Fast Food Nation | Study Guide

Eric Schlosser

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Fast Food Nation | Part 2, Chapter 9 : Meat and Potatoes (What's in the Meat) | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • In this chapter Eric Schlosser describes foodborne illnesses and epidemics in the United States and traces them to fast food's emphasis on sales and efficiency over safe preparation. It also details the struggle to pass legislation for stricter food safety standards.
  • Over a quarter of the American population suffers food poisoning annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rise in foodborne illnesses is partially caused by the newly industrialized food processing system, which can spread infected food across the nation.
  • Food poisoning can have long-term consequences for health, including heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and other serious conditions.
  • Centralized slaughterhouse production has spread the E. coli O157:H7 bacterium, found in cattle. Scientists are still identifying other foodborne pathogens. Many pathogens, such as Salmonella, are spread by contact with an infected animal's stomach or feces.
  • Because of the powerful lobbying influence of the large meatpacking firms, the government can't always order a recall of contaminated meat.
  • Hamburgers, once a food associated with poor people, became popular in the 1950s. Beef replaced pork as the nation's most widely consumed meat. Children, especially, were eating more beef.
  • Toxins released by E. coli O157:H7 are most likely to harm children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. The pathogen is difficult to treat but easy to transmit.
  • Changes in raising, slaughtering, and processing cattle, including highly unsanitary conditions in modern feedlots, have led to the increased transmission of E. coli O157:H7.
  • Cattle are frequently fed dead animals, including cats and dogs from shelters, and waste products.
  • The speed of slaughterhouse production lines makes workers neglect hygiene practices.
  • Widespread distribution of beef spreads contamination wherever the beef is delivered.
  • When Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act in 1906 after The Jungle's publication, the meatpacking industry fought oversight, denied responsibility, and blamed "the greed and laziness of slaughterhouse workers." The industry continues to respond this way to food safety legislation.
  • The administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush cut spending on already underfunded public health measures and hired meat industry executives to prominent positions.
  • The Streamlined Inspection System for Cattle (SIS-C) reduced federal inspection in slaughterhouses, leading to filthy conditions and shipments of contaminated meat.
  • The American Meat Institute has resisted tests by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for E. coli O157:H7.
  • After public outrage surrounding an outbreak of tainted meat from the restaurant chain Jack in the Box, the chain implemented food safety measures, including microbial testing.
  • The Republican Party's emphasis on government deregulation makes the USDA unable to demand a recall of tainted meat. It can only consult with the company and suggest a withdrawal.
  • Companies are not obligated to inform the public, or state health officials, about any recalls. Tainted food has often been consumed by the time it is recalled.
  • A new USDA "science-based meat inspection system," implemented by President Bill Clinton in 1996, gave inspection responsibility to company employees and diminished the control of federal meat inspectors. Employees in charge of "quality control" are overwhelmed by the job's responsibilities as they try to do a job that should be done by three people. Such pressure has led to ignoring or falsifying items on checklists.
  • Rather than change feedlot and production practices, meatpackers such as IBP focus on scientific solutions, using steam cabinets and irradiating meat.
  • In the 1980s and 1990s the USDA supplied public schools with cheap ground beef, more likely to be infected than ground beef for restaurants. Children across the country became ill from eating meat served in their school lunches.
  • After a Salmonella outbreak, the meatpacking industry opposed increased pathogen testing for ground beef shipments destined for schools.
  • Fast food chains, responding to bad publicity, can now access clean and inspected ground beef. The raw beef sold to consumers is typically of lower quality, and consumers "must regard it as a potential biohazard."
  • Fast food workers in restaurants don't always know or use proper food handling procedures, leading to unsanitary conditions and unsafe food.
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