Monday, March 19, 2012

A Decade Later, And Still Essential Reading: FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser: An Appreciation

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser. Published 2001 by HarperCollins.

Every once in a while I read a book that does more than entertain me for the moment, or give me something to chat about with friends, or post about here on my blog. Sometimes I read a book that actually changes the way I look at something, enriches my understanding of the world around me and might even make me change how I live. The first book like that was Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States; in college, it was Michael Harrington's The Other America. In my twenties, I read the mind-blowing Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's brilliant, thought-stirring, perspective-changing jeremiad on the ubiquitous fast food industry and the ripples it creates all across our society with every hamburger we eat.

In this recent article from the Daily Beast, Schlosser reflects on the 10-year anniversary of his groundbreaking book and how the world has and hasn't changed since it came out. He talks about how the government has continued to block reforms that would make our food supply safer, how labor conditions are still appalling and dangerous for those who process our meat, and how we're having public dialogues about things like obesity and marketing to children in ways we never did before. For me, the book was a true wake-up call to reconsider how my actions impacted and were impacted by the food industry and society.

Schlosser presents a broad cross-section of the industry and reveals some scary facts in the process. Unlike Morgan Spurlock's great documentary "Supersize Me!", which focuses mainly on the nutritional dangers of fast food, Schlosser's book covers everything from the origins of fast food restaurants in California car culture, to corporate agriculture, to conditions on the slaughterhouse floor, to the flavor and scent industry, to food safety, environmental impact and more. He talks about schools and about marketing to children, and tells us things that shocked me, like how early brand preferences are formed and how marketing executives seek to manipulate even the smallest children. He takes on all these issues to give the reader a primer on the affect of the industry on different facets of American life. Readers will hear from executives, farmers, workers, scientists and marketing professionals- and more.

And the writing? It's firecracker good. Schlosser writes in a punchy, confrontational style that's not afraid to take sides and pass judgement. Don't mistake Fast Food Nation for an objective assessment of the food industry. From a section called "the worst," about the meatpacking trade:
Some of the most dangerous jobs in meatpacking today are performed by the late-night cleaning crews...Three to four thousand cattle, each weighing about a thousand pounds, have been slaughtered [at a plant] that day. The place has to be clean by sunrise. Some of the workers wear water-resistant clothing; most don't. Their principal cleaning tool is a high-pressure hose that shoots a mixture of water and chlorine heated to about 180 degrees. As the water is sprayed, the plant fills with a thick, heavy fog. Visibility drops to as little as five feet. The conveyor belts and machinery are running. Workers stand on belts, spraying them, riding them like moving sidewalks, as high as fifteen feet off the ground. Workers climb ladders with hoses and spray the catwalks. They get under tables and conveyor belts, climbing right into the bloody muck, cleaning out grease, fat, manure, leftover scraps of meat...They routinely spray each other with burning hot, chemical-laden water. They are sickened by the fumes...Jesus [a worker Schlosser interviewed] says the stench in rendering is so powerful that it won't wash off...the smell comes home with you, seeps from your pores...Although official statistics are not kept, the death rate among slaughterhouse sanitation crews is extraordinarily high...The nation's worst job can end in just about the worst way. Sometimes these workers are literally ground up and reduced to nothing.
And he's got 60 pages of detailed notes with sources and a bibliography to back up everything he says.

As for the effect all this had on me, while I don't have it in me to be a vegetarian or a vegan, I have stopped eating at McDonald's and its ilk, and I do pay attention to where my meat comes from and buy organic and local when I can. It's been more than 10 years since I passed under the golden arches for anything more than a shamrock shake, and I don't even miss it. So if you haven't read Fast Food Nation I would urge you to add it to your reading list right away. It's a fascinating, highly readable evisceration of an industry that affects everyone whether you consume the stuff or not. Read it because more people are hurt by ignorance than by information.

I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.