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

Upton Sinclair is alive and well, reborn as Eric Schlosser. In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser has unleashed a powerful assault on the American meat-packing industry and its avenues of transmission of its oft-tainted products to the American consumer—principally McDonald’s Corporation and its plethora of corporate imitators. His book is cogent, detailed, densely researched, and guaranteed to disturb the reader, with every source and footnote provided to deflect the inevitable criticisms from those whose oxen he has skewered (pun intended). He does a fine job of describing the over-commercialization of industrial pre-packaged food and the economic and political impact of the industry on contemporary society, and his work well deserves the attention it has garnered.

Not content with criticizing—where most reformers stop—he proposes practical solutions, suggesting that those corporations who buy most of the meat in the U.S., beginning with the Board of Directors of McDonald’s, require improved safety and purity from its meat providers, and that much of the E. Coli, BSE (mad cow disease), and worker safety concerns afflicting consumers at home and abroad could be rapidly addressed by these Directors due to the economic impact of the largest restaurant corporations threatening to withhold or re-direct their purchasing.

Fast Food Nation is weaker, however, in its omissions and presumptions, and these weaknesses undermine its impact. Nowhere, for example, does Schlosser define the term fast-food. He suggests it has to do with automobiles and drive-throughs, traces this type of restaurant to post-war southern California, and ascribes much of the “banality and uniformity” of modern American life to this nexus. But in the next breath he includes Subway restaurants in the category, which do not feature drive-throughs, and housing subdivisions and mass-advertising, which would seem to have little to do with drive-through restaurants, the post-war period, or any locality. Indeed, automobile drive-throughs are merely a specific technology, and have nothing to do with the kind of food that is delivered through the window, or with the status of those who deliver it. Banks, cleaners, coffee shops, even pharmacies deliver their products to cars through windows, yet Schlosser does not blame these industries for the decline of civilization, as he does hamburgers and fries. If McDonald’s is responsible for so many of the ills of modern society, surely it should get the credit for people no longer having to stand in long lines for a dozen hours each week merely to cash a check or obtain a prescription as was formerly the case. That’s worth selling a few burgers, to most.

Similarly, Schlosser blames the rise of obesity on the spread of fast-food, but omits to mention that obesity also closely parallels the appearance of personal computers, and the rise of two-earner families. Yet Schlosser does not call for the boycotting of Dell or Microsoft or the dumping of our lead-contaminated energy-hogging boxes into rivers, or the return of American women to domestic kitchens where most of the nation’s food was previously and more healthily prepared. If he did, he would probably sell a lot fewer books. Lastly, he fails to mention the high incidence of food poisoning due to spoiled fish, or of E. Coli among vegetables, and he says nothing about those diseases that have been almost completely eradicated from modern America due to successful federal and state oversight, cholera and goiters for example. Food poisoning, in fact, is one of the least concerns of modern Americans, far below smoking or the standard deduction.

His presumptions are equally flawed, blaming everything bad that he has uncovered on “right-wingers” and white Republicans. Right-wing originally meant those legislators sitting on the right side of the revolutionary assembly in the French Revolution, later applied (improperly) by those who sat on the left to supporters of monarchy and state Catholicism after annihilating most of those who had sat on the right. Like the historically-limited term “fascism,” which existed for only 22 years in inter-war Italy but has seemingly become immortal, the term “right-wing” has no application to modern America except in the fuzzy-minded discourse of doctrinaire liberals. While the term Republican is very precise, his contention that Hispanic immigration, legal or otherwise, is due to the economic inducements of American corporations intent on populating their factories with helpless workers who cannot speak English, fails to take into account the fact that every low-wage industry not only in the U.S. but in every developed industrial nation is today serviced by immigrant labor (with the single exception of xenophobic Japan), and for the simple fact that the citizens of all industrialized nations dislike covering themselves with animal blood and intestines and have better employment opportunities. Americans will not accept repugnant or inherently dangerous jobs in any significant number, and will only reluctantly work for minimum wage, as anyone who lives in the real world and has ever tried to hire an employee well knows.

As for banality and uniformity, Schlosser refuses to face the implications of his own analysis and call for the closing of public schools and hospitals—which surely suffer from the same banality and uniformity of the restaurant industry, and for which the introduction of fast-food is commonly a vast improvement over the food previously provided. Assuming that cars are to blame for obesity, he implies that returning to the days of horse-drawn carts would improve national health, and says nothing about the prevalence of contagious disease and animal pollution that formerly littered closely-packed American cities, and he shows no concern whatsoever for the rights of the disabled, for whom a banning of automobiles would mean a return to the apartheid they formerly suffered, and which only the appearance of the personal automobile has shattered. The solution to the problems of technology, in short, are not to be found in a return to Rousseau’s state of the noble savage, but to smarter application of the technology at hand.

In his broader analysis Schlosser unfortunately displays the viewpoint of an 18th century Jeffersonian Luddite, failing to recognize that most of the ills he addresses are the common ills of industrialization and attempts at economic efficiency—however imperfectly implemented—and not in the moral mythology of personal greed, or the bad morals of the author’s favorite political whipping boys, “the Republicans,” and least of all in the color of their skin or on which side of the room they happen to sit. On the other hand, his recognition of the power of multinational corporations to influence politics and re-arrange the regulatory order for their own benefit is largely accurate and demands addressing. But this corporate influence is not limited to any political party, gender, or race, and has little to do with a largely mythical laissez faire economics, which Schlosser feels compelled to repeatedly attack. The saving grace of Schlosser’s book is the solutions he proposes, which are well worth careful consideration by those with the power to implement them. –SiriusReviews.com.

Sirius Reviews

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, 3.5 out of 5 based on 2 ratings
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