Fast Food Nation

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Themes and Colors
Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety Theme Icon
Greed, Corporations, and “The Bottom Line” Theme Icon
Independence vs. the Social Contract Theme Icon
Bureaucracy and Complex Systems Theme Icon
Work and “The Good Life” Theme Icon
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Bureaucracy and Complex Systems Theme Icon

Schlosser’s examination of the food industry also applies more broadly to the analysis of bureaucracies (especially of the government variety) and of complex systems. Every step of the food production process in America, as it has become streamlined for maximum efficiency, has counter intuitively become more complicated, because food is now manufactured so quickly, and in such volume, that new problems present themselves at newer, faster, larger scales. When one man slaughters one cow, he can do so relatively slowly and carefully, and without fearing that unnoticed fecal matter from the steer will make its way into the meat. But a complex system, wherein hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat are prepared in large factories by many specialized workers—each of whom sees only one small part of the process—means that the possibility of error “propagates,” or becomes far more likely to be amplified over time.

The complex systems of food production in America present problems, even as they are designed to make food production more efficient. Because plants across the country are so effective at preparing (for example) meat products, the profit for meat preparation decreases over time due to the laws of supply and demand: the more meat there is, the less it costs. This means that workers are encouraged to work even faster to produce even more meat to generate profits, which means errors can arise—for example, when meat is not cleaned and prepared properly, leading to bacterial infections (of E. coli and other varieties).

Additionally, the government bureaucracies in charge of managing the American food supply are, according to Schlosser, hopelessly in the thrall of big businesses, who keep inspectors from doing their work, or lie about their data to make food plants seem more safe, or push for legislation that allows the food industry to “regulate itself” (which typically results in decreased food safety standards).

For Schlosser, complex systems of food production run by bureaucrats who manage food production but are separated from the laborers who actually work on the “assembly line,” lead to a gulf between the profit-making features of the food economy and the actual healthfulness and value of the food being produced. Schlosser argues that complex systems naturally tend toward self-perpetuation at all costs—which, in many cases, means making a profit without regard to the quality of the product.

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Bureaucracy and Complex Systems Quotes in Fast Food Nation

Below you will find the important quotes in Fast Food Nation related to the theme of Bureaucracy and Complex Systems.
Introduction Quotes

Fast food is now so commonplace that it has acquired an air of inevitability, as though it were somehow unavoidable, a fact of modern life. And yet the dominance of the fast food giants was no more preordained than the march of colonial split-levels, golf courses, and man-made lakes across the deserts of the American West.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser sees the rise of fast food as being coupled with the rise of the suburb and the car in American life. The fast food restaurant, after all, derives from the McDonald's franchise model - wherein restaurants were placed in easy-to-access locations at the exits of major freeways across the United States. As middle class families, often white families, moved out of cities and into the suburbs, they used cars to travel, and in traveling they needed places to stop for a quick bite to eat. Thus the fast food restaurant was no more "preordained" than the highway and the car and the suburban subdivision. These restaurants, instead, were a part of a plotted policy, which moved middle-class American life away from cities and into more spread out, "planned" communities.

As in the first quotation, this shift from city to suburban eating went hand-in-hand with a "streamlining" of the food production process - which meant consumers all along a given highway were, in a McDonald's restaurant, eating the same burgers assembled using the same mass-production methods. 


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Chapter 1: The Founding Fathers Quotes

The southern California drive-in restaurants of the early 1940s tended to be gaudy and round, topped with pylons, towers, and flashing signs. They were “Circular meccas of neon,” in the words of drive-in historian Michael Witzel, designed to be easily spotted from the road.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another depiction of the symbiosis between the rise of the fast-food restaurant and the rise of the highway. Just as a city or town would be viewed as a blur from a speeding car on a highway, a fast food restaurant could be recognized only by the bright lights and colors it produced. Thus the car was once again the functional unit for the transportation of people in mid-century, middle-class American society. And restaurants therefore catered to the car and centered on the car - were geared toward people whose lives were lived, for better or worse, in cars.

Nevertheless, Schlosser also seems somewhat wistful for the early days of fast food, if only because the novelty of these restaurants, and of the highways they were placed along, was something striking and somewhat individual in the postwar American boom of economic development. The optimism of higher-quality, mass-produced food might be traced, ultimately, to a utopian, if flawed, idea - that producing food in large quantities according to streamlined processes might actually benefit, rather than hinder, people's health and wallet - and thus create more free time for them to spend with their families. 

