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This book is not a novel or "literary" work so much as a contemporary investigative journalist's account of trends, key incidents, and actual observed conditions in the fast food industry. Such thematic material as it contains, which could properly be called a series of arguments, is supported by evidence provided by the author. One of Schlosser's primary arguments is that corporations in the fast food industry put profits ahead of public health. They do this by cutting production costs to the point where meat packing workers are routinely injured and where meat quality is compromised when human blood or other substances get into the ground beef. They also market aggressively to children and sell food that is extremely unhealthy due to its high salt, sugar, fat, and refined starch content.
Schlosser interviews workers in a meat packing plant who relate stories about being dangerously overworked and injured on the job. He describes various marketing campaigns from different fast food giants, notably McDonald's, which deliberately cater to children. He touches on the relationship between fast food and poverty, and he devotes a great deal of attention to the extent to which fast food companies study ways to artificially make their products more appealing by introducing artificial flavorings and by increasing the fat and sugar content.
In many ways, the poorest members of society are victimized by the trends and decisions described in this book. Working conditions for many people in the fast food industry are terrible, and the people who buy and eat the end product also tend to be poor. Meat packing plants are shown as exploiting people who immigrate illegally or who cannot legally work in the USA by paying less than minimum wage and by not following reasonable safety or sanitation standards. The poorly paid front-line workers (who nonetheless have a better chance of making it into management than entry-level workers in retail, medicine, or many other industries) frequently do not receive a living wage, particularly when they are kept at the part-time level to ensure their employers do not have to provide benefits.
In many poor communities, fast food is readily available. For a person who does not have cooking skills or access to reliable refrigeration, it is cheaper to buy fast food than it is to try to cook at home. For many families who have lots of children and "nothing to do" in the evening due to lack of exercise options or productive hobbies, going out for fast food becomes a treat. The use of television, which is frequently used as an electronic babysitter, to promote fast food results in children from poor families being exposed to more fast food related advertising. Furthermore, the school lunch program emphasizes food that is greasy, salty, oversweetened, starchy, and devoid of nutritional value simply because the children who rely on subsidized lunches reject fresh fruit and similar real food in favor of the highly processed corporate product they get at home. Children from wealthier families whose parents provide healthy packed lunches do not have to eat school food and are therefore healthier.
The fast food industry relies on more than just automation and simplification of its business system. Major producers of processed foods invest money by hiring experts in flavor, fragrance, and something called "mouth feel" which apparently is a combination of texture and realism. Foods are being designed for "shelf stability", which is the ability to wait in storage for months or even years without recognizably losing color or flavor. There are even people who study the psychological response of people eating items of a specific color. One of the reasons nearly all the pickles in the United States are the same shade of neon yellow is because somebody, somewhere, did a consumer study that suggested people are willing to eat pickled cucumbers stained to look like they ought to glow in the dark.
In general, nutrition and convenience are inversely related. Fresh vegetables and fruit, while nutritionally good, tend to spoil as does fresh bread. Schlosser describes some of the benefits of preservatives, such as the convenience of not having to bake bread every day and of buying groceries only once per week. Preservation and processing techniques such as pasteurization are likewise credited for saving lives by killing deadly bacteria and by allowing food to be stabilized in order to transport it a long distance. However there are tradeoffs. Not all preservatives have been studied for long-term impact in the human body, and frequently processing reduces nutritional value by denaturing proteins and reducing dietary fiber content. Schlossel points out that the nutritional choices made by the average American have changed significantly over the last twenty-five to fifty years.
One of the recurring discussions in this book is the relationship between fast food and obesity. Large, sugary drinks and deep fried food have a high calorie content and a low nutritional content. The human body, having burned the calories it needs to sustain itself, stores excess calories as fat. Schlossel introduces the argument that the fast food industry, by providing cheap, easy sources of nutritionally empty calories, has contributed significantly to the number of overweight or obese people in industrial nations.
Schlossel describes the relationship between fast food and the entertainment industry, and identifies the child-centric marketing strategy of McDonald's as a key factor in children's preference for fast food in general and McDonald's in particular. Since the eating habits developed in childhood frequently persist into adulthood, children who eat lots of fast food as children tend to continue to do so as adults. From a corporate perspective this is a good business strategy, however deliberately marketing dangerous substances to children is no longer considered ethical. Nor is it legal. The Camel cigarette company was forced to discontinue its use of the "Joe Camel" character, which was popular with children. But due to very effective marketing and lobbying the fast food industry has not yet had to abandon Ronald McDonald and similar child-centric sales strategies.
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Of John Richard Simplot, “America’s great potato baron,” Schlosser writes that he “displays the contradictory traits that have guided the economic development of the
American West, the odd mixture of rugged individualism and a dependence upon public
land and resources.” (111) To what extent has that “odd mixture” guided the development
of the fast-food industry? What specific examples of rugged individualism wedded to reliance upon public (i.e., government) resources can you identify in the book? 9.
What forces have resulted in the rapid decline of independent American cattlemen,
making of them, in Schlosser’s view, “an endangered species”? How has that decline
been exacerbated by the fast-food industry? How have political and economic trends and developments over the past twenty years favored the large meatpacking companies to the detriment of independent ranchers? How might the status and stability of independent cattlemen be improved? How would you describe or characterize the greatest threat or competition to these independent ranchers and farmers? 10.
What has been the flavor industry’s role in the growth and popularity of the fast
-food chains? Why are the leading flavor manufacturers so important to the fast-food industry?
What is the significance of the phrases “natural flavor” and “artificial flavor,” and what
are the differences
—between these two “kinds” of flavor? How do
flavor and color additives contribute to the attractions and success of fast-food restaurants? How have you changed your eating habits
or how should you change them
as a result of what you have learned about additives? 11.
In chapter 5, “Why the Fries Taste Good,” Scholsser discusses the various components and processes of “food product design.” What are those components and processes and
how to they contribute to the success and failure of specific food products? What food
products with which you are familiar have easily identifiable “design” components? Why
do you think those components are particularly important? 12.
How significant is it that “a person’s food preferences, like his or her personality, are formed during the first few years of life”? (122) How might this fact be related to the
eating habits, food selections, and eating-rel
ated problems among America’s children,
teenagers, and adults? What do the fast-food chains do to promote the pleasures and reassurances associated with childhood favorites and comforts? Why is it so critically important to instill good eating habits in very young children, including infants? 13.
Schlosser contends that “the industrialization of cattle
-raising and meatpacking over the past two decades has completely altered how beef is produced
and the towns that
produce it.” (149) How has the “new meatpacking regime” changed beef production, the
towns where beef is produced, and the lives of those who work and live in those towns? What economic, social, and political realities have resulted from the meatpacking
industry’s efforts to increase productivity, effic
iencies, and profits? 14.
What was your reaction to Schlosser’s accounts of the workers at IBP’s Lexington,
Nebraska, slaughterhouse and of workers in other slaughterhouses? What factors permit the continuation of the conditions in which these people live and work? What specifics of
Schlosser’s characterization of meatpacking as “the most dangerous job in the United States”? (172) give his account immediacy and reality? What might federal and state
governments and individuals do to alleviate or eliminate the dangers associated with the industry? 15.
In what ways has “the meatpacking system that arose to supply the nation’s fast food chains . . . proved to be an extremely efficient system for spreading disease”? (196) What