The Hamburger Critic (and His Own Critics)
You unwrap your fast-food burger and, just as you are about to take a bite, you wonder: What exactly is in this meat?
And then you think: I really don’t want to know.
Eric Schlosser is going to tell you anyway. His best-selling book “Fast Food Nation” (Houghton Mifflin, $25) flips off the bun, scrapes away the lettuce and pickle and takes a long, hard look at that little brown patty.
The investigative journalist spent nearly three years researching the fast-food industry, from the slaughterhouses and packing plants that turn out the burgers to the minimum-wage workers who cook them to the television commercials that entice children to eat them with the lure of cheap toys and colorful playgrounds. The experience enraged and appalled him.
It was so upsetting, in fact, that he says he no longer eats ground beef. Even his children, ages 8 and 10, have been cut off from school burgers and the Happy Meals they used to enjoy. “They weren’t happy about it,” he admits recently over a lunch of Chinese dumplings and salmon, “but as a parent, you have to know what you’re feeding your kids.”
Schlosser, 41, is soft-spoken but intense. He has the lanky build of a runner. Dressed in a tweed jacket, red tie, white shirt with silver cuff links and dark jeans, he could be a hip college professor. But when he speaks about his book, it’s with the fervor of a man who has seen life’s harrowing side.
Before starting this project, he gave little thought to fast food. So in 1997 when Rolling Stone magazine asked him to write an article looking at America through fast food, he figured he would write something “kitschy and lighthearted,” a relief after the sobering in-depth stories he had been doing for Atlantic Monthly on subjects like marijuana penalties and California migrant farm workers. Once he got started, though, he found himself heading in a different direction.
In “Fast Food Nation,” Schlosser, who has a history degree from Princeton, views fast food from a historical perspective. “Essentially, for me, the growth of fast food is a history of America after World War II,” he says.
His book tracks fast food from its beginnings in 1948 with the McDonald brothers’ hamburger stand in Downey to its global presence today. What troubles him are the sweeping changes that the fast-food chains have brought about not only in our eating habits but in our workforce, our landscape, our culture and in how food is produced. “Fast food is not the source of all ills, but [the industry’s] shortsighted, greedy mentality has caused many unnecessary consequences,” he says.
That’s an unfair characterization, complains the fast-food industry. Terrie Dort, president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the trade association representing many of the country’s major fast-food chains, released this statement about Schlosser and his book: “It is unfortunate that Mr. Schlosser’s book, ‘Fast Food Nation,’ categorizes the entire fast-food industry in such a negative light. The restaurant companies that comprise the industry provide employment to hundreds of thousands of workers across the country and offer consumers a wide variety in menu options and prices. We take exception to the characterization in this book.”
Even so, Schlosser’s deepest outrage is directed not at fast-food executives but at their associates in the meat-packing industry and what he calls their longstanding resistance to federally mandated food-safety practices. “I have never encountered any business that operates so unethically and is so unrepentant,” he states flatly.
The meatpacking industry isn’t too fond of him either.
Schlosser “is trying to paint a picture of 1906 in order to scare people. Unfortunately, fear and graphic stories sell,” says Janet Riley, vice president of public affairs for the American Meat Institute, the trade association that represents most of the nation’s meat packers and processors. “There is no doubt in our minds that our food today is safer than it’s ever been because there is so much more science and technology in our plants to ensure that safety. Come on,” she adds, “our families eat from the same food supply that everyone else does. Of course we want safe food.”
In fact, Schlosser’s vivid descriptions of the revolting conditions in the feedlots and slaughterhouses he visited, as well as of the lives of the immigrant workers, have been compared to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 classic, “The Jungle.” That book so repulsed President Teddy Roosevelt that he eventually nudged Congress into passing the nation’s first, albeit weak, food safety legislation.
Schlosser argues that the meatpacking industry’s initial response in 1906 hasn’t changed much over the century: “The industry has repeatedly denied that problems exist, impugned the motives of its critics, fought against federal oversight and sought to avoid any responsibility for outbreaks of food poisoning.”
Because the meatpacking industry has such strong allies in Congress, Schlosser doubts that food-safety laws will be changed soon. On the other hand, he suggests that consumers may have a faster, even more powerful tool: If they stop buying fast food, the industry will be forced to change its ways.
That the consumer has this power is undeniable. The average American eats burgers three times a week, and two-thirds of those are from fast-food places. Last year, Americans spent $110 billion on fast food, more than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, even new cars.
Lester Crawford, director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Georgetown University and a former meat inspector for the USDA, says he’s read only “snippets” of Schlosser’s book but calls it “well-intentioned criticism.” He believes that there have been some major improvements infood safety in the last 15 years, including the fact that “most fast-food restaurants won’t serve undercooked beef. That has had a major impact on food-borne disease and needs to be recognized.”
Schlosser agrees with him. Fast-food chains are more careful today about serving thoroughly cooked meat after four children died in 1993 from eating undercooked ground beef at Jack in the Box.
“In terms of commercial ground beef, a Jack in the Box burger is your best bet for having the pathogens cooked out,” Schlosser says. In addition, he notes, McDonald’s has responded to consumer concerns and forced its meat suppliers to improve the way they handle livestock headed for slaughter. McDonald’s also has refused to use bioengineered potatoes for its French fries because of consumer pressure.
“I’m optimistic,” says Schlosser. “I don’t think we always have to look to the government. There is enormous potential for change from the fast-food companies pressuring the meat suppliers and from consumers who can pressure the fast-food chains.