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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction


Fast Food Nation

Eric Schlosser

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To purchase Fast Food Nation

Title: Fast Food Nation
Author: Eric Schlosser
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 270 pages
Availability: Fast Food Nation - US
. Fast Food Nation - UK
. Fast Food Nation - Canada
Fast Food Nation - India
. Fast Food Nation - France
. Fast Food Gesellschaft - Deutschland
Fast Food Nation - Italia
  • US subtitle: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
  • UK subtitle: What the All-American Meal Is Doing to the World
  • Portions of this book were first published in Rolling Stone
  • Most of the chapter on Why the Fries Taste Good was previously published in The Atlantic Monthly and The Guardian
  • Fast Food Nation was made into a movie in 2006, directed by Richard Linklater

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Our Assessment:

B : the unpleasant truths about fast food and fast food culture, fairly well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 1/2/2001 Julie Finnin Day
Commentary B- 5/2001 Steven A. Shaw
Daily Telegraph A 7/5/2001 Adam Nicolson
The Economist . 17/2/2001 .
Evening Standard A- 30/4/2001 David Sexton
The Guardian A 6/4/2002 Nicholas Lezard
The LA Times A- 11/3/2001 Tom Vanderbilt
London Rev. of Books A 24/5/2001 James Meek
New Statesman . 2/7/2001 Hugo Miller
The NY Observer A 29/1/2001 Stephen Metcalf
The NY Times A- 30/1/2001 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 21/1/2001 Rob Walker
Reason B 11/2001 Gary Alan Fine
Salon A- 8/2/2001 Maria Russo
San Francisco Chronicle A 28/1/2001 Andrew Roe
TLS . 14/9/2001 Sidney Mintz
USA Today A 1/2/2001 Deirdre Donahue
Wall St. Journal D 12/1/2001 Cynthia Crossen
The Washington Post . 28/1/2001 Nicols Fox

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but generally very positive, with most considering it an important eye-opener.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Not all of this exposé is dark and dreary. Most, but not all. (...) Schlosser's research should give all Americans something tough to chew on." - Julie Finnin Day, Christian Science Monitor

  • "It should come as no surprise to learn that Schlosser profoundly distrusts the capitalist system: this, if anything, is the underlying theme of Fast Food Nation. (...) It's a pity Schlosser's mind is so relentlessly preoccupied by politics, and a callow politics at that." - Steven A. Shaw, Commentary

  • "Eric Schlosser's book on the economy and strategies of the fast-food business should be read by anyone who likes to take their children to fast-food restaurants. I shall certainly never do that again. He employs a long, cold burn, a quiet and impassioned accumulation of detail, with calm, wit and clarity. (...) Fast Food Nation is witness to the rigour and seriousness of the best American journalism, readable, reliable and extremely carefully done." - Adam Nicolson, Daily Telegraph

  • "Mr. Schlosser (...) is a skilful and persuasive investigative performer." - The Economist

  • "Food matters and that's why this exposé of the fast-food industry is a most worthwhile book. It offers real insight into the world we all inhabit, whether we're daft enough to eat burgers and fries ourselves or not. (...) (C)arefully researched and punchily written, but conventional in style: extended magazine journalism of the kind which lurches from statistics to an individual story and back." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "If you read this book, I defy you to eat a mass-produced hamburger again. (...) Schlosser's sober, industrious yet mind-boggling book has become a best-seller. This is very good news." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "One of the best reasons to read Eric Schlosser's blazing critique of the American fast-food industry is his bleak portrayal of the alienation of millions of low-paid employees" - James Meek, London Review of Books

  • "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 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." - Tom Vanderbilt, The Los Angeles Times

  • "A correspondent for Atlantic Monthly, Schlosser knows how to tell a story, and has tapped into a darkly fascinating world." - Hugo Miller. New Statesman

  • "In his new, fine and very vivid piece of muckraking, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser asks how it is possible that a convenience food -- what started out as an occasional treat for the kids -- has ended up defining a way of life. (...) (E)verywhere in his thorough, gimlet-eyed, superbly told story, Mr. Schlosser offers up visionary glints." - Stephen Metcalf, The New York Observer