Chapter 3: Behind the Counter Quotes

Despite all the talk in Colorado about aerospace, biotech, computer software, telecommunications, and other industries of the future, the largest private employer in the state today is the restaurant industry . . . [it] has grown faster than the population.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser takes great pains to link the fast food industry to what he views as the larger, underlying economic dislocation that has happened in the American West since the Second World War. He chooses Colorado because it is, in his words, a place a lot like California was in the 1950s (he is writing in the 1990s) - a region with lots of land, lots of people willing to work for relatively low wages, and a combination of high-tech and service-industry jobs.

Schlosser then notes that, despite the media emphasis on Colorado as a place where new technologies are created and used, its economy derives its strength largely from the kinds of jobs that go unreported: jobs that involve people working at Hardee's or McDonald's or Chik-fil-A, often without much by way of training, and with significant turnover. By explaining this aspect of the fast food industry, then, Schlosser is helping to describe an important part of the "boom" economies of the end of the 20th century in the United States, and suggesting why such "booms," when they are built on such high-turnover, low-skill work as the fast food industry, inevitably lead to "busts." 

Chapter 4: Success Quotes

As franchises and chain stores opened across the United States, driving along a retail strip became a shopping experience much like strolling down the aisle of a supermarket. Instead of pulling something off the shelf, you pulled into a driveway. The distinctive architecture of each chain became its packaging . . . .

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Related Symbols: Golden Arches
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser here notes a feature of suburbanized American life in the 1990s and early 2000s - the transition, in local economies, from local "Mom and Pop" stores to larger chains, whose economies of scale allow them to sell goods and services at much lower prices, and thus force local stores, who do not have these economies of scale, out of business. Big box stores and other national chains are, like fast food companies, designed to be uniform. Variation between one store and the next is frowned upon. Thus commercial strips on highways in the suburbs surrounding major cities look largely the same. They contain the same stores, in the same configurations, and sell mostly the same products for the same prices. 

Schlosser argues that this system, which is good for the big box stores participating in it, is not nearly so good for the consumer, who often has a more limited set of choices as to where to buy goods. This, not to mention the monotony of encountering the same several stores on each commercial area in a given suburban region. 

Chapter 6: On the Range Quotes

Many ranchers now fear that the beef industry is deliberately being restructured along the lines of the poultry industry. They do not want to wind up like chicken growers—who in recent years have become virtually powerless, trapped by debt and by onerous contracts written by the large processors.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ranchers
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

The poultry industry, by Schlosser's logic, is an example of economic deregulation run amok. Farmers can barely make enough money selling chickens to larger distributors to cover the cost of feed and overhead for the next month, and high customer demand does not correlate with high profits for the initial chicken producer - the small farmer. Indeed, the worldwide craze for chicken nuggets, which Schlosser notes is an important part of the "second" boom in fast food sales in the decades following the Second World War, seems only to enrich those who run the franchises and purchase chicken meat in bulk. Local chicken farmers have little to no say over whom they wish to sell to, as only a small number of companies control the industry.

To the extent that the cattle ranchers are capable, then, they wish to work for themselves, and to maintain that independence that Schlosser views as so central to the American West, and to business ethics in general.

Chapter 7: Cogs in the Great Machine Quotes

Greeley became a company town, dominated by the Monfort family and ruled with a compassionate paternalism. Ken Monfort was a familiar presence at the slaughterhouse. Workers felt comfortable approaching him with suggestions and complaints.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker), The Monfort Family
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser again walks a fine line between valorizing an old economic system, which he understand to have problems of its own, and attempting to depict honestly the real difficulties and deficiencies of the system of agricultural production that replaced it throughout the United States during the era of deregulation, which Schlosser dates to the 1970s and '80s. The Monforts were by no means a perfect family, and they did not run their business as a charity; they were businessmen, and their workers were not paid any more than they had to be. But those workers were at least supported in their work, knew their bosses, and the Monforts believed in helping those who worked at the plant at least to some extent.

The system replacing this, in which a large and depersonalized agricultural conglomerate slashed wages and benefits, produced no such goodwill between workers and their bosses. This might have resulted in slightly higher corporate profits, but it did not help to support those families whose incomes derived from the meatpacking industry. And this, by degrees, harmed the towns in which these meatpacking plants were located. 

