fast food has permeated our culture to its detriment. The evil lies not in the concept of speedy service and a homogenous food experience, it’s the byproducts of such an industry that erases the concept of the individual. While he admits that fast food is not the sole source of grief for postmodern America, mentioning the shopping mall and suburban sprawl (which are the bane of New Urbanists), Schlosser rightly points out that the real cost of a Happy Meal lies in how it affects the average person.
We’re offered personal stories, not only of the CEOs and giants but also the points of view of those who are variously entangled in the industry. Some of them: a few of the millions of teenagers who have worked the fry pits; the immigrant laborers who have lost their limbs and self-esteem to processing giants like ConAgra, who provide the meat for restaurants and supermarkets nationwide; and the adults and children who have suffered or died from E. coli and otherwise tainted meats. We learn that while experts have pointed out that marketing unfairly manipulates children under eight, they’re the ones most aggressively courted by fast food. “Indeed, market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name.” A child is seen not only as a potential customer, brand-loyal from “cradle to grave” marketing, but as part of a family that must join in the fried mayhem of fun and toys in order to increase the profits. It’s grim, but honest. As Schlosser points out, “there’s shit in the meat,” one can begin to see more and more fecal matter: in advertising, in the exploitation of young adults, in the demands of conformity on millions each year who live in a fast food culture.
In commenting on the actual store employees, Schlosser admits that people who might never have a job otherwise (teenagers, “recent immigrants, the elderly, and the handicapped”) do reap some benefits from the industry. He is just as quick to point out that while these people are being employed, they are still part of what makes the kitchens fire up; they are constantly threatened by replacement. “The strict regimentation at fast food restaurants creates standardized products. It increases the throughput. And it gives fast food companies a vast amount of power over their employees.” Workers are like batteries to fast food companies, easily used and disposed. After all, the “trait most valued in fast food workers is ‘obedience.’”
Schlosser’s book is vast in scope, a sprawling map of the United States both as obvious and invisible to humans as air. The ramifications of choosing to eat at a fast food restaurant stretch farther than one could initially imagine. As American culture becomes global culture, there’s an increasing need to transcend the hype of our pre-packaged daily lives and truly examine the intersection between the personal and political. Schlosser says plainly that “the executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are businessmen. They will sell whatever sells at a profit.” Finally, we are left with the question: At what price profit? In this way, the emphasis remains firmly on asking questions instead of seeking convenient answers in a “fast food nation.”