Mar 14 2010

Fast Food Nation: The Book, The Movie, The Reality That’s Difficult To Swallow

Published by at 10:18 pm under Reflection Blog,Uncategorized

By Peter H. Smeallie IV

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is the ultimate commentary on the consumerism culture of America. As present in many of our other readings, one of the main themes in this book is how the coldhearted, unsentimental, and greed/profit-driven nature of large, lucrative multinational conglomerates devastates the welfare of human (as well as animal) life and nature. In the case of this book, Schlosser demonstrates not only how fast food culture has become a part of us (citing in his introduction that it literally is in us) and, as the expression goes, how “we are what we eat,” but he also shows us how horrifyingly unhealthy our food is, how nightmarish the food process is (both towards workers and animals), and how shamelessly indifferent corporations have become towards both.

Schlosser starts the book with a metaphor of how fast food culture in our society can be viewed. Using the example of a 4 ½ acre, underground complex that sits below the Cheyenne Mountains in Colorado and houses various top secret government organizations (including the Aerospace, Air Force Space, and U.S. Space Command), Schlosser makes the analogy of the image of fast food being a lot like the Cheyenne Mountain setting: from the outside it seems like a beautiful, idyllic, pristine setting, but beneath the surface is a cold, unnatural world that can often be described as ugly or soulless. Schlosser describes the “good old days” (around the turn of the 20th century) before large fast food corporations took over and industrialized/centralized the food industry. He talks about the “modest,” small businesses of hot dog and hamburger stands in early 20th century California (also, how California, at that time, was a more pristine setting than it is now– rich with many organic farms, ranches, and vineyards that produced citrus fruits such as oranges, etc.), the rise of Carl N. Karcher, a diligent, perseverant fast food pioneer who lived and worked in Anaheim, California, as well as the two McDonald brothers, who started up their business in 1948 and employed such assembly-line business tactics as division of labor, increased speed, lower prices, and higher volumes of sales (which were once reserved to automobile and other manufacturing industries) inside their kitchens, and how conglomerates such as ConAgra, Cargill, IBP, and Excel eventually took over.  Although in the past most beef, chicken, and other food products were grown/produced on small, independent farms and served in local restaurants, nowadays, food production takes place in large processing plants, slaughterhouses, and on ranchlands in New Jersey, Colorado Springs, the High Plains, and Idaho, and the finished products are then frozen, canned, dehydrated, or freeze-dried and sent hundreds/thousands of miles away to individual chain restaurants. As Schlosser puts it on page 8 of his book, “The hardy independent farmers whom Thomas Jefferson considered the bedrock of American democracy are truly a vanishing breed,” and are now being replaced with uniform, identical chain restaurants spread out across the country and world. The food is all the same, and the methods by which food is produced are all the same. In addition to that, Schlosser asserts the unsettling truth that the McDonalds arches are more easily recognizable than the Christian cross.

In his next few chapters, Schlosser discusses how McDonalds, as well as many other giant corporations and advertisers, try to manipulate and/or influence young children. To make them desire their goods, they cement logo images into their heads from the day they’re born, they put fast food stations in schools, and they set up McDonalds Playlands around the country. He talks about the introduction of the iconic Ronald McDonald clown in 1963, when a man named Willard Scott invented him as a restaurant mascot and business motivator, District 11 in Colorado Springs, home of the first high school to sport Burger King advertisements (in its hallways and on the sides of buses), the pervasiveness of soda drinking by young kids, and the ways in which fast food employers view and treat their workers. On the latter, many fast food restaurants push for faster, more technologically advanced, “throughput” kitchen equipment that will reduce the need for training employees—a tactic that the McDonalds brothers used when they created the Speedee System in the 1960s. The employees, the majority of whom are young people in their teens or early twenties, are mostly unskilled, low-paid workers, and the restaurant employers “stroke” them (give them encouragement or make them feel valued) in order to distract them from seeking higher wages.

In the chapter after that, Schlosser discusses “why the fries taste so good,” referencing the coal mine/steel-factory like production of potatoes, the “hour glass” metaphor for millions of consumers and a few producers, the IFF Snack and Savory lab and other plants where scientists/“flavorists” create various tastes through biochemical engineering (using such obscure ingredients as methyl anthranilate and titanium dioxide in everyday foods/drinks like Kool-Aid and candies), and the beef tallow which fast food companies discreetly dump their fries in. Schlosser talks about how the FDA doesn’t require flavor companies to disclose the ingredients of their additives as long as they’re GRA (“Generally Regarded As Safe”), the illusions of tastes (and subsequent “consumer likeability”) that flavorists create through the use of various chemicals (including gums, starches, emulsifiers, and stabilizers), and how flavorists gear their production of different additives on “mouthfeel,” the unique combination of textures/chemical interactions that affect the perception of flavor.