  • "Fast Food Nation provides the reader with a vivid sense of how fast food has permeated contemporary life and a fascinating (and sometimes grisly) account of the process whereby cattle and potatoes are transformed into the burgers and fries served up by local fast food franchises." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Fast Food Nation isn't an airy deconstruction but an avalanche of facts and observations (.....) (T)he book manages to avoid shrillness. This is a fine piece of muckraking, alarming without being alarmist." - Rob Walker, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While I doubt much of Schlosserís political and economic assessment, he is a lively writer, and can make a story come alive with his ability to present heroes and villains. He knows how to write non-fiction, and effectively (if romantically) presents the lives of people affected by the fast food industry." - Gary A. Fine, Reason

  • "With its far-reaching analysis of a low-grade sickness nibbling at the very entrails of America, Fast Food Nation is a jeremiad, but Schlosser never comes off as a "sky is falling" street-corner raver or bullheaded finger-pointer. His fury is evident, but his voice is measured and his methods are subtle." - Maria Russo, Salon

  • "This is the stuff of PR department nightmares. Exhaustively researched, frighteningly convincing." - Andrew Roe, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Eric Schlosser provides a view of the country and its people that is both rich and disturbing. He has a strong sense of place. (...) In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser paints a grand portrait of contradiction." - Sidney Mintz, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Fast Food Nation is the kind of book that you hope young people read because it demonstrates far better than any social studies class the need for government regulation, the unchecked power of multinational corporations and the importance of our everyday decisions." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "Mr. Schlosser's appraisal is not comprehensive but a hodgepodge of impressions, statistics, anecdotes and prejudices. (...) As a stickler about statistics, I was disturbed by Mr. Schlosser's cavalier manipulation of data, which produced some startling -- and, frankly, unbelievable -- "facts." (...) (U)nlike the fast-food restaurants he disdains, Mr. Schlosser doesn't want us to have it our way. He wants us to have it his way." - Cynthia Crossen, Wall Street Journal

  • "Schlosser is part essayist, part investigative journalist. His eye is sharp, his profiles perceptive, his prose thoughtful but spare; this is John McPhee behind the counter with an editor." - Nicols Fox, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Caveat: the editors of this site basically do not consume any fast food whatsoever -- no pizzas, hotdogs, tacos, donuts, and no fast-food hamburgers or chicken. We used to enjoy the beef tallow-fried McDonald's french fries but they went by the wayside in 1990 (and, despite Schlosser's explanation of how McDonald's recreated that flavouring, we find it just ain't the same thing any more), and so now you could not get us to order anything other than a cup of coffee in any fast-food establishment.
       So, since we don't eat the stuff, we are perhaps not entirely objective regarding the subject matter. (Or maybe, since we don't eat the stuff, we are.)

       Fast food. It is fast, and fast is generally seen as good. Enough people are willing to accept it as food. It is convenient, apparently (fast, generally close at hand, of uniform and predictable "quality" everywhere). It is, generally, cheap -- at least nominally (although, as Eric Schlosser points out, there are many hidden costs).
       So: fast food -- gotta love it. Or maybe not. Eric Schlosser's book promises to tell the dark side of the all-American meal -- and he delivers. It is, by and large, a sordid, ugly tale, leaving a nasty aftertaste. Schlosser is not the first to explore the subject, but he does provide an up-to-date, thorough, and well-documented account. Given the popularity of fast food, and the amount of it ingested by Americans (and, increasingly, people all over the world) this is information that desperately needs to be spread among consumers everywhere (though not many people seem eager to hear it).
       Schlosser's book covers much of fast food culture. Among other things, he discusses: how and why it developed, current labour practices in fast food establishments, how the taste of food can now be manipulated, contemporary agribusiness, federal regulations (and lack thereof), television advertising, health issues, and the spread of fast food abroad. A lot of material.
       "This is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made", Schlosser writes. It is an often contradictory picture: the industry (at all levels) constantly complains and fights against government intrusion and meddling (from taxes to labour laws to food-safety regulations) while over its history it has benefited inordinately from government action and subsidies (one of Schlosser's favourite points, repeatedly made throughout the book). The industry seems to provide cheap, convenient, and fast food, and provide employment to a large number of people -- but the food is arguably not particularly healthy (or downright unhealthy -- and, occasionally, lethal), and much of the work is low-skill labour performed by teenagers and immigrants, teaching them few skills.
       The fast food phenomenon seems to represent the best and the worst of America. It is also a "culture" that has spread to many other aspects of life. It also exerts a direct influence on large parts of the population: Schlosser cites an estimate that "one out of every eight workers in the United States has at some point been employed by McDonald's" alone, and, of course, there are large numbers of people who actually consume what is served at these establishments.
       Schlosser strays far and wide in the book, devoting chapters to various aspects of the industry. They do not all fit neatly together, but even the jumbled picture is a frightening one. Most gruesome are the details regarding the state of agribusiness and, especially, the meatpacking industry. The conditions described are worrisome, to say the least, and particularly disturbing is the explanation of federal and state power (or rather lack thereof) regarding meat inspection and consumer and worker safety protection over the past few decades.
       Regarding dangers to consumers Schlosser focusses on E. coli and salmonella infection (and, curiously, barely mentions the use of hormones and antibiotics and the consequences thereof). Schlosser goes so far as to say:

