Fast Food Nation

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Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety Theme Analysis

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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fast Food Nation, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety Theme Icon

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is, above all, an expose of the conditions in the fast-food industry. It discusses the following topics: how fast-food corporations—like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell—came into being (who founded them and franchised them); how these fast-food companies shaped the production of food products (especially meat and potatoes); and how systems of food production and consumption shape the American consumer. Schlosser describes the nutritional effects of high-fat, low-nutrient fast foods, the hygienic problems associated with factory farming, and the failure of government agencies to regulate food businesses effectively.

Schlosser is a journalist, and the book is not intended to vilify fast food itself, nor the people who make it and consume it. Schlosser is, however, critical of certain aspects of this eating culture, reserving most of his condemnation for the large corporations that sacrifice the integrity of their product for the “bottom line,” and for government regulators who turn a blind eye on food-safety processes that are less than stringent. Schlosser notes that economic and political systems—especially those in favor of corporate profit and consolidation, at the expense of small-business owners—have to a large extent determined what Americans eat.

Thus, the book attempts to show what this food is, how it’s produced, and what the consequences of its production and consumption might be. Schlosser concludes that, although the economic forces behind fast food are significant, there are possibilities for reform within this system. One would not need to eliminate fast food entirely in order to regulate factory production of meat and potatoes more effectively or, for example, to encourage school lunches to be more nutritious. The fast-food system could be altered—to better serve consumers, eaters, and small-business owners—without being completely dismantled.

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Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety appears in each chapter of Fast Food Nation. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety Quotes in Fast Food Nation

Below you will find the important quotes in Fast Food Nation related to the theme of Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety.
Introduction Quotes

The key to a successful franchise, according to many texts on the subject, can be expressed in one word: “uniformity.” Franchises and chain stores strive to offer exactly the same product or service at numerous locations.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Schlosser's primary objectives in Fast Food Nation is to understand in social and historical terms the rise of the fast food chain restaurant. One of the keys to the chain is the reduction of the eating experience to a set of smaller, more easily replicated tasks, both for the producer of the food and for the consumer. This is why franchises must be uniform - they must operate such that practices in one location can be used, with only a minimum of modification, in another.

Schlosser recognizes that this uniformity and "franchising" of fast food restaurants is part of a larger sweep, in the "modernizing" West, of economic policies favoring the wealthy over the poor, and the corporate over the individual. Fast food restaurants seem designed to produce profit for those with stakes in the restaurant, rather than to create an eating experience enjoyable for the consumer, or a working experience that is satisfying or sustainable for the average employee. What is most upsetting to Schlosser is the idea that these forms of eating and cooking have replaced other more individualized, local, and fulfilling kinds of food consumption. 


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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. 

Chapter 1: The Founding Fathers Quotes

When I first met my wife . . . this road here was gravel . . . and now it’s blacktop.

Related Characters: Carl Karcher (speaker), Eric Schlosser
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Carl Karcher of Carl's Jr. believes, and not incorrectly, that fast food restaurants played a large role in the modernization of the American West. They certainly did - it is hard to dispute the idea that freeways, suburbs, and fast food shaped the way Americans recreated and moved through space. What separates Karcher from Schlosser, however, is the idea of this being a good, or positive, development for American society. Karcher sees fast food as an engine of economic growth that made the West, along with myriad suburban developments, livable for a large number of people. Before Karcher, the West was nothing more than a set of paths and land for grazing livestock. 

But this idea of the West as a rugged, natural, untouched place is, for Schlosser, an important one. Fast food really did change the American landscape, and Schlosser argues it did not change it for the better. Patterns of food consumption are one thing. But as the book progresses, Schlosser will go on to describe the ways that food production - namely farming and herding techniques - were negatively altered in order to accommodate large food conglomerates. 

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 5: Why the Fries Taste Good Quotes

McDonald’s began to sell J. R. Simplot’s frozen french fries the following year. Customers didn’t notice any difference in taste. And the reduced cost of using a frozen product made french fries one of the most profitable items on the menu—far more profitable than hamburgers.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker), J. R. Simplot
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser isolates the invention of the french fry, by J. R. Simplot, as one of the great innovations in fast food history - and for good reason. The french fry becomes a staple of fast food not only because it is delicious for consumers, but because it is easy to produce, immensely cheap, and its production can be streamlined to maximum efficiency by freezing.

Although unfrozen french fries are by no means the healthiest or most natural of foods, according to Schlosser they were at least somewhat closer to food in its original state - food that has not been manufactured to highest efficiency at the cost of its original taste and integrity. Schlosser believes that the french fry, as well as similar developments in burgers and chicken nuggets, sped the growth of fast food chains by making products more or less exactly the same across stores. This causes customers to expect - and to receive - the same products regardless of location, thus creating another efficiency of production and sales, but a dehumanization of food production and consumption. 

Since 1980, the tonnage of potatoes grown in Idaho has almost doubled, while the average yield per acre has risen by nearly 30 percent. But the extraordinary profits being made from the sale of french fires have barely trickled down to the farmers.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes another example of what Schlosser considers the economic erosion of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. Because of the nature of ruthless economic competition in the farming industry - and the practices that cause farm conglomerates to form increasingly fewer, and vastly larger, corporations - the margins on any particular crop are driven far lower. This makes it difficult for small farmers to make money selling most crops. Only the largest of companies, who sell the most crops at a particular low price (and for low profit), can sell enough to continue to stay in business.

This economic system, in which money is concentrated within an industry among conglomerates, is not a "true" or "good" manifestation of market capitalism (Schlosser believes), but is instead an unfortunate byproduct of it. He believes, further, that certain forms of regulation could ensure economic competition and keep prices reasonable while also keeping smaller-scale farmers in business. 

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.

The suicide rate among ranchers and farmers in the US is now about three times higher than the national average. The issue briefly received attention during the 1980s farm crisis, but has been pretty much ignored ever since. Meanwhile, across rural America, a slow and steady death toll mounts. As the rancher’s traditional way of life is destroyed, so are many of the beliefs that go with it.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ranchers
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser is clearly affected by the death of Hank, who commits suicide in part over despair at his inability to make a living cattle ranching in Colorado. Schlosser does not necessarily hold large agricultural companies directly responsible for the upsurge in farmer suicides, but he does believe a wide variety of factors, including economic difficulties, put an incredible burden on farmers that is very, very difficult to lift. And without adequate public health services, including mental health services, many of these farmers' needs go unanswered.

Schlosser walks a fine line in the text between advocacy for the positions of disenfranchised farmers like Hank and for fast food workers continually bilked of their already meager pay by management. But he also wishes to report on things - not so much to editorialize as to make clear just how out-of-joint the fast food industry can be. Occasionally, however, this reporting becomes tinged with a personal anecdote, like the story of Hank - making that story all the more affecting. 

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. 

Epilogue: Have It Your Way Quotes

[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.