Schlosser continues on in his next chapter about the rapid disappearance of independent ranchers (often romanticized as free, self-reliant “cowboys” of the Old West) to corporations such as ConAgra, IBP, National Beef, and Excel, and how the latter four corporations slaughter 84% of the nation’s cattle. He talks about the “captive supplies” of cattle that the major conglomerates hold, how McNuggets are, just like French fries, cooked in beef tallow, and how much of the chicken produced today (by corporations such as Tyson) contains twice as much fat as hamburger meat. Following that, Schlosser describes the Hellish, nightmarish atmosphere of dark, airless, and windowless slaughterhouses and the condition/welfare of the animals and workers within them. The interior is inundated with animal blood and gore, is comprised of many giant, loud factory line machines (including conveyer belts, vats, etc.), and harbors over 100,000 cattle from feedlots which are systematically slaughtered. Workers, who are for the most part poor, unskilled, illiterate, and illegal immigrants, end up with many serious injuries, including back problems, lacerations, carpel tunnel syndrome, “trigger finger,” and even accidental limb amputations, and, disturbingly, are viewed almost as insignificantly and disposable/expendable as the cattle which are slaughtered there. When a worker is injured, they’re seen as a simple “wrench in the works,” and are then immediately fired and replaced. One such example in the book was Kenny Dobbins, a perseverant, loyal, and hardworking employee who suffered several terrible injuries (including a herniated disk in his back and burnt lungs due to chlorine exposure), worked the most dangerous, unpleasant jobs (such as cleaning out blood vats), and saved the life of an employee, but was then passively fired by the company Monfort after 16 years of service. Schlosser also discusses the incredibly foul odors and filthiness of slaughterhouses, including the large amounts of waste that are simply shoveled into “lagoons.”

In the final few chapters, Schlosser talks about E Coli 0157:H7, and how over the past few decades, various foods/meats, especially beef, have ended up tainted. Although other types of parasites/diseases, including Salmonella, Listeria Monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and clostridium perfringens, have ended up in food, E Coli, which is most dangerous to children and attacks their kidney’s and intestines, has been the most pervasive. Schlosser talks about how FDA regulations allow dead pigs, poultry and horses to be rendered into cattle feed (which cows are fed in addition to grass, grain, and steroids), how excrement ends up in meat, how the government cannot recall potentially lethal, contaminated meat (despite the fact that they’re able to recall non-edible, manufactured goods), the presence of the Mad Cow Disease, and, overall, how Americans should view the production of food, the treatment of workers, animals, and the environment, and the unhealthiness of what we eat in this country (and, subsequently, how we can make a change for the better).

In class on Tuesday, we not only discussed the book Fast Food Nation, but also saw a clip of the author, Eric Schlosser, being interviewed about a fictional, cinematic production of it. One of the striking things about his interview was that he talked about people hired by McDonalds to sit in on screenings of the movie Fast Food Nation and discourage people from watching and/or agreeing with it. The blatant childishness and manipulation present in their actions perfectly coincides with our talk on why so much of the food in this country is so unhealthy for us—it’s produced by callous and greedy multinational corporations who don’t care about anything but profit. They do not care if some food ends up tainted, if their method of slaughtering cattle is inhumane, or about the welfare of workers who produce the food or work in slaughterhouses. They view the latter as expendable, or as simple “cogs in a machine,” and are willing to go to extreme measures of luring in “loyal” customers. In the case of McDonalds, they often target and prey on impressionable young children, swamping them with toys, bright and flashy logos, and covering their schools with advertisements. In the case of flavorists, they often put artificial/synthetic chemicals into food to give them certain distinct, recognizable tastes, and in the case of French fries, they dip the food in beef tallow. Earlier in the class, I passed out a Pop Tart to one student in the class. After eating it, we talked about what unknown ingredients were actually in those types of foods, and then discussed why so many people eat fast food even when they know it’s bad for them. The main reasons that students came up with were that fast food is more convenient and cheaper to buy than most other food (a plus for those who are poor and have very few options), brands such as McDonalds and Wendy’s symbolize “nostalgia” and “comfort,” and people are so seduced by the flavors of fast foods they’ve been accustomed to their whole lives, they’re usually hesitant to give those foods up.  I think one of the most alarming things someone mentioned in class was that they knew someone who once thought meat came from the deli counter at Safeway.

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