Anyone who brings raw ground beef into his or her kitchen today must regard it as a potential biohazard, one that may carry an extremely dangerous microbe, infectious at an extremely low dose.
       Schlosser also finds that conditions for workers are often incredibly dangerous (and unpleasant) -- especially in meatpacking plants, but also in other areas of the fast food industry. Low wages, largely insurmountable barriers preventing unionization, and laxly enforced labour laws mean that society pays a high hidden cost for the benefit of apparently cheap food.
       The chapter on Why the Fries Taste Good (published, in slightly different form, in The Atlantic Monthly and The Guardian) offers an eery look at the future of food, where any taste can be given to any product. The advances that have been made are already tremendous, and flavour additives -- effective in the tiniest of doses -- are already more common than most people seem to realize.
       Schlosser also offers a few bright spots, suggesting that "there is nothing inevitable about the fast food industry", and that the businessmen who are responsible could be moved to creating a more palatable situation if market forces dictated (i.e. if that was what was profitable). A healthy dose of sensible legislation (and enforcement capability) would also help. Schlosser holds the U.S. Congress -- and the (generally Republican) politicians who take loads of money from agribusiness, fast food chains, and similar interest groups -- responsible for many of the current ills, and he is probably right. Voters, however, don't seem all that bothered -- there is no clamour for the proper laws, nor are these politicians being voted out of office.
       The big and largely overlooked issue in the book is the role of the consumer. Public outrage over cases of E. coli poisoning, labour violations, unhealthy fast food, advertising aimed at children, and all the rest remains curiously muted. No one seems to care much. And, most astonishingly, huge numbers of people still frequent fast food establishments. Schlosser mentions teenage workers who won't eat the food at their workplace unless they themselves prepare it -- but most every teen surely has a friend or family member who works or worked in some fast food outlet (or have worked their themselves) and they have certainly all heard the horror stories from behind the counter and yet they still flock to these establishments to consume these products.
       Schlosser closes the book by saying that "you can still have it your way", and that consumers have the choice to just say no to fast food. His hope is apparently that, armed with the information he provides, consumers will make the obvious choice and run as fast as they can from any and every fast food joint. Unfortunately, he never really addresses the truly baffling question of why consumers would (and so often do) choose to purchase the products of these establishments in the first place. What is it about the convenience, the speed, the price, the quality, the presentation that convinces people to consume the stuff ? Fast food has to have something going for it and Schlosser doesn't adequately explain what that is. (We remind readers that we are not fast-food consumers and that we are truly baffled by the phenomenon of people paying for and consuming fast-food products; we would love to hear some sort of convincing explanation for it. The ostensible reasons -- the supposed convenience, speed, price, quality, etc. -- certainly don't convince.)
       Many of the facts Schlosser provides are known -- from cases of food-poisoning to the consolidation of agribusiness to the dangers of various fast-food related employment and more. Schlosser does provide a great deal (and that in great detail) in one single book -- but will it help convince anyone ? One suspects that the lure of the Big Mac and the Whopper and all the other mass-produced, frozen and then reheated products served at tens of thousands of outlets daily will be too great for most.
       Fast Food Nation may put you off your dinner -- but that might be a good thing. It is information that consumers should be aware of. Schlosser does present much of it quite well, though the journalistic origins of the work do come through -- the sections don't fit together particularly well, like a collection of related magazine articles -- and the mix of human interest stories and facts is an uneasy one (though since it seems to be the popular style of the day maybe readers will enjoy it).
       The book is a worthwhile effort to bring American consumers to their senses (and a warning to the world at large). One hopes that it finds an audience and convinces at least some consumers to alter their behaviour. But we are not holding our breath.

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Fast Food Nation: Reviews: Fast Food Nation - the movie: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Eric Schlosser is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly

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© 2001-2011 the complete review

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