Behind the Golden Arches
By Michele Simon

The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.
By Eric Schlosser.
Illustrated. 356 pp. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company. $25.

Finally, a well-researched and trenchant exposé of the fast food industry is causing many people to sit up, take notice, and perhaps even rethink their unhealthy eating habits. While several worthwhile books have been written in recent years about the broader social implications of a meat-centered diet (Erik Marcus's Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, Gail Eisnitz's Slaughterhouse, and Howard Lyman's Mad Cowboy, to name a few), none have been greeted more warmly by the mainstream press than Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. The book has been reviewed in every major American newspaper, and the author has been interviewed on numerous national and local radio programs.

Informative, Revealing, and Compelling
One reason for all the attention is that Schlosser has an impeccable reputation as an award-winning investigative journalist for the Atlantic Monthly. Also, he cannot be accused of harboring any ulterior motives or hidden vegetarian agendas. (Schlosser reports that he ate much of the food he writes about while researching the book.) But most importantly, the material is thoroughly researched, much of it stemming from the numerous first-hand accounts and interviews that Schlosser conducted while traveling around the country from the flavor factories of New Jersey to the slaughterhouses of Nebraska. Equally impressive is how accessible the material is. The author's writing style is always compelling, mixing personal stories with well-documented and interesting information.

The Grim Reality of Unhappy Meals
Schlosser lays bare, in all their gory detail, the behind-the-scenes processes involved in creating Happy Meals, which it turns out, aren't very happy at all. He devotes much of his attention to McDonald's, the company whose pioneering food processing techniques gave rise to the modern fast food industry. Today McDonald's is the country's largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes, and it's the second biggest purchaser of chicken-which you might expect. What you may not know is that it's also the largest owner of retail property in the world and that it operates more playgrounds than any other private entity in the United States. Even more telling for its impact on young people, Ronald McDonald was found to be the most recognizable fictional character among a group of American schoolchildren, second only to Santa Claus.

The statistics are truly staggering: In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they shelled out more than $110 billion, more than they spent on higher education, computers, or new cars. McDonald's operates about twenty-eight thousand restaurants worldwide and opens two thousand more every year. French fries are the most widely sold food service item, with the typical American eating more than 30 pounds of them each year. The 3.5 million fast food workers are by far the largest group of minimum-wage workers in the world. Last year, ConAgra, the largest food service supplier in North America, enjoyed more than $25 billion in revenues. Fast food chains collectively spend about $3 billion annually on television advertising, most of it directed at children. Meatpacking is the most dangerous job in the U.S., even with many of the injuries going unreported.

Fast Food in the Bigger Picture
What I appreciate most about Fast Food Nation is the author's attempt to cover a broad range of social issues and show how they're all connected. For example, he ties the industry's incredibly rapid growth to the development of the nation's highway system. He also reveals how industry infiltrates schools and forms strong partnerships with companies like Disney and other media conglomerates, all in a clever and very successful effort to get children to clamor for its products.

Schlosser also dedicates a significant portion of the book to an issue that doesn't tend to get much attention: labor. He covers the plight of the unskilled restaurant workers, as well as the fate of those suffering under horrific conditions in the slaughterhouses. In addition, he draws attention to the some of the latest food scares, including those caused by E. coli and other microbes, all the while explaining how a mammoth and powerful industry is keeping improved government oversight at bay. The one issue clearly missing is the plight of the nine billion factory-farmed animals killed each year, largely for the fast food industry. While this is an odd omission, the book is still extremely worthwhile and sure to open anybody's eyes. Fast Food Nation is a damn good read, and I highly recommend it.