BOOK REVIEW: Fast Food Nation


“Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” by Eric Schlosser. Perennial of HarperCollins Publishers, 2002. 383 pp., $13.95.


“As American as a small, rectangular, hand-held, frozen, and reheated apple pie.”


Far from being a run-of-the-mill exposé on calories and fat grams in fast food, “Fast Food Nation” is a hard-hitting critique of the industrialization of America’s and, later, the world’s food supply. The consequences of this industrialization have far-reaching effects on working people around the world. Fast food chains are at the pinnacle of a giant food-industrial complex that controls the nation’s food supply.

Author Eric Schlosser begins with some thumb-nail sketches of fast food’s “founding fathers.” None of today’s fast food giants were started by large corporations. They were all started by people of very modest means.

Harland Sanders is a good example. He “left school at the age of twelve, worked as a farm hand, a mule tender, and a railway fireman. At various times he worked as a lawyer without having a law degree, delivered babies as a part-time obstetrician without having a medical degree, sold insurance door to door, sold Michelin tires, and operated a gas station … and at the age of sixty-five became a traveling salesman once again, offering restaurant owners the ‘secret recipe,’ for his fried chicken.

“The first Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant opened in 1952. … Lacking money to promote the new chain, Sanders dressed up like a Kentucky colonel.” But despite the modest beginnings of Harland Sanders, William Rosenberg (Dunkin’ Donuts), Dave Thomas (Wendy’s), Thomas S. Monaghan (Domino’s) and others, they have created giant empires that brutally exploit millions of underpaid workers across the globe.

Next, Schlosser describes how McDonald’s and others market to children. Many of these companies have “cradle-to-grave, advertising strategies.” Apparently, “brand loyalty, may begin as early as age two. Indeed, market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name.”

Under the heading “Mcteachers and coke dudes,” Schlosser describes the cradle-to-grave strategy that fast food chains use to market to children. This strategy reaches new highs (or lows) all the time.

Not content to market “to children through playgrounds, toys, cartoons, movies, videos, charities, and amusement parks, through contests, sweepstakes, games, and clubs, via television, radio, magazines, and the Internet, fast food chains are gaining access to the last advertising free outposts of American life,” public schools.

In 1993, District 11 in Colorado Springs became the first school district in the U.S. to have ads for Burger King inside their schools and on their school buses. However, the school district netted little from this, gaining only $1 per student.

Teenagers on the assembly line

In a chapter entitled “Behind the Counter,” Schlosser describes the life of a young woman of 16 by the name of Elisa, who gets up at 5:15 in the morning to get out the door by 5:30. She and the manager arrive at work, and for the next hour or two, get the place ready.

The two of them turn on the ovens and grills and get the food and supplies, cups, wrappers, styrofoam containers, and condiments for the morning shift. They get frozen bacon, frozen pancakes, and frozen cinnamon rolls from the freezer. Plus, they bring out frozen hash browns, frozen biscuits, and frozen McMuffins. Then they get packages of orange juice mix and scrambled egg mix.

The restaurant opens at seven and for the next couple of hours Elisa and the manager work alone, taking all the orders. Later, as more customers arrive, so do more employees.

Elisa works the counter from breakfast through lunch. She then walks home after standing for seven hours at the cash register. Totally wiped out, her feet hurting, she plops in front of the TV and gets up the next morning at 5:15.

The entire fast food industry seeks out teenage, part-time (no overtime, please), unskilled workers like Elisa, because they’re willing to accept low pay, are cheaper than adults, and are easier to control due to their inexperience. Recently, however, middle-class teenagers are shunning jobs at McDonald’s and Burger King and are being replaced by poor immigrants and the elderly (The New York Times, Jan. 8, 2002).

“The labor practices of the fast food industry have their origins in the assembly line systems adopted by American manufacturers in the early twentieth century,” Schlosser points out. In a restaurant assembly line, tasks are broken up into small, repetitive bits requiring little or no skill, while machines and operating systems do the things that require timing and training.

In addition, the fast food industry generally pays minimum wage, more so than any other industry. The result has been that the real value of laborers’ wages have fallen for the last three decades. Worse yet, the industry almost never pays overtime.

