- Fast Food Nation:
- One Small Bite for
- One Giant Problem for
The jostling lunchtime queue at McDonald's in Manhattan's Union Square
last week resembled the countless others that line up under the Golden
Arches at the same time every day in almost every city in the world. The
comfortably familiar menu, of Big Mac, the Big'n'Tasty meal and the Chicken
McSandwich, was also the same. Only a Robert Mapplethorpe print of flowers
revealed that this was New York, not Edinburgh, Cairo or
- Hungry diners knew what they wanted and wanted what they
got. "It's garbage but it's tasty," said June Darine wolfing
down a cheeseburger and fries with a chocolate milkshake for which she
had paid £2.20. "McDonald's has the best fries, Burger King
has the best burgers, Wendy's has the best chicken nuggets, the burritos
at Taco Bell are good, and I like the spicy barbecue chicken wings at
- Her friend, a large African-American woman called Carmen,
agreed. "It's a quick fix, but it's junk. It's not real food. I'll
be feeling hungry again in a couple of hours."
- America, which invented the hamburger by accident when
Richard and Maurice McDonald got so fed up with diners stealing cutlery
from their cafe they came up with a hot sandwich customers could eat with
their fingers, is the world's number one consumer of fast food. Diners
want their food cheap and they want it to taste the same everywhere.
- But, for the first time, Americans' appetite for fast
food is being questioned. A new book - Fast Food Nation , by American
Eric Schlosser - has lifted the polystyrene lid on the global fast food
industry and the effect it has on the diet, health, work practices and
rural life of America. The global food giants are used to being taken to
task in print; many publishers are still paying the libel bills.
- What makes Fast Food Nation different is that it is not
the predictable anti-meat, anti-fat, anti-additives, anti-non-dairy
anti-have-any-fun rant against McDonald's, Taco Bell, TGI Friday, Burger
King, Pizza Hut, KFC and Domino's. It is meticulously researched and
argued, with stories from the farm and the slaughter house to the table
and the morgue.
- Schlosser, 41, says: "The profits of the fast food
chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of
- notably obesity, food poisoning, rural poverty and environmental
In a country where former President Clinton regularly ordered his driver
to take a detour to McDonald's, Schlosser's views have sparked a storm.
Although the food giants themselves have yet to speak out, normally
commentators are hailing Fast Food Nation as the beginning of the end of
the American love affair with all things fat and fried.
- The New York Times said the book will "not only
make you think twice before eating your next hamburger, but it will also
make you think about the fallout that the fast food industry has had on
the social and cultural landscape". Another critic added: "Every
now and then, some work of mere mortal beings comes along to lift the veil,
or perhaps the hem, of time and let the rest of us catch a glimpse of the
future of our rich, dumb and out-of-control republic."
- Fast Food Nation will reignite the diet debate in Britain
when it is published here this week. Despite growing interest in home
and celebrity chefs, Britons, Schlosser shows, consume more fast food than
any other Europeans. Obesity and food poisoning are growing faster than
at any time in our history. Many doctors blame rising consumption of the
kind of pre-processed, pre-cooked fatty foods that the big chains serve
- What has forced Americans to confront what one
calls 'the horror of the Happy Meal' is the sheer weight of statistical
and anecdotal evidence Schlosser uncovered in the two years he spent
hundreds of fast food workers, farmers, ranchers and meatpackers, and
the food they produce.
- They might have preferred to remain ignorant, but thanks
to TV, radio and the internet most consumers now know that a 'single
hamburger con tains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle'
that spend their last days packed in feedlots full of pools of manure..
America's gigantic meat factories produce up to 800,000 lbs. of minced
beef a day. Poor hygiene practices in abattoirs have led to a sharp rise
in the spread of the pathogen E. coli 0157 . A typical artificial
flavouring found in milkshakes is a cocktail of more than 50 chemicals.
Every day in America 200,000 people get food poisoning, 900 are
and 14 die.
- Americans now spend $120 billion a year on fast food,
more than on higher education, PCs, computer software or new cars, or on
magazines, going to see films, recorded music, newspapers, videos and books
combined. Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast
food restaurant, a meagre two cents goes to the farmer who grew the
Ninety-six per cent of American schoolchildren can identify Ronald
more than recognise the crucifix.
- If Schlosser's publishers had wanted to create a stir,
they could not have picked a better time to go to press. Alarm over
of E. coli food poisoning and mad cow disease is reaching the public for
the first time across the Atlantic. The US last week joined Canada and
Mexico in banning imports of Brazilian beef as a precaution against
- But Fast Food Nation is about more than simply food.
Whatever the brand, Schlosser says, those who consume fast food are taking
a big bite of ideology, if not pure dogma. Although it masquerades as a
healthy mix of American faith in science, efficiency and technology,
spiced with free market principles, the values the fast food industry
are, Schlosser argues, capitalism at its worst.
- The giant agribusinesses and abattoir chains that supply
restaurants are driving America's small farmers off the land. Those who
employ burger-flippers are hostile to workers' rights and have bitterly
resisted minimum wage laws. They invest large sums designing equipment
so streamlined that it requires as little skill as possible to operate
while accepting vast US government subsidies for teaching job skills to
- Fast food firms, Schlosser argues, preach the values
of consumer choice and democracy - as long as it is a choice between
pizzas and microwaved slices of apple pie. As Ray Kroc, a McDonald's
said, expressing decidedly un-American ideals: "We have found we...
cannot trust some people who are non-conformists. We will make conformists
out of them in a hurry... The organisation cannot trust the individual;
the individual must trust the organisation."
- Derived from an essay he wrote for Rolling Stone on the
slaughterhouses of Colorado, Schlosser acknowledges that fast food does
have some things to recommend it. "It's convenient, it's inexpensive
and it tastes good. And people need to eat, but they don't have any time
to prepare their own food." The industry, he adds, employs some four
- What began in the 1940s as a handful of hot dog and
stands in southern California has spread across America and the world.
Can its onward march last? Schlosser says there are signs the fast food
revolution may have peaked. The growth of the big chains, at least in the
US, has slowed.
- McDonald's now derives most of its profits from revenue
generated outside the US. A shift in values - nutritional, social and
- is driving the company to invest in new, more upmarket foods. In Britain
it has bought Aroma coffee houses and, last week, bit off one third of
the high-quality organic chain, Pret A Manger. As most people in Western
countries get richer, they will, Schlosser hopes, trade up from
- 'This industry has been driven by a lack of awareness
of its practices, as well as an absence of values,' he writes.
the essence of this industry is uniformity and conformity. The key to the
success has been recreating identical restaurants that serve identical
food. In a different era, with different values, that might not succeed
as well as it has over the last 20 years. I may be a deluded optimist...
but I would argue that that might be one of the downfalls of this
Hold the pickles.
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