Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal tells the story of how the United States—and, increasingly, the world—has become shaped and defined by the fast food industry. From its origins in the new suburbs of California in the 1950s, fast food has spread across every corner of the nation and profoundly altered the way American food is produced, sold, and consumed. The rise of fast food has negatively impacted American life, through manipulative marketing aimed at children, exploitative labor practices, the destruction of American family farms, lax food safety standards, and a national epidemic of obesity. Below are some of the key themes and topics from Fast Food Nation.
Fast food began in the early 1950s in Southern California, which experienced a massive population growth in the years following World War Two. This population growth also occurred at a time when rates of automobile ownership were rising, causing the region to be heavily shaped by the car. LA’s low-density, detached-home model of growth was ideally suited for the burgeoning fast food industry, as motorists could drive through for a quick meal as they passed by the restaurants (conveniently located off the new freeways).
In the 1950s in San Bernardino, the McDonald brothers implemented a standardized system of food preparation that increased speed, lowered prices, and boosted sales. Food preparation was divided into separate jobs done by different workers, eliminating the need for skilled and expensive short-order cooks. This was the importation of assembly line principles into a commercial kitchen. The business model was a runaway success, enabling McDonald’s to save labor costs and undercut their competition.
A businessman named Ray Kroc witnessed the success of the McDonald’s system and saw that it could be replicated on a national scale. He partnered with the McDonald brothers and began opening new franchises across the country, eventually buying them out in 1961. He established the chain’s core values—Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value—and understood the need to create a wholesome, clean, All-American image for McDonald’s. Critically, he understood that children would be the chain’s most valuable customers and directed the bulk of its marketing at them.
Because kids exert a strong influence over what adults purchase, marketers know that kids can be powerful surrogate salespeople for their products—and no one has internalized this lesson better than the fast food industry. They aggressively market to children, through television advertisements featuring bright and colorful mascots, on-site playgrounds, and cross-promotional campaigns with toy companies and film studios. The most famous example of the latter is the Happy Meal, within which McDonald’s packages the hottest children’s toys as a “free” promotion. Major toy crazes like Pokemon cards, Beanie Babies, Tamogotchis, and Cabbage Patch Kids have all been boosted by synergistic fast food tie-ins.
Perhaps most insidiously, fast food chains have even brokered deals with school districts, enabling them to promote their high-fat, high-sugar products directly to children through bus and hallway advertisements, endorsement deals, and even direct provision of school lunches.
By minimizing the level of human skill that goes into food preparation, fast food chains have at their disposal a workforce that is cheap, easy to replace, and easily controlled. And they are always finding new ways to keep their employees from gaining any leverage in the workplace. Automatic condiment dispensers, robotic sensors at drive-throughs, digitized timers for cooking french fries, and other technological innovations ensure that McDonald’s and other fast food giants get maximum efficiency out of their employees, with paychecks as low as possible.
They also tend to hire the most vulnerable members of society who have the least ability to fight back—teenagers, the elderly, the disabled, and undocumented immigrants. The industry is known for being one of the most uncompromisingly anti-union sectors of the economy, with a long history of extreme hostility toward organized labor and an established record of turning a blind eye to worker safety. The low wages, disregard for worker safety, and union-busting labor practices extend beyond the fast food chains themselves: these practices have also become hallmarks of the agribusiness and meatpacking industries that supply the fast food sector.
The overwhelming economic power and demands of the fast food industry have been disastrous for formerly independent farmers, ranchers, and poultry growers. In the potato industry, the fast food chains force farmers to accept absurdly low prices for the crops they grow: out of $1.50 spent on an order of fries, perhaps two cents accrue to the farmer who actually grew the potatoes. The chains’ purchasing power has created a similar situation in both the beef and chicken markets, with once-independent agriculturalists now working as little more than hired hands for the major agribusiness firms. This has led to the destruction of family farms and the increased centralization of the nation’s food supply.
Deadly outbreaks of E. coli, a virulent pathogen primarily found in beef, have become far more common since the rise of fast food. This is largely due to fast food’s centralized system of food production, which exponentially expands the reach and scope of outbreaks. Today’s slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants are marked by appalling sanitary conditions, where cattle are packed into close quarters, given little exercise, and splash around in pools of manure. After the animals are slaughtered, poorly trained workers often handle the carcasses improperly, pulling out the stomach and intestines of the cattle by hand and spilling the contents of the digestive system all over the slaughterhouse floor and into the meat that’s sold to consumers.
Ground beef is particularly prone to contamination, because the package that’s sold in the supermarket does not come from a single animal. Because of how it is processed and shipped, the meat of just one infected cow can find its way into 32,000 pounds of ground beef.
