Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation:
The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

by Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin
288 pages, $20

A passage from Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser's investigation of the fast-food industry, offers the following behind-the-scenes look at the all-American meal:

The safety of the food seemed to be determined more by the personality of the manager on duty than by the written policies of the chain. Many workers would not eat anything at their restaurant unless they'd made it themselves. A Taco Bell employee said that food dropped on the floor was often picked up and served. An Arby's employee told me that one kitchen worker never washed his hands at work after doing engine repairs on his car. And several employees at the same McDonald's restaurant in Colorado Springs independently provided details about a cockroach infestation in the milk-shake machine and about armies of mice that urinated and defecated on hamburger rolls left out to thaw in the kitchen every night.

Schlosser's book is not just a compendium of kitchen horror stories. In clean, sober prose packed with facts, he strips away the carefully crafted feel-good veneer of fast food and shows how the industry's astounding success has been achieved, and is sustained, at an equally astounding cost—to the nation's health, environment, economy, and culture.

Nineteen-forties Southern California, with its recent population explosion, thriving car culture, and post-war economic boom, is the setting for the opening scene of this far-reaching narrative. It was in San Bernadino, in 1948, that Richard and Maurice McDonald invented the Speedee Service System, pioneering the idea that assembly-line efficiency could be imported into a commercial kitchen, and giving rise to the fast-food restaurant. Schlosser chronicles the early days of the industry, when it was populated by self-made entrepreneurs who pursued the American dream with good old-fashioned ingenuity and hard work. Among these was Ray Kroc, who bought out the McDonald brothers and became the driving force behind the hamburger empire that is now the world's most recognizable brand name.

The first part of Fast Food Nation looks inside this industry that "both feeds and feeds off the young." Trailblazers in developing marketing strategies to target children, the fast-food chains have even infiltrated the nation's schools through lunchroom franchises and special advertising packages that answer public education's need for funds. Schlosser then takes us "behind the counter" in Colorado Springs, a typical American suburb overtaken by sprawl, where teenagers—perfect candidates for low-paying, low-skilled, short-term jobs—constitute a large part of the fast-food chains' workforce.

In the second half of the book Schlosser examines the ripple effects of the fast-food industry's entrenchment in American life. "The fast food chains now stand atop a huge food-industrial complex that has gained control of American agriculture," he writes. The industry's massive demand for beef has led to the industrialization of cattle-raising and meatpacking, which has crippled independent ranchers and given rise to "rural ghettos" around meatpacking plants. The conditions in the big slaughterhouses pose a grave threat to worker safety. Schlosser also discloses shocking details about the industry's impact on public health. (One memorable study concludes that there is more fecal bacteria in the average American kitchen sink than on the average American toilet seat.) With respect to both worker safety and food safety, the meatpacking industry, Schlosser contends, has shrugged off accusations of negligence and used its considerable political clout to disable any attempts at meaningful government regulation. Today the USDA has startlingly little control over the detection of pathogens in meat and the distribution of contaminated meat.

Schlosser also reports on other trends attendant upon the enormous growth of the fast-food industry, including the homogenization of the landscape, a rise in obesity, and the development of a robust flavor industry. The chapter on the flavor industry, a modified version of which appears in The Atlantic's January issue, reveals the extraordinary extent to which the smell and taste of modern foods originate in a test tube.

Eric Schlosser is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His two-part series examining the enforcement of marijuana laws in America, "Reefer Madness" and "Marijuana and the Law" (August and September, 1994), won a National Magazine Award for reporting, and he received a Sidney Hillman Foundation award for his article about California's strawberry industry, "In the Strawberry Fields" (November 1995). He has also written about the families of homicide victims, the "prison-industrial complex," and the pornography business. Fast Food Nation is his first book. Julia Livshin recently interviewed him by phone and e-mail for Atlantic Unbound.

Eric Schlosser
Eric Schlosser

You write that the market for fast food in the United States is becoming increasingly saturated. What sort of future do you see for the fast-food industry? Might it become obsolete?

That's a very good question. In a way, the future of the fast-food industry is tied to the future of this country. If we continue to allow the growth of a low-wage service economy, one in which unions are weak and workers have little say about their working conditions—well, then the fast-food chains will have a bright future. On the other hand, if we bring the minimum wage up to the level it was thirty years ago, in real terms, and we enforce the rules about overtime, and make it easier to organize service workers, the fast-food chains will have to change their business model. Or go out of business. Access to cheap labor, and a lot of it, has been crucial to their success.

