Saturday, June 10, 2006


I finished reading Fast Food Nation on Thursday night. This is one of the longest gaps I've had between wanting to read a book and actually doing it. I first heard about it in early 2001 when my friend (and radical rabble-rouser) Brother Jon strongly recommended it to me. He tends to have excellent taste in literature, what with working at a library and all, so I mentally filed it under "Books to Read - Nonfiction."

Unfortunately, I tend to read many more novels than nonfiction books, and while I didn't doubt that FFN was a good book its subject matter didn't immediately grab me in the way that, say, a biography on Alexander Hamilton would. I enjoy food, and have developed a generalized distrust of global corporations, but I am not particularly passionate about either of these items. It seemed like any time I would read a newspaper snippet about an outrageous action in the food industry I would say "Wow, that's awful," then promptly move on.

I think I also made the assumption that the book was exclusively focused on fast food, which I just don't eat that much of. Eating fast food was definitely a treat when I was growing up, something that we would do maybe once or twice a year, usually while on a multiple-day family car vacation. Eating at sit-down restaurants was even more rare, and didn't become a part of my life until I started joining my high school friends for an occasional trip to Chili's. Continuing in family tradition, I only ate fast food when on long car trips.

Looking back, my diet probably became less healthy during and right after college, but fast food wasn't really a part of it. Well, many of the meals I ate at Bears Den (hamburgers, chicken tenders) count as fast food, but not chain food. During my last year in college and first six months or so in Kansas City I ate a large amount of frozen food (microwave dinners and the like), but almost never fast food. Eventually I started cooking all my own meals, a state where I remain today. My fast food consumption has radically jumped since moving to California, but it entirely consists of In-N-Out, which I visit maybe once every two or three months.

Why did I continue to avoid fast food even after gaining disposable income? I never consciously thought about it, but a variety of factors were probably in play. First, since it wasn't a habit of mine before, it would have taken more effort to start than to continue not going. Second, I'm pretty cheap when it comes to things like food, and while a $5 Value Meal may be cheap compared to a restaurant meal it's still much more expensive than making my own meal, or even a microwave dinner. Third, ever since I was young I had this vague impression that fast food was unhealthy for you. I still enjoyed eating it, but my thinking was on the order of "This must be unhealthy because it tastes so good!" Finally, it never seemed very convenient to me; I got hungry at home or at work, where my food was, not during the 10 or so minutes I was in the car commuting. Any time I did go to a fast food restaurant I would need to wait in line inside or in the drive-through, so it didn't seem particularly fast to me.

That's way too much background, just to explain why I thought FFN would be an interesting book with almost nothing specific for me. I practically never eat fast food, so why should I care?

I was prompted to finally pick up the book after Pat read it and underwent a "life-changing experience." Due to his higher sociability Patrick eats out more often than me, including runs to Steak & Shake and other Chicago-area favorites. Still, he doesn't regularly eat fast food, and the few things he told me about the book made me realize it covered more than just the fast-food industry. I also had previously seen and enjoyed Super-Size Me, a great documentary from Morgan Spurlock which starts off focusing on McDonalds but entertainingly and engagingly expands to look at food and health in the United States as a whole. Over Christmas vacation I re-watched the movie with my parents on DVD, and for the first time saw a featured conversation between Spurlock and Eric Schlosser, the author of FFN. It was extremely interesting and insightful, going more into the disease concerns that Schlosser has rather than the weight concerns of Spurlock. He (Schlosser) also talked about how much he enjoyed In-n-Out, which made me realize (a) that it was probably okay for me to patronize the chain, and (b) that he was not a fanatical zero-sum vegetarian. The book bumped up a few slots on my nonfiction queue, and a few weeks ago I checked it out of the library, along with H. P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" and an account of the Tokyo subway attacks; I didn't realize it at the time, but I must have been trying to kick off a horror cycle.

My bottom-line review of the book: it's really good. Despite many superficial similarities to Super-Size Me, it covers almost completely different topics. The book is earnest and authoritative, probably fitting under the "muckracking" banner but getting there through careful research and documentation. It will appeal most to people interested in the societal aspects of commercial impulses, but it's one of those rare books that everybody really should read. Its message is important enough, and surprising enough, that it demands attention. Best of all, this is not a the-sky-is-falling book like "What's the Matter with Kansas" that leaves you feeling enraged and impotent; Schlosser provides detailed information on what is wrong, and equally detailed information on what you can do to protect yourself and enact beneficial changes.