Fast food has contributed to a national and global epidemic of obesity. In 1991, only four states had obesity rates reaching 15 percent; just a decade later, 37 did. The human costs are immense: severely overweight people are four times as likely to die young as people of normal weight. These health conditions are now increasingly seen in other parts of the world: between 1984 and 1993, fast food locations in the United Kingdom doubled, bringing American-style obesity in its wake. The British consume more fast food than any other Western European country; they also claim the continent’s highest rate of obesity. China also saw its proportion of overweight teenagers triple during the 1990s; meanwhile, at the dawn of the 21st...
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Most Americans have eaten fast food at some time or another in their lives. As the reach of major fast food chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell has extended across the planet, the same can increasingly be said of most people around the world. As it has done so, fast food has come to stand as a hallmark of our civilization and our time. Just as we ponder the amphorae and marble ruins of the ancient Romans, so may future scholars study the discarded Big Mac wrappers and golden-arched fast food restaurants of our culture.
For indeed, food is one of the defining traits of a culture—it shows how we live, how our economy functions, how our political institutions operate, and what we value and prioritize as a society. Since its rise in the postwar United States, fast food has worked its way deep into the fabric of America’s social, economic, educational, and political institutions. In the 30 years between 1970 and 2000, consumer spending on fast food in the US rose from $6 billion to $110 billion.
(Shortform note: Fast Food Nation was originally published in 2001. As such, the statistics cited throughout the book and throughout this summary do not represent the most up-to-date data. Where possible, we have supplemented the numbers in the book with more current figures.)
These numbers give a glimpse of the grip that fast food has obtained over American life, but they can only tell part of the story. Because the story of fast food is about much more than the rise of an industry and the success of a few entrepreneurs—it is a story about the fundamental transformation of a society. The sheer size of the fast food giants and the spread of their business practices to other sectors of the economy has wrought enormous changes in:
The fast food industry has its roots in the risk-taking, unconventional ideas of a handful of entrepreneurs. A combination of US public policy choices and broader macroeconomic trends fostered an ideal business climate in Southern California for their success and laid the groundwork for an economic transformation of the region—one that would eventually become the prototype for the rest of the country. Taxpayer-funded irrigation projects and publicly subsidized highways were drawing people to California in droves, laying the groundwork for a mass consumer-driven retail economy (powered by the ease and convenience of the automobile) that California would export to the other 49 states.
This population explosion was also driven by another stream of federal investment in Southern California—defense spending. During World War Two and the years immediately following, the US government pumped nearly $20 billion into California, building airplane factories, steel mills, military bases, and naval ports. During the war years alone, federal spending accounted for approximately half of Southern Californians’ personal income.
If the old cities of the East Coast were shaped by the railroad and the trolley car, then Southern California was defined by the automobile. LA’s growth happened precisely at the time when mass-produced cars were becoming affordable to the growing middle class—indeed, from 1920 to 1940, the region welcomed 2 million residents from all across the rest of the US. The automobile sculpted the city, giving rise to LA’s famous low-density, detached-home model of growth (with each unit having room for a garage or driveway with one or two family cars). By 1940, LA had roughly one million cars, more than the vast majority of most of the states. Much of this was fueled by federally funded highways, which amounted to a public subsidy of the major automakers.
Local entrepreneurs quickly saw that they needed to adapt their business models to account for the car-driven growth of the region. Zipping by in their cars, **the new consumers placed a premium...
The McDonald brothers may have started the company and given it its famous name, but their vision for it was relatively limited. They were content being regionally successful restaurant entrepreneurs, making approximately $100,000 per year (by no means a small sum in the mid-1950s). They did not see the global potential of what they had created—that vision was Ray Kroc’s.
Kroc was an unlikely individual to emerge as one of the leading figures in a new and rising industry that was largely driven by youth culture. When he first visited the McDonald’s Self-Service Restaurant in 1954, he was already in his fifties, with a largely unremarkable career as a travelling salesman behind him.
Seeing the potential of the McDonald’s system and how it could be replicated on a national (and eventually global) scale, Kroc seized the opportunity. He bought from the McDonald brothers the right to franchise McDonald’s nationwide. Taken at face value, this deal was appealing to the brothers—they could stay at home and count their money while Kroc travelled across the country promoting the brand and taking most of the risks. But Kroc would determine the ultimate direction and shape of McDonald’s, not the founding brothers.
Kroc saw that expansion was important to building up the brand: to him, it was more important to have new McDonald’s restaurants opening up than it was to have a uniform set of financial details for each new franchise. He kept the franchise fees low for new franchisees and made a conscious effort to help them be successful. This patient and nurturing strategy paid off and resulted in the successful expansion of McDonald’s. In 1961, Kroc had done well enough in growing the company to secure the financing to buy the brothers out. As a symbol of his total triumph over them, Kroc opened up a McDonald’s across the street from a new restaurant they opened (called “The Big M”) and ran it out of business.
