Sample text for Fast food nation : the dark side of the all-American meal / Eric Schlosser.


Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog


Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission. May be incomplete or contain other coding.


Counter Introduction
CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN SITS on the eastern slope of Colorado"s Front
Range, rising steeply from the prairie and overlooking the city of
Colorado Springs. From a distance, the mountain appears beautiful and
serene, dotted with rocky outcroppings, scrub oak, and ponderosa
pine. It looks like the backdrop of an old Hollywood western, just
another gorgeous Rocky Mountain vista. And yet Cheyenne Mountain is
hardly pristine. One of the nation"s most important military
installations lies deep within it, housing units of the North
American Aerospace Command, the Air Force Space Command, and the
United States Space Command. During the mid-1950s, high-level
officials at the Pentagon worried that America"s air defenses had
become vulnerable to sabotage and attack. Cheyenne Mountain was
chosen as the site for a top-secret, underground combat operations
center. The mountain was hollowed out, and fifteen buildings, most of
them three stories high, were erected amid a maze of tunnels and
passageways extending for miles. The four-and-a-half-acre underground
complex was designed to survive a direct hit by an atomic bomb. Now
officially called the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, the
facility is entered through steel blast doors that are three feet
thick and weigh twenty-five tons each; they automatically swing shut
in less than twenty seconds. The base is closed to the public, and a
heavily armed quick response team guards against intruders.
Pressurized air within the complex prevents contamination by
radioactive fallout and biological weapons. The buildings are mounted
on gigantic steel springs to ride out an earthquake or the blast wave
of a thermonuclear strike. The hallways and staircases are painted
slate gray, the ceilings are low, and there are combination locks on
many of the doors. A narrow escape tunnel, entered through a metal
hatch, twists and turns its way out of the mountain through solid
rock. The place feels like the set of an early James Bond movie, with
men in jumpsuits driving little electric vans from one brightly lit
cavern to another.
Fifteen hundred people work inside the mountain, maintaining
the facility and collecting information from a worldwide network of
radars, spy satellites, ground-based sensors, airplanes, and blimps.
The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center tracks every manmade object
that enters North American airspace or that orbits the earth. It is
the heart of the nation"s early warning system. It can detect the
firing of a long-range missile, anywhere in the world, before that
missile has left the launch pad.
This futuristic military base inside a mountain has the
capability to be self-sustaining for at least one month. Its
generators can produce enough electricity to power a city the size of
Tampa, Florida. Its underground reservoirs hold millions of gallons
of water; workers sometimes traverse them in rowboats. The complex
has its own underground fitness center, a medical clinic, a dentist"s
office, a barbershop, a chapel, and a cafeteria. When the men and
women stationed at Cheyenne Mountain get tired of the food in the
cafeteria, they often send somebody over to the Burger King at Fort
Carson, a nearby army base. Or they call Domino"s.
Almost every night, a Domino"s deliveryman winds his way up
the lonely Cheyenne Mountain Road, past the ominous DEADLY FORCE
AUTHORIZED signs, past the security checkpoint at the entrance of the
base, driving toward the heavily guarded North Portal, tucked behind
chain link and barbed wire. Near the spot where the road heads
straight into the mountainside, the delivery man drops off his pizzas
and collects his tip. And should Armageddon come, should a foreign
enemy someday shower the United States with nuclear warheads, laying
waste to the whole continent, entombed within Cheyenne Mountain,
along with the high-tech marvels, the pale blue jumpsuits, comic
books, and Bibles, future archeologists may find other clues to the
nature of our civilization — Big King wrappers, hardened crusts of
Cheesy Bread, Barbeque Wing bones, and the red, white, and blue of a
Domino"s pizza box.
what we eat
OVER THE LAST THREE DECADES, fast food has infiltrated every nook and
cranny of American society. An industry that began with a handful of
modest hot dog and hamburger stands in southern California has spread
to every corner of the nation, selling a broad range of foods
wherever paying customers may be found. Fast food is now served at
restaurants and drive-throughs, at stadiums, airports, zoos, high
schools, elementary schools, and universities, on cruise ships,
trains, and airplanes, at K-Marts, Wal-Marts, gas stations, and even
at hospital cafeterias. In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on
fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now
spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal
computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast
food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and
recorded music — combined.
Pull open the glass door, feel the rush of cool air, walk in,
get on line, study the backlit color photographs above the counter,
place your order, hand over a few dollars, watch teenagers in
uniforms pushing various buttons, and moments later take hold of a
plastic tray full of food wrapped in colored paper and cardboard. The
whole experience of buying fast food has become so routine, so
thoroughly unexceptional and mundane, that it is now taken for
granted, like brushing your teeth or stopping for a red light. It has
become a social custom as American as a small, rectangular, hand-
held, frozen, and reheated apple pie.