I also think that the desire for uniformity and cheapness and reassurance that the American people have had over the last two decades, which has really helped the fast-food chains, could wane. People may become more concerned about what they're eating and reject the idea that everything should be the same everywhere they go. The chains are in a vulnerable position right now, if only because they've expanded so far and wide across the country that they're already reaching the limits of demand for fast food. And if there's a different consciousness in this country, something less conformist, they may really be in trouble.

From an economic standpoint, are the fast-food chains providing something valuable?

Well, there's no question that they're providing jobs for millions of people. At the same time, how good is it ultimately for society to have jobs that are short-term and that essentially provide no training? You could argue that for some teenagers short-term jobs are a good thing as a source of extra income. But I would argue that there should be a major restructuring of the fast-food industry's employment practices so that these aren't just make-work jobs but jobs that actually provide a meaningful kind of training. For the poorest, most disadvantaged people in this society, simply having a job and having some kind of structure in their lives can be useful. But given the tremendous impact that these companies have on our workforce, they can and should provide more than just a place to show up every day.

Another thing that's important to consider is the sort of work that these fast-food jobs have replaced. The old diners and hamburger stands relied on skilled short-order cooks. If you look at the restaurant industry as a whole, jobs at fast-food chains are the lowest paying and have the highest turnover rate. So to the degree that the fast-food companies have grown and thrived and replaced more traditional eating places, they have encouraged the rise of a workforce that is poor, transient, and unskilled.

Same question from the standpoint of food. Fast food is convenient and cheap. Is the fast-food industry providing a valuable service by catering to the consumer needs of a certain segment of society?

There's no question that fast food is inexpensive and easily accessible. For people who don't have time to prepare meals, for households in which both parents work, there's no question it provides a service. But again, at what cost? As I say in the book, the real cost never appears on the menu. The fast-food companies have directed a large amount of their marketing at low-income communities. They are serving extremely high-fat food to people who are at the greatest risk of the health consequences from obesity. They could be selling low cost food that doesn't have the same health consequences, especially for children. The fast-food chains, with their kids' meals and Happy Meals, are creating eating habits that will last a lifetime. And by heavily marketing unhealthy foods to low-income children they are encouraging health problems among the segment of the population that can least afford them.

If you see a change for the better taking place, do you envision these same companies changing their own policies about what they're going to be marketing and holding their suppliers to more stringent food production standards, or do you see a whole new industry taking over?

I think it'll be determined by how easily these companies can change. The McDonald's Corporation, at the moment, in many ways reminds me of the Soviet-era Kremlin. I was unable to get a single question answered after weeks of calling them, e-mailing them, and faxing them. It was what I imagine it must have been like dealing with the old Communist Party bureaucrats. Can the McDonald's Corporation remake itself into a company that behaves ethically, has a stronger social conscience, and changes its menu? That remains to be seen. It may be that new companies will emerge, embodying a different set of values, selling better and healthier food.

Both this book about fast food and your article about strawberry picking are concerned with the plight of workers in these industries. How did you get interested in labor issues?

There are strong connections between the strawberry article and this book. The workers that I met in the meatpacking plants in Colorado and Nebraska were the same kinds of people that I met in the strawberry fields of California. Many of the meatpacking workers that I met in Colorado and Nebraska had previously been farm workers in California. They'd come to the High Plains because there was a shortage of work in the fields in California and because the pay promised to be higher in Colorado and Nebraska. Although I was appalled at the lives of California's migrant farm workers and the injuries they suffer, what's happening in meatpacking plants in Colorado and Nebraska, in Kansas and Texas, is even worse. It's criminal. These are poor immigrants, few of them speak English, and a large proportion are illiterate. They are peasants, manual laborers from rural villages in Mexico and Guatemala. When they get badly hurt in these meatpacking plants, which happens all the time, they're unable to do manual labor the same way ever again. They are permanently prevented from earning an income the way that they have earned an income their whole lives.

Much of this book builds upon what I learned in California's strawberry fields. My interest in the subject of immigrant labor began in the mid 1990s when there was a growing anti-immigrant movement in California. Illegal immigrants were being blamed for all of the state's economic problems. And I instinctively felt that couldn't be right, because it seemed to me that the largest industry in the state—agriculture—was benefiting enormously from illegal immigrants. Today there's a vast underclass of migrant workers in this country. We've had a migrant agricultural workforce for more than a century. But for the first time we're developing a migrant industrial workforce. This has ominous implications for workers in other industries. Until the late 1970s, meatpacking was one of the highest paid industrial jobs in the United States. And then the Reagan and Bush administrations stood aside and allowed the meatpacking industry to bust unions, to hire strikebreakers and scabs, to not only hire illegal immigrants for these jobs, but to transport them here from Mexico in company buses. Now meatpacking is one of the nation's lowest paying industrial jobs, as well as the most dangerous. I'm sure other companies, in other industries, are contemplating the same tactics. And it just can't be allowed.

