Apparently I missed the boat on this book by a good 12 years … Erich Schlosser released Fast Food Nation in 2001 and made waves throughout North America as he revealed the world behind the counter of America’s fast food restaurants. And it’s not a pretty world. There was a 2006 film of the movie directed by Richard Linklater (of Dazed and Confused fame), but judging from Rottentomatoes, I would stick to the book. Schlosser’s book is thick with facts but remains surprisingly readable throughout its 290 pages. In fact, I would say this book is essential reading for all North Americans right now. Want to know what’s wrong with the world today? Fast Food Nation will fill you in pretty quickly. Now, I’m not saying he provides all the answers or even addresses all the right questions, but this book has a pretty good handle on the problems of the 21st century corporate/consumer world.
One of the things that makes Fast Food Nation so readable is that Schlosser uses stories throughout the book to introduce, illustrate, and summarize the points he makes about the fast food industry. This does not mean he skimps on facts (consider that McDonalds has replaced Coca-Cola as the world’s most famous brand and Ronald McDonald is now only second to Santa Claus in widespread fictional character recognition 4), but rather that he uses narrative to enliven the facts. One of my own problems with reading non-fiction is that facts tend to be dead ends for me. I’m often left feeling like I cannot relate to numbers or that they lack a relatable context. In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser has done a great job with narrative to make his material come alive without sacrificing the integrity of his investigative research. This book should be a case study in how to write successful investigative non-fiction.
I am going to avoid getting into the details of Fast Food Nation because I think everyone should read it. However, the book’s primary message is that our current obsession (and it is a global one now) with fast food is not just making us less healthy and more obese, but it also has a ripple-on effect in the way food is produced. Corporations now control most of the agricultural industry and are driven by profit, not health, good will or any other sentiment. This means that the quality of food the average North American has access to has gone quickly downhill while the risk of food-borne pathogens like E. Coli or Salmonella has sky rocketed. The chapter “What’s in the Meat” is a particularly frightening read that will make you think twice about eating ground beef. Schlosser is quite clearly anti-corporate and with very good reason. Corporations know no loyalties to place or people and instead are driven by the need to increase the bottom line, a position that has produced huge inequalities and injustices across the world. If I were a social analyst, I would say the 21st century is going to be defined by the battle against corporations as the stakes of globalization have now prevented any nation, community, or place from escaping this battle. If there’s one problem with Fast Food Nation, it is that it is relentlessly American both in its focus (despite some work on the global fast food industry) and in its solutions. This is not Schlosser’s fault so much as it is the necessity of selling to an American audience. The Canadian context in which I live is different, so there has to be a translation act of looking into Canadian food policy and corporate culture (props to my father-in-law for pointing this out).
I would highly recommend this book to any and everyone I know. Consider it essential reading for the 21st century.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. Print.