This is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and
the world it has made. Fast food has proven to be a revolutionary
force in American life; I am interested in it both as a commodity and
as a metaphor. What people eat (or don"t eat) has always been
determined by a complex interplay of social, economic, and
technological forces. The early Roman Republic was fed by its citizen-
farmers; the Roman Empire, by its slaves. A nation"s diet can be more
revealing than its art or literature. On any given day in the United
States about one-quarter of the adult population visits a fast food
restaurant. During a relatively brief period of time, the fast food
industry has helped to transform not only the American diet, but also
our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture. Fast food and
its consequences have become inescapable, regardless of whether you
eat it twice a day, try to avoid it, or have never taken a single
bite.
The extraordinary growth of the fast food industry has been
driven by fundamental changes in American society. Adjusted for
inflation, the hourly wage of the average U.S. worker peaked in 1973
and then steadily declined for the next twenty-five years. During
that period, women entered the workforce in record numbers, often
motivated less by a feminist perspective than by a need to pay the
bills. In 1975, about one-third of American mothers with young
children worked outside the home; today almost two-thirds of such
mothers are employed. As the sociologists Cameron Lynne Macdonald and
Carmen Sirianni have noted, the entry of so many women into the
workforce has greatly increased demand for the types of services that
housewives traditionally perform: cooking, cleaning, and child care.
A generation ago, three-quarters of the money used to buy food in the
United States was spent to prepare meals at home. Today about half of
the money used to buy food is spent at restaurants — mainly at fast
food restaurants.
The McDonald"s Corporation has become a powerful symbol of
America"s service economy, which is now responsible for 90 percent of
the country"s new jobs. In 1968, McDonald"s operated about one
thousand restaurants. Today it has about twenty-eight thousand
restaurants worldwide and opens almost two thousand new ones each
year. An estimated one out of every eight workers in the United
States has at some point been employed by McDonald"s. The company
annually hires about one million people, more than any other American
organization, public or private. McDonald"s is the nation"s largest
purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes — and the second largest
purchaser of chicken. The McDonald"s Corporation is the largest owner
of retail property in the world. Indeed, the company earns the
majority of its profits not from selling food but from collecting
rent. McDonald"s spends more money on advertising and marketing than
any other brand. As a result it has replaced Coca-Cola as the world"s
most famous brand. McDonald"s operates more playgrounds than any
other private entity in the United States. It is one of the nation"s
largest distributors of toys. A survey of American schoolchildren
found that 96 percent could identify Ronald McDonald. The only
fictional character with a higher degree of recognition was Santa
Claus. The impact of McDonald"s on the way we live today is hard to
overstate. The Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the
Christian cross.
In the early 1970s, the farm activist Jim Hightower warned
of "the McDonaldization of America." He viewed the emerging fast food
industry as a threat to independent businesses, as a step toward a
food economy dominated by giant corporations, and as a homogenizing
influence on American life. In Eat Your Heart Out (1975), he argued
that "bigger is not better." Much of what Hightower feared has come
to pass. The centralized purchasing decisions of the large restaurant
chains and their demand for standardized products have given a
handful of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the
nation"s food supply. Moreover, the tremendous success of the fast
food industry has encouraged other industries to adopt similar
business methods. The basic thinking behind fast food has become the
operating system of today"s retail economy, wiping out small
businesses, obliterating regional differences, and spreading
identical stores throughout the country like a self-replicating code.
America"s main streets and malls now boast the same Pizza
Huts and Taco Bells, Gaps and Banana Republics, Starbucks and Jiffy-
Lubes, Foot Lockers, Snip N" Clips, Sunglass Huts, and Hobbytown
USAs. Almost every facet of American life has now been franchised or
chained. From the maternity ward at a Columbia/HCA hospital to an
embalming room owned by Service Corporation International — "the
world"s largest provider of death care services," based in Houston,
Texas, which since 1968 has grown to include 3,823 funeral homes, 523
cemeteries, and 198 crematoriums, and which today handles the final
remains of one out of every nine Americans — a person can now go from
the cradle to the grave without spending a nickel at an independently
owned business.
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. Customers are drawn to familiar brands by an
instinct to avoid the unknown. A brand offers a feeling of
reassurance when its products are always and everywhere the same. "We
have found out . . . that we cannot trust some people who are
nonconformists," declared Ray Kroc, one of the founders of
McDonald"s, angered by some of his franchisees. "We will make
conformists out of them in a hurry . . . The organization cannot
trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization."