The book starts off with a few chapters covering the history of fast food in America and the effects of the industry on our economy. It's pretty fascinating to read about how a tiny collection of carts in southern California spawned a global empire, and this part of the book can be read as a Horatio Alger tale. Much more distressing is his account of the hardships the industry has put on the labor market. To keep their profit margins as high as possible, fast-food restaurants deliberately encourage high turnover and do not train their workers. His descriptions of the ways the companies cut corners and hurt their workers are pretty sobering.

I must say, as bad as you feel for McDonalds' workers, they are living privileged lives compared to those in other areas Schlosser surveys. The great triumph of this book is the way it shows how everything is connected; because McDonalds is the single largest purchaser of beef and potatoes in the US, it exerts incredible influence on its supply chain, and has encouraged consolidation and widespread cost-cutting in the agricultural industry. People often think of McDonalds as being emblematic of a capitalistic free-market economy, but one of the stunning things about this book is all the anti-competitive or outright criminal behavior of the companies profiled. A handful of powerful companies control the vast majority of beef and potato production in the US, not because they are the most efficient, but because they colluded with one another, drove out competitors, and lied to their own suppliers and consumers.

As with Super-Size Me, what starts as a work narrowly focused on one area expands, and you realize that the influence of fast-food companies expands far beyond their walls. Schlosser says that "what we eat has changed more in the last 40 years than in the previous 40000", and I'm inclined to agree with him. It's not that McDonalds has its beef made one particular way and the rest of us get it the old-fashioned way; the whole industry has been reshaped, and whether we ever eat at a fast-food restaurant or not, we're eating the same beef.

Back to the workers: his stories and statistics about people who work at meatpacking plants will probably be the second-most vivid memory you have after reading the book. The individual tales of people being decapitated, burned in vats of acid, having limbs amputated or the like may be outrageous, as well as the $7000 fine companies need to pay for each death. The fact that one out of every three workers is injured on the job every year brings home just how widespread a problem this is.

Pat said on his blog that this book makes the best case he has seen yet for government regulation, and I definitely agree. In the last 20 years the FDA, OSHA and USDA have been stripped of almost all their regulatory power, and as a result there is no incentive for companies to avoid pushing their workers to produce as much as possible, even when that greatly increases the risks of accidents and death.

The thing most people will probably remember is his description of what cows are fed and how they are fed; much as AIDS cases exploded after people began travelling more and having more sexual contacts, there has been a similar explosion in foodborne illnesses now that cattle feed and rendering have grown so consolidated. Cows eat the rendered remains of dead cows (and cats, dogs, sheep, pigs, whatever's handy), and any individual hamburger will contain meat from over a dozen different cows, so a single infected animal can spread its bacteria over a far larger geographical range than it could have before. There's even more gross stuff that I don't really want to write down, but it definitely churns the stomach in much the same way I imagine The Jungle did a hundred years ago.

Once again, though, Schlosser isn't some radical eco-vegetarian; the current state of American food production is atrocious, but it doesn't need to be that way. He closes the book with a description of renegade cattlemen raising grass-fed cows in Colorado; such a system has worked for most of human history, and with the right kind of pressures it could happen again. He lists all the reforms that ought to take place to protect against a massive outbreak of e-coli or BSE (ban feeding of rendered ruminants, etc.) and then says taking all those steps would raise the cost of a hamburger by only a few pennies. (Once again, government regulations seem like a good idea. If such standards were applied nationwide, even those few pennies wouldn't make a difference since they would apply to all chains.)

I read the paperback which contains a new afterword by Schlosser. In it he talks about the BSE outbreak in Europe, where Mad Cow disease was transmitted to humans in the form of vJCD, and how it relates to the arguments of his book. He also points out that, while he has been broadly attacked by industry figures and others, nobody has refuted the specific facts he lays out in his book. (A few errors were pointed out and have been corrected in the paperback.) He closes with an encouraging and optimistic description of ways consumers have successfully challenged McDonalds to, for example, remove beef from its french fries and ensure cows are humanely slaughtered; because of McDonalds' might, these changes have in turn effected the entire beef industry, this time for good. Little actions by consumers can have a big impact on the food everyone eats.