You expose some shocking things about the fast-food and meatpacking industries. Did you encounter any resistance when researching this book? Were people hesitant to speak with you?

People were very afraid to speak with me. These meatpacking towns in the High Plains, in Colorado and Nebraska, are really company towns in a way that almost harkens back to the nineteenth century. The meatpacking companies are the biggest employer and most influential employer in town. The workers are often fearful, and rightly so, because so many are illegal immigrants. So it was hard getting access to some of these people and getting them to talk. At the same time, their fear was counterbalanced by their pain, and by their anger at how they're being treated. Once they felt confident about what I was doing and why I was doing it, they were very open with me. Many of them were very brave.

How about the officials at the meatpacking firms and the fast-food chains?

On the whole, they were cordial to me. Some of the fast-food executives and franchisees I met were honorable, good people. Yet at the same time, these are tough companies that do not like to be criticized. So it will be interesting to see if any of them sue me for libel. My book was thoroughly fact-checked and carefully reviewed by a number of attorneys before publication. But the meatpacking industry sure went after Oprah Winfrey a few years ago. And even though she won her case, the Texas law under which she was sued—one of the "veggie libel laws," as they're called—is still on the books. The meatpacking industry has strongly supported these laws, which forbid defamation of agricultural products. Over the past decade, about a dozen states have made it illegal to criticize agricultural commodities in a manner that's inconsistent with "reasonable" scientific evidence. Basically, they give agribusiness companies the ability to threaten critics with expensive lawsuits. In Texas, a man was sued for criticizing the quality of a sod company's lawns. In Colorado, breaking the veggie libel law is now a criminal offense. If you say or write the wrong thing about the meat being produced in that state, you could be convicted of a felony.

What exactly did Oprah Winfrey say?

I believe she did a show in which one of the guests discussed the risk of various illnesses, including mad-cow disease, posed by ground beef in the United States. Some people in the meatpacking industry felt that ground beef was being defamed, and she was sued in Texas, where they thought there'd be a sympathetic jury. I think the meatpacking industry made a huge tactical mistake by suing the most popular woman in the United States, who under the First Amendment had every right to be talking about the things she was talking about. Oprah won the case, but a defendant with less charisma—and less money to spend on lawyers—could easily have lost.

Writing in the September 1998 issue of The Atlantic about mad-cow disease, Ellen Ruppel Shell noted, "[M]ost of the conditions thought to have led to the epidemic in Britain also existed here. Despite official protestations to the contrary, and despite regulatory changes recently implemented, some of them still do. Given current agricultural practices, avoiding an American outbreak of this disease may be only a matter of chance. The question is, how lucky do we feel?" Now, five years later, mad-cow disease has resurfaced in Europe, creating widespread panic. What are your thoughts about the probability of an American outbreak?

Ellen Ruppel Shell's article was terrific. So how lucky should we feel, right now, in December of 2000? Extremely lucky. But there are so many unknown factors about this disease, and how it's spread, and how long it incubates, that our luck may run out. Cattle in the United States are still being fed cattle blood, as well as rendered livestock wastes from hog slaughterhouses. They're still being fed dead horses. And poultry in the United States are routinely being fed the rendered waste from cattle slaughterhouses. The potential for this pathogen to jump from species to species exists. Somehow it might wind up infecting people. We've taken a big risk by turning ruminants into unwitting cannibals and carnivores. The European Union is now banning the use of all slaughterhouse wastes in animal feed. We should do the same thing, immediately.

Do you think there's a false sense of security, that people in this country assume that since there's a food safety system in place it must be effective?

With each new E. coli outbreak there is a greater anxiety about the food that we eat. But there's still an enormous lack of awareness about how our food-safety system works and how the meatpacking industry has been able to work it. The industry has for years spread large sums of money throughout the political process. And the USDA has always had close ties to the industry. If you look back at Teddy Roosevelt's campaign against the meatpacking industry, you'll find that the same battle has been fought now for almost a century. It's a battle to get this industry to assume responsibility for the meat that it sells. Automobile companies are held responsible for cars that are fundamentally defective, that explode on impact, etc. But the meatpacking industry has, with remarkable success, fought every attempt to make it liable for the sale of contaminated, potentially deadly, meat.