One of the ironies of America"s fast food industry is that a
business so dedicated to conformity was founded by iconoclasts and
self-made men, by entrepreneurs willing to defy conventional opinion.
Few of the people who built fast food empires ever attended college,
let alone business school. They worked hard, took risks, and followed
their own paths. In many respects, the fast food industry embodies
the best and the worst of American capitalism at the start of the
twenty-first century — its constant stream of new products and
innovations, its widening gulf between rich and poor. The
industrialization of the restaurant kitchen has enabled the fast food
chains to rely upon a low-paid and unskilled workforce. While a
handful of workers manage to rise up the corporate ladder, the vast
majority lack full-time employment, receive no benefits, learn few
skills, exercise little control over their workplace, quit after a
few months, and float from job to job. The restaurant industry is now
America"s largest private employer, and it pays some of the lowest
wages. During the economic boom of the 1990s, when many American
workers enjoyed their first pay raises in a generation, the real
value of wages in the restaurant industry continued to fall. The
roughly 3.5 million fast food workers are by far the largest group of
minimum wage earners in the United States. The only Americans who
consistently earn a lower hourly wage are migrant farm workers.
A hamburger and french fries became the quintessential
American meal in the 1950s, thanks to the promotional efforts of the
fast food chains. The typical American now consumes approximately
three hamburgers and four orders of french fries every week. But the
steady barrage of fast food ads, full of thick juicy burgers and long
golden fries, rarely mentions where these foods come from nowadays or
what ingredients they contain. The birth of the fast food industry
coincided with Eisenhower-era glorifications of technology, with
optimistic slogans like "Better Living through Chemistry" and "Our
Friend the Atom." The sort of technological wizardry that Walt Disney
promoted on television and at Disneyland eventually reached its
fulfillment in the kitchens of fast food restaurants. Indeed, the
corporate culture of McDonald"s seems inextricably linked to that of
the Disney empire, sharing a reverence for sleek machinery,
electronics, and automation. The leading fast food chains still
embrace a boundless faith in science — and as a result have changed
not just what Americans eat, but also how their food is made.
The current methods for preparing fast food are less likely
to be found in cookbooks than in trade journals such as Food
Technologist and Food Engineering. Aside from the salad greens and
tomatoes, most fast food is delivered to the restaurant already
frozen, canned, dehydrated, or freeze-dried. A fast food kitchen is
merely the final stage in a vast and highly complex system of mass
production. Foods that may look familiar have in fact been completely
reformulated. What we eat has changed more in the last forty years
than in the previous forty thousand. Like Cheyenne Mountain, today"s
fast food conceals remarkable technological advances behind an
ordinary-looking façade. Much of the taste and aroma of American fast
food, for example, is now manufactured at a series of large chemical
plants off the New Jersey Turnpike.
In the fast food restaurants of Colorado Springs, behind the
counters, amid the plastic seats, in the changing landscape outside
the window, you can see all the virtues and destructiveness of our
fast food nation. I chose Colorado Springs as a focal point for this
book because the changes that have recently swept through the city
are emblematic of those that fast food — and the fast food mentality —
have encouraged throughout the United States. Countless other
suburban communities, in every part of the country, could have been
used to illustrate the same points. The extraordinary growth of
Colorado Springs neatly parallels that of the fast food industry:
during the last few decades, the city"s population has more than
doubled. Subdivisions, shopping malls, and chain restaurants are
appearing in the foothills of Cheyenne Mountain and the plains
rolling to the east. The Rocky Mountain region as a whole has the
fastest-growing economy in the United States, mixing high-tech and
service industries in a way that may define America"s workforce for
years to come. And new restaurants are opening there at a faster pace
than anywhere else in the nation.
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.
The political philosophy that now prevails in so much of the West —
with its demand for lower taxes, smaller government, an unbridled
free market — stands in total contradiction to the region"s true
economic underpinnings. No other region of the United States has been
so dependent on government subsidies for so long, from the nineteenth-
century construction of its railroads to the twentieth-century
financing of its military bases and dams. One historian has described
the federal government"s 1950s highway-building binge as a case study
in "interstate socialism" — a phrase that aptly describes how the
West was really won. The fast food industry took root alongside that
interstate highway system, as a new form of restaurant sprang up
beside the new off-ramps. Moreover, the extraordinary growth of this
industry over the past quarter-century did not occur in a political
vacuum. It took place during a period when the inflation-adjusted
value of the minimum wage declined by about 40 percent, when
sophisticated mass marketing techniques were for the first time
directed at small children, and when federal agencies created to
protect workers and consumers too often behaved like branch offices
of the companies that were supposed to be regulated. Ever since the
administration of President Richard Nixon, the fast food industry has
worked closely with its allies in Congress and the White House to
oppose new worker safety, food safety, and minimum wage laws. While
publicly espousing support for the free market, the fast food chains
have quietly pursued and greatly benefited from a wide variety of
government subsidies. Far from being inevitable, America"s fast food
industry in its present form is the logical outcome of certain
political and economic choices.