That was a little long for a book review, and I still left out some of the most interesting parts of the book - his analysis of the global spread of McDonalds, the way America's school lunch program gets the most dangerous meat, and an incredibly depressing explanation of the influence lobbyists have had on our nation's agricultural policies. Still, hopefully this has whetted your appetite (ha, ha! get it?) for more.

One quick note for if and when you read the book - don't ignore the extended "Notes" section in the back of the book. Any time he throws out a statistic that strikes you as odd or outrageous, page to the back; he has done an excellent job at documenting his sources, and he usually provides more context in the notes (which often boils down to something like, "While the official statistics show that one in every three meatpackers are injured each year, such statistics are compiled by the companies in question and may in reality be much higher").

So, what's going to be the impact on me from reading the book? My attitude going in was, "It's probably going to really gross me out. I'm going to regret reading this, because what we don't know can't hurt us." Well, I was wrong... what we don't know can in fact hurt us a great deal. That's part of why I think it's important for people to read this book. It ultimately boils down to giving consumers the information they need to make smart decisions. After the surgeon general started putting warnings on cigarette packs, people were still free to continue smoking, but from that point on they were aware of the risks and owned their decision. People who smoked before then weren't any better off by being ignorant.

My personal take on it is, it's a question of risk. (I'm going to talk specifically about beef, because Schlosser spends a lot of time on it and I enjoy it, but it applies to other areas as well.) You can eat cheap beef from anywhere with a higher risk of there being something bad in it; or you can eat slightly more expensive beef that you buy at certain locations which carries a lower risk of problems. (If you're a socially-minded person, you may also want to consider whether your purchase supports independent ranchers or exploitative agribusiness interests.) Now, even if I only bought free-range grass-fed organic beef for the rest of my life, I wouldn't be able to totally eliminate the risk of getting sick - there's always the small chance that I'm eating a burger from one particular cow who got sick and somehow wasn't tested. But I'm confident that risk is quite a bit smaller than if that same cow was fed to a hundred other cows, whose parts then went into a thousand burgers.

Put in more practical terms: I have two pounds of ground beef in my freezer now, and at some point I'm going to eat it. See the top of this post - I'm pretty cheap when it comes to food, and I won't toss out meat. In the future, I may start getting my meat from Whole Foods... it's not a whole lot more expensive, and they place strict requirements on their suppliers that satisfy the concerns I have after reading this book. If I'm at someone's house and they're grilling burgers, I won't be a prick and say "I don't eat that COMMON beef"; if I control my own meals when I can, though, the relative risk from those uncontrolled meals, amortized throughout my life, becomes something I can accept.

Kids aren't even on my horizon now, but if and when I become a parent, this book will have an impact on how I raise them. I'm grateful to my parents for not becoming a fast-food kid, and would like to pass that on to my own. Hopefully our country's food standards will be higher by the time I have any children; if not, I'll probably be like Schlosser and make sure my kids don't eat beef. The stories I read about kids dying of e-coli were heartbreaking, and the industry's continued refusal to police itself keeps the risk too high.

So, that's about it: when I buy meat for myself, I'll probably be getting "vegetarian beef" from cattle fed with grains and vegetables. I will continue to avoid fast-food places other than In-n-Out (and, perhaps, the occasional Jack in the Box). Besides that, my life probably won't change much... I have too many other issues on my plate to get involved in the food safety campaign beyond my actions as a consumer. Also, I need to do some research on chickens; I'm actually eating about three or four times as much chicken as beef these days, and Schlosser only briefly covers that industry in his book. I'm guessing that the same sort of concerns apply: chicken aren't ruminants, but concerns over salmonella and bird flu show that they also have risks, and I'm hoping that there are similar easy solutions there of eating vegetarian chickens. I'll report back with my findings.

1 comment:

  1. just watched the movie version of Fast Food Nation, it's an impactful flick to say the least... earlier today i passed up a sausage mcmuffin because of it. Evidently it is worth passing up fast food for more than health reasons.