Bonuses for managers at many fast food restaurants are tied to holding down labor costs. The result is that many workers are forced to wait until the restaurant gets busy before punching in. Workers are forced to do clean-up after they’ve punched out. One Taco Bell employee “regularly worked seventy to eighty hours a week but was paid for only forty.” Taco Bell has been sued for this practice in a number of states.

The fast food industry is not alone in doing this kind of thing. Wal-Mart is being sued in 28 states for forcing workers to work off the clock, as reported by Steven Greenhouse in his exposé, “Suits Say Wal-Mart Forces Workers to Toil Off the Clock,” in the June 25, 2002, New York Times.

To add insult to injury, the status of fast food workers is so low that customers feel justified in heaping abuse on them. This writer was once told to his face that “your job is so simple that a monkey could do it.” Another customer grabbed me and ripped my shirt when he didn’t get a “Jimmy Special.” There was no “Jimmy Special” on the menu, nor did I know it was a sandwich. Incidents like this are so common that web sites are devoted to them.

If low wages, no benefits, low status, and hard work were not bad enough, more restaurant workers are murdered on the job in the U.S. than are police officers. Most restaurant crime is committed by current or former disgruntled employees.

Out of the frying pan; into the fire

If the life of a fast food worker is bad, workers in the meatpacking industry have it much worse.

In 1961, two former Swift & Co. executives, Currier Holman and A.D. Anderson, started Iowa Beef Packers-better known as IBP. Over the course of 20 years, these two led the meatpacking industry back to the days of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

IBP created “a mass production system that employed a de-skilled workforce, … put its new slaughterhouses in rural areas … far away from the urban strongholds of the nation’s labor unions.” In 1970, the IBP broke its labor unions with the help of La Cosa Nostra, and the stage was set for sweatshop heaven.

At a ConAgra slaughterhouse in Greeley, Col., the workers mainly come from Mexico, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Base pay is $9.25 per hour; when adjusted for inflation, that’s one-third lower than what the same plant paid 40 years ago.

The annual turnover rate of workers on the job is 400 percent. On average, a worker quits or is fired every three months. Schlosser points out that “far from being a liability, a high turnover rate in the meatpacking industry-as in the fast food industry-also helps maintain a workforce that is harder to unionize and much easier to control.”

“Meatpacking is now the most dangerous job in the United States. The injury rate in a slaughterhouse is about three times higher than the rate in a typical American factory. Every year, more than one quarter of the meatpacking workers in this country-roughly forty thousand men and women-suffer an injury or a work related illness that requires medical attention beyond first aid.”

However, there are big incentives not to report injuries. “The annual bonuses of plant foremen and supervisors are often based in part on the injury rate of their workers.” The main cause of the high injury rate is the speed of the disassembly line. The list of the injuries is long and bloody.

But, speaking of speed, it’s the speed of the disassembly line that’s one of the major causes of food-borne illness from E.coli 0157:H7 bacteria. The other major causes are crowded feedlots and industrial-size hamburger grinders.

The stomachs and intestines of cattle, where the E.coli 0157:H7 live, are still removed by hand. This job takes about six months’ practice to do well. But with high turnover and the high speed of the line, it is not done well. Twenty percent of cattle can have their guts spilled onto the carcasses being processed on the line, which can then contaminate many others.

This willful disregard for the consumer’s health is all done in the name of profits. But because capitalism lives by the profit, for the profit, and of the profit, decades go by, Republicans and then Democrats rule, and still little or nothing gets done.

If not for the sake of profit, however, the whole meatpacking industry could be cleaned up in just six months, according to David M. Theno, the man who cleaned up Jack in the Box after its outbreak of E.coli 0157:H7 in 1993.

One big weakness in “Fast Food Nation” is that, while correctly criticizing the Republicans’ support for agribusiness, the author seldom attacks the Democrats. Eric Schlosser acknowledges this himself in an afterword: “In retrospect, I could have been more critical of the Clinton administration’s ties to agribusiness. Had I devoted more space to the poultry industry, for example, I would have examined the close links between Bill Clinton and the Tyson family.”

Both the Democrats and Republicans are tools of big business. Only a system based on human needs, and not on profit, can clean up our food supply and guarantee the well-being of workers. And that system is socialism!

I strongly recommend that everyone who is for social justice read this book. It’s an eye-opener even for someone like me, who has worked in restaurants for 23 years.

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