Sometimes it pays to be kept in the dark. If not for Eric Schlosser's exposé Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, I'd be scarfing down a Big Mac and fries right now. But after reading his tirade against the industry, I'm finding it hard to stomach another all-beef patty. A correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, Schlosser's also paying a small price for his quest for the truth: He's not eating burgers anymore, and neither are his kids. Just released in paperback, his New York Times best seller comes with a gut-wrenching afterword that outlines the risks of mad cow disease and the likelihood of the epidemic spreading to the States. Yum!
The book originated from a Rolling Stone article on migrant farm workers in California, but Schlosser's meticulously researched investigation isn't a thinly disguised smear campaign. Rather, it's a critique of American culture. His main beef with the industry is its insidious infiltration into all facets of our lives. Through the “air of inevitability” of fast-food chains, the custom of grabbing a quick bite from the closest McDonald's or Burger King has become a social institution, as all-American as capitalism or life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “The fast food industry has helped to transform not only the American diet, but also our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture. Fast food and its consequences have become inescapable,” he writes. Alarmist? Possibly. Extremist? Perhaps. But true? Yes.
The facts alone are staggering: “Americans spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars.” The implications of this junk food addiction are much worse. The result, claims Schlosser, has been the development of values — the quick-fix mentality, uniformity, dependence on technology — that create a cookie-cutter society, one in which conformity and obedience are the rules rather than the exceptions. At times, the book's finger-pointing can be a bit much: For example, Schlosser blames Ronald McDonald for practically all of our social ills, from the rise of strip malls and the demise of the small businessman to obesity, an increasingly unskilled job force, and brainwashed children. Yet Fast Food Nation is still a searing indictment of an industry that shirks its social responsibility. For the most part, he doesn't rely on shock value, though the stomach-churning section on the meatpacking industry — “Sometimes these workers are literally ground up and reduced to nothing” — is not recommended for the squeamish.
What makes Schlosser's argument particularly poignant is that he's not a vegetarian or even an animal rights activist. In fact, he claims that a cheeseburger with fries is his favorite meal. So what's a carnivore to do? Fortunately, California is home to In-N-Out, the regional chain that gets the thumbs-up from Schlosser.