Very few people realize that the U.S. government does not have the power to order the recall of contaminated meat. The Clinton administration made a sincere effort to reform the nation's food-safety and inspection program, but the Republicans in Congress were determined to impede any major overhaul of the system. So what we wound up with is a watered-down food-safety system. One of the most remarkable things is that meatpacking companies today are routinely testing their meat for dangerous pathogens, but don't have to reveal the results of these tests to the government. A recent investigation by the Inspector General of the USDA suggested that companies are shipping meat that they've tested and that they know to be contaminated. By not revealing the test results to the USDA, they're able to ship this meat. It's incredible what is being sold in supermarkets throughout the country as we speak.

You warn that "Anyone who brings raw ground beef into his or her kitchen today must regard it as a potential biohazard, one that may carry an extremely dangerous microbe, infectious at an extremely low dose." And you say that the levels of poultry contamination are even higher. How would you respond to someone who has always eaten poultry and ground beef, has never been sick, and who might perceive this as alarmism?

I don't think that I'm being an alarmist. I'm just letting people know what's in their meat. There's no question that the level of contamination in poultry is much, much higher, and the level in ground turkey is highest of all. The pathogens most commonly found in poultry—Salmonella and Campylobacter—are not as deadly, relatively speaking, as the E. coli 0157:H7 that turns up in ground beef. Keep in mind, though, that every year about 30,000 Americans are hospitalized for Salmonella and Campylobacter infections they got from tainted food. And when the Centers for Disease Control says that there are about 76 million cases of food poisoning in the United States every year, that's not being alarmist. That's a fact.

As for people who think they've never been sickened by ground beef or poultry, my response would be: how do you know? The symptoms of food poisoning often don't appear for days after the contaminated meal was eaten. As a result, most cases of food poisoning are never properly diagnosed. There may be some people with cast-iron stomachs who never get sick, and good for them. But there are millions of people, especially children and the elderly, who are extremely vulnerable to foodborne pathogens.

By the way, I'm not a vegetarian. I have a lot of respect for people who are vegetarian for religious or ethical reasons. Despite everything I saw and learned while researching this book, I'm still a meat eater. But I don't eat ground beef anymore. I've seen where it comes from and how it's now being made. One of my favorite dishes in the world used to be steak tartare, which is raw ground beef seasoned and then served. I think you'd have to be a great thrill-seeker or out of your mind to eat steak tartare today.


Just about anywhere. It's unfortunate, but the meat that's being served in fast-food restaurants by the big chains has been more heavily tested than much of the meat that's being sold in supermarkets. And this pathogen, E. coli 0157:H7, is very hearty. It lives on kitchen-counter surfaces for days, and the consequences of being infected by it can be truly disastrous. So you have to be very careful when you bring ground beef into your home. That's a sad fact for hamburger lovers, but it's true.

Is it a question of making sure you're cooking it sufficiently?

It's not just a question of how you cook it. It's a question of how you handle it. Anything that the juices of ground beef touch needs to be thoroughly cleaned, and that includes your hands. And again, I've been into these meatpacking plants, I've been into the processing plants, I've spoken to people who have lost children to E. coli 0157:H7, and it did not create in me a Howard Hughes-like fear of germs. There are harmful bacteria everywhere and you have to live life fully and you have to eat and you have to shake hands. You could go insane worrying about germs. At the same time, there are certain things that our government could be doing and there are certain precautions that people can be taking that are just common sense. Right now ground beef happens to be a product that may be contaminated with a deadly pathogen, and people should be very careful about how they handle it in their homes. Someone from the CDC told me that the hamburger is a fairly recent invention. And the way that ground beef has been prepared for centuries often involves a long, slow, thorough cooking, as in Bolognese sauce. Cook your ground beef well—or don't eat it. That's my advice.

In the book you quote Upton Sinclair's famous statement about The Jungle's reception: "I aimed for the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." While successful in igniting a public-health scandal, which led to the enactment of food-safety legislation, Sinclair's expose did nothing to improve the plight of packinghouse workers. If you had to choose, which of the issues in Fast Food Nation do you personally feel most strongly about? Where, in your opinion, is the need for regulatory action most urgent?

