Fast Food Nation | Study Guide

Eric Schlosser

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Fast Food Nation | Summary




Fast food is "a revolutionary force in American life," and interests Eric Schlosser "both as a commodity and as a metaphor." Americans spend billions of dollars each year on fast food, and only a few corporations control most of the nation's food supply.

The service economy, which includes the restaurant industry, creates most new jobs, a large number of them in the fast food sector. In fact, Schlosser says "an estimated one out of every eight workers in the United States has at some point been employed by McDonald's." As the nation's largest employer, the restaurant industry offers the lowest wages, fewest benefits, and least chance of advancement, with the exception of migrant farm labor. Thus, Americans' environment, health, and working conditions have all been affected. Schlosser thinks the dominance of the fast food industry reveals "a distinctively American way of viewing the world." And its influence has gone far beyond the United States.

The American Way

The fast food chains McDonald's and Carl's Jr. were founded in the fast-paced economic environment of Southern California after World War II. Cars replaced trains as the primary mode of transportation, and more Americans moved westward. Brothers Richard and Maurice ("Mac") McDonald developed a service system resembling a factory assembly line for their hamburger restaurant. They got rid of carhops and tableware, thus eliminating staff and making the restaurant self-service. The system cut prices, and other restaurants adopted this assembly-line style. In 1954 the McDonalds partnered with salesman Ray Kroc, an aggressive businessman who, along with Walt Disney, began marketing to young children. Both Kroc and Disney advertised a uniquely "American" brand of patriotism and happiness as well as food.

Most fast food restaurants, such as the McDonald's in Colorado Springs, value obedience and conformity in their predominantly teenage employees. Executives won't allow workers to unionize. Although a good manager can create a positive working environment, managers are pressured to cut costs in any way possible, and some cheat workers out of overtime wages. Turnover is high; employees are responsible for most restaurant robberies. Individual restaurant owners, or franchisees, struggle to turn a profit.

Meat and Potatoes

Fast food gets its flavors through a complex chemical process of artificial flavoring. The potato and meat industries are controlled by a few large corporations, including those that supply McDonald's. Individual farmers, ranchers, and chicken growers must comply with the corporations' demands or lose their livelihoods.

Meatpacking plants have devastating social and environmental effects on nearby towns. The plants employ migrant workers, most of whom are immigrants, in what Eric Schlosser calls the country's "most dangerous job." Workers are frequently injured and killed on the job. Failure to improve hygiene in meatpacking plants has led to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, including Salmonella, E. coli, and mad cow disease. These illnesses affect children most severely.

As McDonald's and other fast food chains open restaurants throughout the world, other countries feel the corporations' impact. Obesity rates are increasing worldwide. Some global consumers respond positively to McDonald's restaurant's advertising and believe the chain represents freedom and democracy. Other international consumers have protested against fast food chains, seeing them as symbols of American imperialism.


The rise of the fast food corporations wasn't inevitable, Schlosser argues, and it's not too late to create lasting change. Congress can pass food safety laws and ban advertisements targeting children, among other reforms. McDonald's can use its influence to improve working conditions in meatpacking plants. And consumers can choose whether or not to support the fast food industry.

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