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The Bear Left Review of Books

Fast Food Nation
Eric Schlosser
384 pages / $13.95

Welcome (Back) to the Jungle
Tim Francis-Wright

In 1906, in his fictional work The Jungle, Upton Sinclair described in graphic terms the horrors of the real meatpacking industry in Chicago. The book caused a national sensation and led to limited but positive reforms of the industry. In 2001, Eric Schlosser published Fast Food Nation, a thoroughly non-fictional account of the impact of fast food on the cities, diet, economy, and culture of America. While Schlosser's book is chock full of documentation, its impact has been minute compared to the impact of Sinclair's novel. Schlosser's biggest impact has been to get McDonald's to admit that it had spiked its french fries for years with beef extract.

In Washington today, the giant corporations that control a huge portion of the beef and poultry industry have enormous clout. When Republicans decry the reach of the Occupational Health and Safety Organization (OSHA), the beef and poultry lobbies cheer the loudest. These industries hate OSHA and all it stands for. They are also the industries that require the most oversight. yet the federal government can recall defective tires, pajamas, or toys, but it cannot mandate the recall of tainted meat, no matter how pathogenic it might be.

Schlosser ably shows how large corporations have already turned poultry farming in America into a rural assembly line, and how they control the slaughter, processing, and marketing of much of the American beef supply. McDonald's and the fast food empires that copied its business methods are just the final industry between the food sources and the consumer. A panoply of other industries prepares, processes, and freezes most of what is eaten in fast food restaurants, from french fries to buns to cola to hamburgers.

Schlosser relies on personal interviews, company histories, and hundreds of press accounts of farming, slaughterhouse, and restaurant practices. The existing media coverage, however, lacks his focus on the fast food industry as a whole. A host of important issues are ripe for more scrutiny.

One need not be a vegetarian to welcome Fast Food Nation and the light that it shines of the culture of fast food. Schlosser explains how the fast food industry reduces food to its economic base. To a typical fast food chain, the money is not in the hamburger or the chicken, but in the french fries and soft drinks. The value of the meal is not in the skill of the chef, but in the uniformity of the previously frozen product. The cheap hamburgers and chicken nuggets reflect the influence of the beef and chicken industry in keeping their products cheap. When things are really cheap, consumers should ask why.

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