Well, ideally, you'd hit both. There is an immediate instinct in most people to worry first about themselves, and that's totally understandable and natural. A large part of the book pertains to food safety and what's in the meat and what we're eating and what the consequences are. It's much more of a challenge to try to get readers to care about other people, about poor and exploited people who are in need of help. I hope the section on meatpacking workers will bring some attention to and empathy for their plight. Of greatest immediate concern to me are the forty to fifty thousand meatpacking workers who are being injured every year and the roughly one hundred thousand Americans, mainly children and the elderly, who are being sickened by dangerous E. coli such as 0157:H7. There are some very simple steps that could be taken very quickly that would reduce the number of injuries in meatpacking and reduce the number of food poisoning cases in the United States. This isn't rocket science. It's technologies and procedures that could be implemented if not tomorrow then next month. The tragedy is they're not being implemented right now because of complacency and greed.

For example?

Well, to improve worker safety, there could be an immediate and tough crackdown on the meatpacking companies by OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and strict enforcement of the worker safety laws that we already have. The easiest step would be to slow down the production line. The big beef slaughterhouses in this country process between 300 and 375, sometimes up to 400 cattle an hour. In Western Europe slaughterhouses tend to slaughter 75 to 100 cattle an hour. In Australia it's about 115. The number of injuries at a plant is often directly related to the speed of the line, so the first thing would be to force these companies to slow down their production lines.

As for food safety, the meatpacking companies should be held strictly accountable for the products that they sell. Manufacturers of stuffed animals are held accountable. The government can force them to recall stuffed animals that are defective and that might choke children. In the same way, the meatpacking companies should be held accountable for the sale of contaminated meat. There should be legislation passed immediately that gives the federal government the power to recall tainted meat. It should not be up to the meatpacking companies to issue voluntarily recalls. The federal government should also be given the power to impose large civil fines on meatpacking companies that knowingly ship tainted meat. We should also reorganize the food-safety system in the United States so that there is a single food-safety agency, like there is in many Western European countries. About a dozen federal agencies have jurisdiction over food safety right now. The Department of Agriculture is in charge not only of inspecting our meat, but also of promoting its sale. There's an inherent conflict of interest. We need an independent food-safety agency whose first priority is public health.

In the epilogue you say that the likelihood of such regulatory legislation being passed is slim.

When I wrote the epilogue last spring, the odds were slim. Now they're just about down to none. The meatpacking and restaurant industries work closely with the right-wing Republicans in Congress. Nevertheless, at some point, if enough people demand change and enough pressure is applied, these things could happen. What I'm afraid of is that it might take another large outbreak and a lot of children getting sick for Congress to act.

In the epilogue of the book I also talk about the most immediate way to bring about change, which is through pressure put on the fast-food chains. At the moment the industry is remarkably responsive to consumer demand because the market for fast food is highly saturated and all of the chains are worried about holding on to their customers. The McDonald's Corporation is the world's largest purchaser of beef. I have no doubt that if McDonald's told its suppliers to change their labor practices or their food-safety practices, they would do so—without much delay. Earlier this year, in response to protests by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), McDonald's imposed new rules on its suppliers specifying how livestock should be raised and slaughtered, stressing the humane treatment of animals. The rules set forth how much living space hogs and chickens should be provided, that sort of thing. Well, I'd like McDonald's to take the same sort of interest in the ethical treatment of human beings—in the working conditions and the dangers faced by the people who make their Big Macs.

Looking back at the social impact of journalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, do you believe that investigative journalism today has the same power to effect change?

I'd like to think that it could because that's why I do what I do. At the same time, there are very few places today that are willing to publish serious investigative journalism. The Atlantic is not only the best at it, but one of the last. And it's very hard to get readers to care about these subjects. Whatever you write is launched into a political climate, and the political climate for the last twenty years has not been greatly concerned with many of the social issues that concerned people at the turn of the century.

The food safety issue affects everyone. Whatever your political affiliation, you have to eat. But it's much more difficult these days to get readers to care about people who look different from them, speak a different language. I have absolutely no doubt that if the meatpacking workers being crippled and maimed today were blond-haired and blue-eyed, there'd be enormous public outrage. People wouldn't stand for it. This may sound corny, but the time I've spent among migrant farm workers and meatpacking workers has strengthened my belief that all these racial and ethnic distinctions and divisions are absurd. Again and again I've felt a sense of common humanity, of "there but for the grace of God go I." A lot of my writing has tried to give a voice to people outside of the mainstream. I don't expect my sort of journalism to change the world, but if it can add some shred of empathy or understanding or compassion, if it can convey a fraction of what I've seen and learned, it's well worth doing.