Far from being a liability, a high turnover rate in the meatpacking industry—as in the fast food industry—also helps maintain a workforce that is harder to unionize and much easier to control.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the same logic that Schlosser identifies in the fast food industry itself, where McDonald's, for example, wishes only to train workers sufficiently so they can stay on the job for a matter of months, only to quit or be fired. Workers with a small amount of experience are somewhat useful, but meatpacking, like the fast food industry, has become so streamlined as to require relatively little human activity or skill. This means that human beings, once so central to the production of food in the United States, are rapidly becoming secondary to that process.

Schlosser notes again and again that in meatpacking, as in fast food, the concept of "throughput" is increasingly important: that is, the amount of material that can work its way through a production system in a timely manner. If throughput is all that counts, and if machines can aid in parts of the production of meat, then humans amount to no more than a small sliver of that production process. 

Chapter 8: The Most Dangerous Job Quotes

Workers often bring their knives home and spend at least forty minutes a day keeping the edges smooth, sharp, and sanded, with no pits. One IBP worker, a small Guatemalan woman in graying hair, spoke with me . . . telling the story of her life . . . the whole time sharpening big knives in her lap as though she were knitting a sweater.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser does not have to try hard to make the meatpacking industry seem extraordinarily unpleasant for those involved in that labor. The only physical connection that a person has to the meat being "produced" is through the complex system of cuts and incisions made along the assembly line, by workers so specialized that they might make a single cut, over and over again, many hundreds of times in a given shift.

This act of distributing the labor of meatpacking among a large number of people, each working in a small area of production, is similar to the manner in which cars are made - a "Fordist" model, which works well in producing "output" but renders the manufacturing job itself dull, numbing, and difficult because of its sheer boredom. This boredom, as Schlosser notes, can be especially dangerous in the meatpacking context, as those not paying attention can find themselves in danger along the production line. 

Chapter 9: What’s in the Meat Quotes

Every day in the United States, nearly 200,000 people are sickened by foodborne disease, 900 are hospitalized, and fourteen die. . . . Most of these cases are never reported to the authorities or properly diagnosed. The widespread outbreaks that are detected . . . represent a small fraction of the number that actually occurs.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section of the book, Schlosser makes plain some of the problems associated with factory farming - problems that affect the consumers of meat and poultry far more than they affect the producers. For work environments like the meatpacking plant Schlosser visits are low on safety regulations and high on "throughput," meaning that a great deal of product is pressed through the assembly line in a very short amount of time. This gives safety inspectors, already tasked with making sure that other parts of the factory are safe and secure, with examining far more of the meat or poultry product than can be adequately examined in the time allotted. The result is a simple statistical reality - the lessening of safety standards over time will, inevitably, produce meat and poultry that are less safe to eat. And these less safe products will cause some to get sick - and some proportion of the sick will die - all to serve ideals of greater efficiency and profit. 

The pathogens from infected cattle are spread not only in feedlots, but also at slaughterhouses and hamburger grinders. The slaughterhouse tasks most likely to contaminate meat are the removal of an animal’s hide and the removal of its digestive system . . . if a hide has been inadequately cleaned, chunks of dirt and manure may fall from it onto the meat.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

The problem with maintaining a high-quality and clean packing environment is a complex one. It requires the buy-in of large numbers of people at the plant - all of whom, to make sure they are doing their jobs fully, should be protected with safe jobs and with benefits, to encourage good work. Workers should receive staff oversight and should labor in the presence of trained regulators, who can spot problems long before they become potential illnesses far down the line.

But Schlosser believes that the ethos of deregulation, in which government spending of any kind (in the '70s, '80s, and '90s) was considered inherently bad, caused food inspections to trail off significantly. In these instances, then, plants that normally would have been inspected with regularity instead allowed things like animal skin and unwashed body parts to seep into the supply chain - thus resulting in serious illness for a small number of consumers unfortunate enough to eat tainted meat. For Schlosser, however, these problems are not an inevitable consequence of the plant or of packing itself. They are a consequence of a government that does too little to support those who work in some of the country's most important industries. 

In addition to letting meatpacking executives determine when to recall ground beef, how much needs to be recalled, and who should be told about it, for years the USDA allowed these companies to help write the agency’s own press releases about the recalls.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage offers another example of how radical deregulation can skew incentives and protect company profits over the needs of the consumer and the best interests of society at large. Considered rationally, of course, it would make no sense at all for companies to "regulate themselves" and make sure they were producing meat cleaned to the utmost standards - for companies who wish to save money will, in part, cut down on regulatory costs, meaning that the company has no financial incentive to make its food safe (as long as widespread illness doesn't inspire distrust in the consumer, and harm the "bottom line"). Only the government, or another trained third-party arbiter, can determine the safety and security of the meatpacking process. And this safeguarding requires at least a certain amount of government investment and oversight.