In the potato fields and processing plants of Idaho, in the
ranchlands east of Colorado Springs, in the feedlots and
slaughterhouses of the High Plains, you can see the effects of fast
food on the nation"s rural life, its environment, its workers, and
its health. The fast food chains now stand atop a huge food-
industrial complex that has gained control of American agriculture.
During the 1980s, large multinationals — such as Cargill, ConAgra,
and IBP — were allowed to dominate one commodity market after
another. Farmers and cattle ranchers are losing their independence,
essentially becoming hired hands for the agribusiness giants or being
forced off the land. Family farms are now being replaced by gigantic
corporate farms with absentee owners. Rural communities are losing
their middle class and becoming socially stratified, divided between
a small, wealthy elite and large numbers of the working poor. Small
towns that seemingly belong in a Norman Rockwell painting are being
turned into rural ghettos. The hardy, independent farmers whom Thomas
Jefferson considered the bedrock of American democracy are a truly
vanishing breed. The United States now has more prison inmates than
full-time farmers.
The fast food chains" vast purchasing power and their demand
for a uniform product have encouraged fundamental changes in how
cattle are raised, slaughtered, and processed into ground beef. These
changes have made meatpacking — once a highly skilled, highly paid
occupation — into the most dangerous job in the United States,
performed by armies of poor, transient immigrants whose injuries
often go unrecorded and uncompensated. And the same meat industry
practices that endanger these workers have facilitated the
introduction of deadly pathogens, such as E. coli 0157:H7, into
America"s hamburger meat, a food aggressively marketed to children.
Again and again, efforts to prevent the sale of tainted ground beef
have been thwarted by meat industry lobbyists and their allies in
Congress. The federal government has the legal authority to recall a
defective toaster oven or stuffed animal — but still lacks the power
to recall tons of contaminated, potentially lethal meat.
I do not mean to suggest that fast food is solely responsible
for every social problem now haunting the United States. In some
cases (such as the malling and sprawling of the West) the fast food
industry has been a catalyst and a symptom of larger economic trends.
In other cases (such as the rise of franchising and the spread of
obesity) fast food has played a more central role. By tracing the
diverse influences of fast food I hope to shed light not only on the
workings of an important industry, but also on a distinctively
American way of viewing the world.
Elitists have always looked down at fast food, criticizing
how it tastes and regarding it as another tacky manifestation of
American popular culture. The aesthetics of fast food are of much
less concern to me than its impact upon the lives of ordinary
Americans, both as workers and consumers. Most of all, I am concerned
about its impact on the nation"s children. Fast food is heavily
marketed to children and prepared by people who are barely older than
children. This is an industry that both feeds and feeds off the
young. During the two years spent researching this book, I ate an
enormous amount of fast food. Most of it tasted pretty good. That is
one of the main reasons people buy fast food; it has been carefully
designed to taste good. It"s also inexpensive and convenient. 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 sociologist George Ritzer has attacked the fast food
industry for celebrating a narrow measure of efficiency over every
other human value, calling the triumph of McDonald"s "the
irrationality of rationality." Others consider the fast food industry
proof of the nation"s great economic vitality, a beloved American
institution that appeals overseas to millions who admire our way of
life. Indeed, the values, the culture, and the industrial
arrangements of our fast food nation are now being exported to the
rest of the world. Fast food has joined Hollywood movies, blue jeans,
and pop music as one of America"s most prominent cultural exports.
Unlike other commodities, however, fast food isn"t viewed, read,
played, or worn. It enters the body and becomes part of the consumer.
No other industry offers, both literally and figuratively, so much
insight into the nature of mass consumption.
Hundreds of millions of people buy fast food every day
without giving it much thought, unaware of the subtle and not so
subtle ramifications of their purchases. They rarely consider where
this food came from, how it was made, what it is doing to the
community around them. They just grab their tray off the counter,
find a table, take a seat, unwrap the paper, and dig in. The whole
experience is transitory and soon forgotten. I"ve written this book
out of a belief that people should know what lies behind the shiny,
happy surface of every fast food transaction. They should know what
really lurks between those sesame-seed buns. As the old saying goes:
You are what you eat.
-- Copyright (C) 2000 Eric Schlosser. All rights reserved. Reprinted
by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Fast food restaurants United States, Food industry and trade United States, Convenience foods United States