Fast Food Nation | Study Guide

Eric Schlosser

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Fast Food Nation | 10 Things You Didn't Know


When Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation was published in 2001, readers were met with repulsive descriptions of an industry they had all likely experienced at some point: fast food restaurants. Schlosser's book aimed to frame the rise of fast food as a convenience in light of cultural changes in the United States after World War II (1939–45), as well as to accurately depict ways in which the food preparation fell short of what consumers might consider safe and acceptable.

Fast Food Nation brought many disgusting trends in fast food production to light and had readers across the country reconsidering their next meals. Naturally, the book has also drawn extensive criticism from fast food companies such as McDonald's, who feared it would destroy their brand. Now considered a 21st-century "muckraking" classic, Fast Food Nation started a national discussion about something everyone had taken for granted.

1. Fast Food Nation is often compared to another, far more grotesque, novel about food production.

Fast Food Nation has drawn many comparisons from critics to another exposé about the food industry written nearly a century earlier. American writer Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, published in 1906, is a novel set in Chicago's meatpacking plants and is famous for its grisly and realistic depictions of the gross, mismanaged ways in which slaughterhouses and factories operated at the turn of the century. Although Fast Food Nation doesn't feature the narrative style of The Jungle, Schlosser's book is often viewed as a 21st-century response to the stomach-turning revelations that The Jungle brought to light.

2. Schlosser believes there's one particular culprit that makes fast food in the United States worse than anywhere else.

Although fast food has become a global phenomenon, with chains such as McDonald's operating in nearly every country, Schlosser believes there's one key ingredient that separates the U.S. fast food industry from the rest: trans fats. In an interview with the New York Times in 2006, Schlosser was asked what makes America's fast food worse than other countries' traditionally unhealthy fried street foods. Schlosser explained:

The heavily processed industrial foods are the worst. What particularly worries us about fast food in America is the very high level of man-made trans-fats in the cooking oils. The National Academy of Sciences has said no amount of trans fat is good for a person to eat. In Denmark, McDonald's removed trans fats from their fries. They have yet to do so in America.

3. Schlosser wrote a version of Fast Food Nation for younger readers—without omitting the grisly details.

Schlosser wanted to make sure that his message was heard by an impressionable group of fast food consumers: children and adolescents. In 2006 Schlosser published Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food to reach a younger audience. Although it is classified as a children's book, Schlosser didn't sugarcoat the gross details of the fast food industry that he laid out in Fast Food Nation. He also included extensive endnotes and statistics—a rarity in children's literature.

4. The "McLibel" case that Schlosser discusses in Fast Food Nation became the longest trial in Britain's history at the time.

In Fast Food Nation Schlosser references the "McLibel" case, in which McDonald's sued a British Greenpeace organization in 1990 over pamphlets that had been distributed in 1986 entitled "What's wrong with McDonalds―everything they don't want you to know." The case drew substantial media attention in Britain and the United States, and it dragged on and on through various proceedings. On November 1, 1996, the case had not been resolved, officially becoming the longest trial in the history of the English court system. A judge finally ruled in favor of McDonald's in June 1997, after which a lengthy appeals process began. In 2004 the defendants won a substantial victory in the European Court of Human Rights, after it was ruled that they weren't given proper access to legal aid.

5. Despite his research in slaughterhouses, Schlosser admitted that he still eats beef.

Many readers may falsely assume that Schlosser is a vegetarian due to his disgusting and descriptive accounts of the meat industry. After all, Schlosser has seen slaughterhouses and meat production plants firsthand and described the unsanitary conditions of the locations in great detail. However, he stated in an interview that he is not a vegetarian—and in fact still eats beef regularly. Schlosser explained:

I still eat beef. I've been into the processing plants and slaughterhouses, and I still eat beef. But I'm angry about what's in a lot of our meat, and I think other people should be angry too. So much of this is unnecessary. We can be producing a great deal of beef without many of the harms and without many of the pathogens that are now in the meat.

6. According to Schlosser, only Santa Claus is more recognizable to American children than Ronald McDonald.

In order to make a point about the pervasive nature of fast food advertising, Schlosser conducted a study for Fast Food Nation to determine what percentage of children could recognize the McDonalds's mascot, Ronald McDonald. He learned that 96 percent of American children could identify the hamburger-selling clown. Schlosser claimed that the only other figure with such wide recognition among U.S. children was Santa Claus. The author even noted how McDonald's restaurants were more prevalent and recognizable than religious symbols that had existed for millennia, writing:

McDonald's Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.

7. The president of McDonald's once offered to buy Schlosser a Big Mac.

Since Fast Food Nation took aim at the McDonald's chain in particular, the company was very sensitive about its public image when the book was first published. McDonald's spent money on "preemptive advertising" claiming that their restaurants were, in fact, safe and clean. In addition, the president of McDonald's wrote to Schlosser, offering to treat him to a Big Mac sandwich. When asked about the offer, Schlosser responded:

I think I'll pass on the meal. But I would love to get together with them―privately or publicly. McDonald's has always refused to meet me.

8. Schlosser says the fast food industry wasn't always "evil"—it was once a force for good.

Despite the grotesque depiction of fast food chains in Fast Food Nation, Schlosser doesn't believe that the industry was always corrupt. Instead, he believes that most fast food chains were started by intelligent entrepreneurs who didn't aim to cut corners but that the industry has since slid backward by profiting off of unskilled, underpaid labor and lowering its food standards. Schlosser explained:

In the early days, I think the industry embodied some of the best things about this country. It was started by high school dropouts who had little training, by entrepreneurs who made it big by working hard. Guys like the McDonald brothers didn't rely on focus groups, marketing surveys, or management consultants with MBAs. They just set up their grills and started cooking. It's ironic that what they created turned into such a symbol of faceless, ruthless corporate power. It's a very American story, both good and bad.

9. A professor who wrote a negative review of Fast Food Nation witnessed it adopted as course reading by colleagues in his department.

Fast Food Nation initially received a negative review from Warren Belasco, who taught American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Belasco criticized Schlosser's book for its "sensational tone" and lamented that Schlosser didn't focus more energy on explaining public health risks associated with fast food, such as E. coli. Years later, however, other members of his department began teaching Fast Food Nation in their classes, and he has conceded that the book has had an important impact. Belasco explained:

It's been a wonderful device to wake people up if they haven't thought about this before, which is 99 percent of the people.

10. Schlosser has been yelled at and accused of acting as the "food police."

Since the publication of Fast Food Nation, American consumers have become more concerned with what goes into their food and where their food comes from. The book came out at a crucial moment when consumers were starting to become more aware of fast food's harmful effects on their health and sold more than 1.4 million copies in just five years. However, although many readers embraced Schlosser's conclusions in Fast Food Nation, the author experienced taunts such as "food police" and threats of legal action while speaking on panels about his research.

The threats didn't seem to deter Schlosser. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and Schlosser's copanelist, was impressed with his response to such provocations and observed that:

People would just haul off and swing, and he would take this very soft receiving posture ... It was very Zen, I think. It was very impressive.

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