But, as Schlosser notes, Republican governments, especially in the West, view this kind of oversight as a "violation" of the rights of those businesses to engage in private enterprise as they see fit. All this serves mostly to protect corporate profits as the expense of consumer safety. 

Chapter 10: Global Realization Quotes

As the fast food industry has grown more competitive in the United States, the major chains have looked to overseas markets for their future growth. The McDonald’s Corporation recently used a new phrase to describe its hopes for foreign conquest: “global realization.”

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser's passage here points out some of the inherent absurdities of the corporate position. Schlosser believes that McDonald's is expanding for one reason, and for one reason only - to make money, more of it, by finding new populations who will buy their hamburgers, fries, and nuggets. But "global conquest" would not be a particularly marketable term for this, nor would it play well with investors, who wish to maintain McDonald's language the notion of community. Thus "global realization" makes it seem that McDonald's is fulfilling for people exactly what they want - that the company is only "realizing" the desires of those who, for so long, have had to go without cheap, uniformly produced food.

This kind of corporate language, which veils actual meanings and instead uses euphemisms designed to mislead, is, for Schlosser, another indication of the way that money transforms industries. The larger the company, the greater its interest in protecting itself and its profits - and the greater its distance from the reality of actual describing its motives and methods. 

As people eat more meals outside the home, they consume more calories, less fiber, and more fat. Commodity prices have fallen so low that the fast food industry has greatly increased its portion sizes, without reducing profits, in order to attract customers. The size of a burger has become one of its main selling points.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Schlosser touches on this idea relatively little, it is important to note just how unhealthy and devoid of nutritional value fast food is. Fast food, as Schlosser notes throughout, is designed to sell itself, to make itself irresistible to those who wish to buy it. Fast food companies therefore have no interest in producing healthy options. Instead, they cater their food exactly to what customers want, or think they want - the tastes they crave, without adequate information about where the food comes from, or what its actual nutritional content is.

Again, Schlosser does not seem to think that all fast food companies should be strictly healthy establishments. But Schlosser does believe that the industry's single-minded pursuit of profit at all costs causes it to neglect other imperatives, which include the feeding of very large numbers of people. When McDonald's cares only about satisfying people's taste buds, on a long-term scale, people who eat there for long enough become unhealthy - and Schlosser makes no qualms about pointing out this connection between fast food and ill health. 

Epilogue: Have It Your Way Quotes

Today’s fast food industry is the culmination of 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. The annual cost of obesity alone is now twice as large as the fast food industry’s total revenues.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser here attempts to use economic language to show why fast food is actually not so "cheap" a proposition for society as it might initially seem. Fast food, after all, produces, as in any market, "externalities," or consequences beyond the market forces of supply and demand that nevertheless might influence supply and demand in the future. Thus, if people eat too much McDonald's and become unhealthy as a result, there will be other drags on the economy - more people, for example, might require certain kinds of expensive healthcare, causing healthcare costs to rise, which in turn might cause other aspects of the economy to be harmed (prompting inflation, for example). In this last chapter Schlosser wishes to make plain just how dangerous fast food and corporate farming practices can be, not just for the consumer who eats the foods, but for those who live in a society dominated by this form of unhealthy, and utterly profit-minded, form of food production. 

[At the fast food counter], think about where the food came from, about how and where it was made, about what is set in motion by every single fast food purchase, the ripple effect near and far, think about it. Then place your order. Or turn and walk out the door. It’s not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser makes plain that he is not blaming or vilifying people for eating fast food. Nor is he necessarily and always blaming those who produce fast food. New technologies in manufacturing and related fields have, in the twentieth century, produced great capabilities in industry, opportunities for humans to do good for one another, to make far more food available for one another - literally to feed the world. But Schlosser argues that there are good ways to do this and bad ways. There are ethical ways, that take into account economic and physiological realities, and there are unethical ways, that focus only on the short-term monetary gain for a relatively small number of people.

Thus Schlosser asks only that the reader consider all the aspects of food production before making a choice about food consumption. It might not change the world entirely, or in one day - but it would perhaps cause changes in consumption that could eventually alter the methods by which food arrives ready to be eaten. This kind of enlightened consumption would then be a start to a healthier and more fairly distributed system of reward in the food industry. Schlosser earnestly believes this might work - and urges the reader directly, in this passage, to take his message to heart.