Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fast Food Nation: Growing Older, But Still Apt

I just finished reading Eric Schlosser's incredible book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Originally published in 2001, I find it a little ridiculous that I have only now added it to my repertoire of food- and farming-related literature.

Fast Food Nation is just as relevant today as it was over a decade ago. Just about everything Schlosser relates - apart from certain statistics, which are obviously now a little out of date - still rings true.

In his introduction, Schlosser describes the illusory cheapness of fast food, laying out the spine of his argument:
But the value meals, two-for-one deals, and free refills of soda give a distorted sense of how much fast food actually costs. The real price never appears on the menu.
The discussion of what cheap food actually costs is one upon which I have dwelt in the past. (Heck, the topic came up in my last blog post.)

Schlosser delves into detail, exploring every nuance of the hidden costs of fast food in this fine example of investigative journalism. He journeys from meat packing plants in Iowa to ranches in Colorado, speaks with food scientists and illegal aliens, discusses nutrition and economics and history with folks who represent every link of the vast chain that is the fast food industry. And he goes to great lengths to explain, in excruciating detail, what - and who - those hidden costs are.

Suffice to say, these costs are extensive, not to mention pervasive. From public health to worker safety, from environmental costs to animal treatment, from government corruption to international policy, the costs of fast food extend into our daily lives. But all we can see is the dollar menu.

I wish, more than ten years after the appearance of Fast Food Nation, that the circumstances surrounding its conception and publication were different. I wish our country's food and worker safety policies were improved. I wish that meat packing plants were required to pay for the air pollution and resulting medical expenses. But this book is as applicable today as it was in 2001, which is a real shame.

To close, a few passages from the epilogue, which I found especially astute.
During the past two decades, rhetoric about the "free market" has cloaked changes in the nation's economy that bear little relation to real competition or freedom of choice. From the airline industry to the publishing business, from the railroads to telecommunications, American corporations have worked hard to avoid the rigors of the market by eliminating and absorbing their rivals...
The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power. The great challenge now facing countries throughout the world is how to find a proper balance between the efficiency and the amorality of the market. Over the past twenty years the United States has swung too far in one direction, weakening the regulations that safeguard workers, consumers, and the environment. An economic system promising freedom has too often become a means of denying it, as the narrow dictates of the market gain precedence over more important democratic values.
Today's fast food industry is the culmination of those larger social and economic trends. The low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect its real cost - and should. The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society. 

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