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Hamburger Hell

Eric Schlosser on French fries, American slaughterhouses and his new book, Fast Food Nation ”I‘ve eaten more fast food than I could ever measure,“ says Eric Schlosser, sipping at a cup of tea in the outdoor courtyard of a Hollywood cafe. Over the two years he spent researching Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, the author laughs, ”I ate so many French fries, it’s beyond belief.“ As soon as the research was over, though, and the risk of offending his sources by turning up his nose at their food had dissipated, he vowed off the stuff. (Schlosser politely sidestepped a request that our interview be conducted at a nearby McDonald‘s.) ”The last hamburger I ate,“ he remembers, ”was at Conway’s Red Top in Colorado Springs, this really great family-run place, and I just said to myself, ‘Well, this is it.’ And it was great.“ His eyes widen at the memory. ”It was like the archetypal hamburger,“ he laughs. ”It was amazing, it was so good. And I just haven‘t had one since.“

Schlosser, 41 and dressed like an overgrown prep-school student -- bug-eye shades for the L.A. sun, shapeless khakis, lived-in brown lace-ups, a tweed jacket and tie -- can talk at length, and with a passion unabated by the rigors of his book tour, about ”what’s in the beef.“ He can talk about the blood sloshing ankle-deep on slaughterhouse floors, about the diet of your average cow before it becomes a cheeseburger (including the blood of other cows, dead pigs and horses, cat and dog corpses bought from animal shelters, chickens that were in turn fed beef, chicken shit bought in bulk), about the sinister technology of Automated Meat Recovery: machines banned in Europe but in wide use here ”designed to squeeze the last shreds of meat off the bone,“ that often shred the bone itself, mixing shards of bone and marrow and spinal cord (where the Mad Cow lurks) into the ground round. He can talk about the dangerous promiscuity of meat grinding, comparing the risk of having unprotected sex with ”multiple, multiple, multiple sex partners“ to eating a Big Mac -- every burger you eat contains meat from dozens, even hundreds, of cows. ”It‘s like you’re with,“ he says, pausing for the conjugal connotation of the word to sink in, ”every cattle.“

But if it was health concerns that made Schlosser stop feeding ground beef to his children, it wasn‘t what made him give up the easy pleasures of the value meal. ”If you’re a strong, healthy adult, the odds are overwhelming [the meat is] not going to make you sick,“ he says. And he‘s not sure he won’t someday find himself in the drive-thru lane once more. ”I‘d eat a hamburger again, but right now -- no way.“ He shakes his head from shoulder to shoulder in disgust. ”It’s not because I‘m afraid I’m going to get sick, it‘s not fear of food, it’s anger at the companies who make the food. And I‘m really not trying to make people afraid of their food, because you gotta live life, and there’s other stuff to worry about . . . but I hope people get angry.“

There‘s a lot to get angry about in Fast Food Nation. Schlosser chronicles the extraordinary effects brought about over the last 50 years, since Richard and Maurice McDonald reorganized their San Bernardino burger stand on Fordist assembly-line principles and a few years later sold their name to Ray Kroc, who replicated their experiment in thousands of identical franchises. The franchising alone, Schlosser argues, has transformed the American landscape well beyond the world of burgers and shakes. ”The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today’s retail economy,“ he writes, ”wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences, and spreading identical stores throughout the country like a self-replicating code.“

”The impact was minimal when there were only 300 McDonald‘s,“ Schlosser says. ”An America with three or four hundred McDonald’s, that‘s no big deal . . . It’s when you‘ve got fourteen thousand of them, and they’re the biggest purchaser of beef and the biggest purchaser of potatoes and pork [in the country], that‘s when these conformist instincts and these kinds of control instincts are just totally out of control. And it’s huge beyond any imagining.“ Some of the images in his book help: the mountains of potatoes on their way to becoming fries; the ”lagoons“ of cow shit outside a Greeley, Colorado, feedlot; the New Jersey industrial parks where the flavors of grilled beef, strawberry shakes and apple pies are designed and chemically manufactured.

The size and power of the fast-food chains, Schlosser convincingly argues, have completely altered the face of American agriculture, encouraging the growth of huge industrialized agribusiness firms at the expense of independent farms and ranches, helping to transform meatpacking from a highly skilled, unionized industry into a nightmarish caricature of sweatshop labor in which corporate demands for speed and profit force a largely immigrant work force to mix their own blood with the blood of the cows they kill, cut and wrap in cellophane. The fast-food giants have pioneered many of the business methods that have become mainstays of the contemporary service economy: minimizing job skills to make workers maximally expendable; almost exclusively hiring immigrants, teens and the elderly, all of whom are unlikely to complain about working conditions; juggling employee hours so no one works enough to claim benefits; lobbying fiercely against hikes in the minimum wage and the enforcement of workplace-safety rules. ”There‘s this cheery, happy, smiley facade to the industry, and behind it there’s a lot of antediluvian politics.“

Schlosser has been happily surprised by Fast Food Nation‘s success. His publisher -- though always supportive, he stresses -- didn’t hype the book. Amazon ordered so few copies that the company is now several weeks behind in filling orders. It‘s been on The New York Times’ best-seller list for the last five weeks despite an almost complete lack of advertising. ”I‘m trying to understand it myself,“ says Schlosser, laughing. ”It’s wild, because for a while it was up there with Body for Life . . .“

Fast Food Nation began as an assignment for Rolling Stone. Schlosser had just finished a yearlong story for Atlantic Monthly on the consequences of murder and was looking forward to a change of pace. ”For me, the fast-food piece was going to be a more kitschy, light, amusing look at the wacky world of fast food,“ he says. ”When I got the assignment, I was eating fast food, I was taking my kids to McDonald‘s, and I knew instinctively that this wasn’t the greatest industry on the planet, but I did not set out to do a muckraking dark expose.“ It‘s perhaps because he came into the story with so few preconceptions that his book, despite its many damning revelations, comes across as even-tempered as it does.

Far from a strident vegan screed, Fast Food Nation is a thoughtful and balanced piece of journalism. Not wanting to be ”a nag or a dreary puritan,“ as he puts it, Schlosser does very little preaching and even evinces an ambivalent admiration for the industry’s founding fathers, men like Ray Kroc and Carl Karcher, who started out as ”door-to-door salesmen, short-order cooks, orphans . . . eternal optimists looking for the next big thing,“ before being united by their conservative politics, their thirst for conformity, their ostentatious patriotism, and by a fondness for free-market rhetoric that was belied by their constant reliance on government subsidies. It is their eccentricity and bravado that make the story so peculiarly American. The industry, Schlosser points out, was ”created by innovators and mavericks and self-made men and high school dropouts, and where does it wind up? It winds up being the quintessence of conformity and [the] corporate bureaucratic mentality. These guys couldn‘t get hired by these companies today.“

Schlosser constantly stresses that there was nothing inevitable about the rise of the fast-food giants: We’re not stuck with them. Whether through regulation or boycott, they can be challenged. And he sees cause for optimism. McDonald‘s sales are down abroad, he says, and they’ve nearly reached a saturation point in the States. In the meantime, he offers, his book‘s purpose is ”not to make you afraid, and it’s not to make you not want to leave the house, but,“ he laughs, ”this is where your food comes from, and you should deal with it, and then do something about it or don‘t, but you should know what you’re eating.“


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