Monday, 20 June 2011

Book Review of Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World by Eric Schlosser

'Mega-Mac', Public Domain


There are few of us that haven't reached out for a burger or fries (or both!), late at night, lit by a blinking flourescent sign. I officially gave up going to fast food restaurants in 2005, after I'd had years of Big Macs, McMuffin breakfasts and Whopper meals. As I started to learn more about food, and began making it for myself, I started to find that food from fast food chains disappointed me. The food I queued up for, making special 6am trips before work for my McMuffin fix and Big Macs that I got cravings for in the middle of the night just didn't seem to do it for me any more.

I started to make my own burgers, out of organic steak mince - meaty, pure and thick - and added jalapeƱos, gruyere cheese and iceberg lettuce in the bun. The fast food burger I'd craved for so many years - my impulse reaction to hunger when I was on the go - was just a floppy, flimsy shadow of its former self. And I started to wonder what made the two burgers so incredibly different - after all, McDonald's say that their beef burgers contain 100% selected cuts of meat and nothing else but salt and pepper. And ever since then, I've been fascinated by the fast food industry.

Last week, I downloaded the book Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World, by Eric Schlosser. The book was written ten years ago - and reading it, I was relieved to see that a lot in the industry has changed since that time. And it focuses mostly on the US - the abbatoirs, fast food joints and the big business of the fast food chains.

Photo: Akira Kamikura, Wikimedia Commons


It covers the power-hungry struggles of the big bosses in the fast food industry - it covers food poisoning outbreaks caused by frozen beefburgers, the secret of why the fries taste so good, artificial flavour laboratories and the bacteria-spreading conditions that were present in some US abbatoirs and meat production units. The book, as the title suggests, covers more of the business side of the industry than what goes into the actual food itself, but to be honest I did expect a bit more on that side of things. 

The book also documents the beginning of the fast food greats of today - how Colonel Sanders wasn't a real 'Colonel' but dressed as one as a marketing ploy to get attention, and how McDonald's changed the method of production in fast food restaurants forever, being the first to segregate tasks to one individual and creating an 'assembly line' in which burgers were made. They were also the first to serve food in paper cups and wrapping, fed up with having  to replace glasses and plates that ended up getting smashed or stolen by over-zealous teenagers in the 1950s.

Photo: Kucmel007, Wikimedia Commons


It's also interesting how the industry has changed. Improvements came under the Clinton administration in America, when more form-filling was imposed, along with the need for regular inspections. From what you read, you'll be relieved that it has changed for the better.

But it still doesn't explain why there is a world of difference between my bouncy, thick homemade burger in a bun and the thin, dark McDonald's cheeseburger. I would love to know if another edition of this book has been written, or an equivalent that delves into the world of fast food restaurants nowadays. I love investigative books like this one - it keeps the fast food giants in suits on their toes. If you're into big business and the movers and shakers of the fast food industry, this is a great read. But it gives only a nod to the processes and ingredients used in many fast food dishes - that book, it seems, still needs to be written.

Fast Food Nation: What The All American Diet is Doing to the World (2002) is published by Penguin, ISBN 10: 9780141006871