Fast Food Nauseation

I’ve just finished Fast Food Nation, despite having owned it since it was newly published. In truth, I finally read it because Steve Bigari, a social entrepreneur I wrote about this year, is a former McDonald’s franchisee who told me Schlosser got it all wrong (at least about McDonald’s). That might be true at this point, six years after it was published. But the book is so densely reported that he must have a lot of it right.

In Fast Food Nation, workers are egregiously abused in such casual ways that one hopes the management at Red-state firms like IBP aren’t Christians (if they are, they’re hypocrites). The book enrages in the way that Upton Sinclair’s 1906 meatpacking expose The Jungle did. Schlosser is just as grim as Dos Passos in U.S.A., a trilogy that helps show how and why labor unions were able to form and hold together despite government-condoned acts of violence that are shocking in our milder times, when we prefer killing people with accountants. It becomes clear why market capitalism was under such pressure in the 1930s. (It also becomes clear that one big reason for increased productivity in the U.S. is the decline in alcohol consumption. The amount of destructive drinking that goes on in this and other books from and about the era, including nonfiction books like The Lady and The Panda, makes Prohibition look like a perfectly reasonable policy.)

Of course, both The Jungle and U.S.A. were novels, however realistic (though Dos Passos includes biographical sketches of important political, business and social figures of the day that remain vivid and true.)

Fast Food Nation does not get to that level of writing, but then, Dos Passos was one of the best writers of the 20th century, and truth gets in the way of the vivid conveniences of fiction. There are small things in Schlosser’s book that are irksome – at one point, after Schlosser has gone on at length in exposing frightening practices at the meatpacking industry, he gives them an out by saying “the safety of the food at any restaurant ultimately depends upon the workers in its kitchens.” Huh? (But then, Schlosser really wants the book to be about labor in the fast food business as well as the meatpacking industry). If I were a meatpacker or the fast food industry, I would try to bury him under his own statistics – for all the fast food served in this country, most people don’t die of food-borne illness. That said, I won’t eat hamburger again without thinking twice, just like I don’t drive behind Ford Explorers if I can help it, after reading Tragic Indifference.

At least we’re reporting foodborne illnesses more regularly, as witnessed in the last several months. In contrast, and reminiscent of The Jungle, we’re not really reporting the labor issues. Witness today’s NYT column Thousands are laid off at Circuit City. What’s New?
by David Carr, wondering where all the fuss was after Circuit City dumped its best retail workers.

3 thoughts on “Fast Food Nauseation

  1. I’ve been hamburger-free since reading Schlosser’s book and getting to the line about fecal matter. It helped me delve a little deeper into what meat recalls and how they work.

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