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FAST FOOD NATION The Dark Side of the All-American Meal By Eric Schlosser; Houghton Mifflin: 356 pp., $25

March 11, 2001|TOM VANDERBILT | Tom Vanderbilt is the author of "The Sneaker Book: An Anatomy of an Industry and an Icon" (The New Press)

"Fast Food Nation" is a passionately argued, incendiary polemic about a subject close to our hearts (and stomachs), and Eric Schlosser may be the Upton Sinclair for this age of mad-cow disease. With his book fresh in my head--tales of big cattle producers feeding cows (who are naturally noncarnivorous) the wastes of other livestock, of workers losing limbs in nonunion meatpacking plants, of artificial flavors pumped into French fries like nicotine added to cigarettes--I went in search of a fast-food restaurant. As is often the case, the first fast food joint I encountered was a McDonald's, X-ray bright and filled with a multiethnic, multi-aged lunchtime crowd. A frenetic beeping from behind the counter gave the place the feel of an operating room. A giant tableau advertised "Buzz Lightyear" toys, while a sign announced a "shakable" salad in a cup. Slogans with trademarks hanging off them burst out from seemingly every surface. I ordered a Big Mac, fries and Coke--a perfect low-fiber, low-nutrient, high-grease, high-sugar lunch. The price was $5.41. To borrow architect Robert Venturi's classic phrase about the suburban strip, "It was almost all right." As long as I didn't think about it too much.

But that is precisely Schlosser's intent: to make us think about the "all-American food," to provide some discomforting thoughts about what has become, for some, a de facto comfort food. Of all the industries to have fallen under the purview of public and pundit scrutiny--the tobacco industry with its costly trials and advertising bans; the film business with its inflammatory lyrics and parental warning labels--little attention has been paid to the fast-food industry, which dwarfs them all, economically and, Schlosser suggests, morally.

At $110 billion annually, fast food is a behemoth with yearly sales outpacing the combined publishing, film, music and software industries--one would have to add tobacco to (barely) eclipse fast food's numbers. It is also the most personal form of consumerism (the product is literally consumed) and, despite our blithe acknowledgment of its status as "junk food," any criticism or thoughts about how the sesame-seed bun became our Daily Bread go generally unpursued.

Schlosser, a respected journalist known for in-depth profiles of the migrant labor agricultural sector and the marijuana-growing industry, wants to make a meal out of fast food, and it is no Happy Meal at that: Fast food, in Schlosser's excoriating account, pays its workers less than any industry save the aforementioned migrant farm business. Although its product is over-designed (as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Burger King's much-heralded French fry overhaul of a year ago featured 19 pages of preparation specifications, its fries rigorously engineered to provide seven seconds of "audible crunch") and undernourishing, fast food's ever-increasing volume (McDonald's, he notes, introduced "large" fries in the 1970s, and two decades later unveiled the "supersize"--three times the original portion) has been a major contributing factor to American obesity. "The profits of the fast-food chains," writes Schlosser, "have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society."

With a flair for dazzling scene-setting and an arsenal of startling facts, Schlosser's tale of starch and fury ranges from the strategic-defense enclave of NORAD (where the Domino's deliveryman gets instant clearance) to the grim interiors of meatpacking plants in towns like Lexington, Neb. (known as "Mexington" for its influx of Mexican migrant workers), and an industry trade show in Las Vegas where Mikhail Gorbachev made an appearance. Schlosser muses, with typically mordant wit, that the fast-food industry is so powerful that it can bring the architect of glasnost to Vegas for the mere purposes of display, Roman-circus style: "Gorbachev's appearance at the Mirage seemed an Americanized version of that custom, a public opportunity for the victors to gloat--though it would have been even more fitting if the fast food convention had been down the road at Caesar's Palace."

Fast food, like capitalism, may have conquered the world, but in so doing there seems as much cause for concern as for celebration. One might applaud the entrepreneurial spirit of the McDonald brothers of San Bernardino, whose "Speedee Service System," debuted in Downey in 1948, brought modern industrial organization to the kitchen and forever changed the American way of eating. One might wonder why, as Schlosser does, the Small Business Administration has for decades subsidized the opening of fast-food franchises--which, with their economic interrelation to a massive corporate entity, are hardly anyone's cherished image of a "small business"--"thereby turning a federal agency that was created to help independent small businesses into one that eliminates them."

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