Kroc instituted a philosophy, the core values that would guide McDonald’s—Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value. He...
The fast food industry has standardized, commodified, and homogenized the skillset of the country’s labor force. Going back to the early days of the McDonald brothers’ “Speedee Service” system, fast food has employed a low-skill, low-wage system of labor that keeps costs—and therefore, consumer prices—to a minimum. By minimizing the level of human skill that goes into food preparation, fast food leaders have at their disposal a workforce that is cheap, easy to replace, and easily controlled.
And they are always finding new ways to keep their employees from gaining any leverage in the workplace. Automatic condiment dispensers, robotic sensors at drive-throughs, digitized timers for cooking french fries, and other technological innovations ensure that McDonald’s and other fast food giants get maximum efficiency out of their employees, with paychecks as low as possible.
Anyone who’s been inside a fast food restaurant can’t help but notice that the workers behind the counter are disproportionately young—often teenagers.
(Shortform note: According to The Atlantic, over 60 percent of the fast-food workforce is under 24).
That’s no coincidence. The industry wants a workforce that is unskilled and willing to accept low pay. From the view of the fast food executives and franchisees, teenagers are the ideal candidates for these jobs. But the teenagers themselves are ill-served by this arrangement. Working long hours at fast-food restaurants has a negative effect on their education and takes away from more meaningful opportunities for enrichment. These teenage fast food workers neglect their schoolwork and eschew after-school sports and activities. Research has shown that people this age who work more than twenty hours per week are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, permanently stunting their life prospects.
**Quantity is the key to how McDonald’s and Burger King...
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Think about how fast food’s practices might have impacted your life.
Have you ever felt exploited by an employer? If so, describe the situation in a few sentences.
Because fast food was so successful, its labor practices have been exported throughout the food service industry and up the supply chain to farmers, ranchers, and meatpackers. So much food in America is no longer a product of artisanal craftsmanship, created by a skilled cook—it is a manufactured, mass-produced commodity.
In this chapter, we’re going further up the supply chain. We’re going to explore how the economics of the fast food industry have reshaped American agriculture, examine where your fries really come from, and why they taste the way they do.
It’s hard to tell the story of fast food’s meteoric success without telling the story of the french fry. And it’s hard to do that without telling the story of John Richard Simplot, America’s potato king.
Born in 1909, his family moved to Idaho shortly after he was born to establish a farm (made possible thanks to government-funded irrigation projects and free public land). Leaving the family’s homestead at 15, he went into the potato industry. His business grew throughout the 1920s and 1930s as he forged relationships with commodities brokers and farmers all over the country. By 1941, he was the largest shipper of potatoes in the American West, owning dozens of warehouses across multiple states.
That year turned out to be a momentous one for the country and for Simplot, as the US entered World War Two. The swelling ranks of servicemen created a massive demand from the armed forces for food suppliers. He used his massive market share and dehydrating technology to become one of the principal suppliers of foodstuffs to the US Army from 1941-1945. He used these earnings to buy potato farms, cattle ranches, fertilizer plants, and lumber mills, all of which enabled him to achieve vertical integration up and down the supply chain. His company could now grow its own potatoes, provide its own fertilizer, process them at their own factories, and ship them from their own warehouses and lumber yards, all without ever interacting with an outside supplier.
In the last chapter, we examined how cattle ranchers are exploited by the demands of the fast food giants and the major meatpackers. In this chapter, we’ll explore how workers (and animals) inside those meatpacking facilities are similarly harmed by the inhumane system of food production that fast food has wrought.
Meatpacking, once a heavily unionized, high-skill, and well-paying profession, has been transformed into a dangerous and low-paying job performed by some of the most vulnerable and easily exploited members of American society.
Modern American meatpacking got its start with a man named Warren Montfort. Montfort realized that there were major advantages to feeding cattle grain instead of grass (which had been the standard up to that point)—the meat was fattier and more tender and could be eaten within days after slaughter. On top of that, New Deal-era agricultural subsidies made grain an inexpensive food for livestock. He became a major figure in the cattle-feeding industry. In 1960, he decided to go into the slaughtering business, opening a small slaughterhouse in the town of Greeley, Colorado. At this time, these were still high-paying union jobs. But major changes were just around the corner.
That same year, a new company named IBP came onto the scene. They believed that they could succeed as an upstart by taking a radical approach to cutting costs. Their production system was designed, like that of McDonald’s, to eliminate the need for skilled workers. Rather than using skilled butchers, IBP used an assembly line model, with each worker performing the same repetitive tasks and making the same cuts and stabs to the cattle carcasses that came past them during the course of an eight-hour shift. By mass-producing specialty cuts and shipping them in sealed plastic to the supermarkets, this method of production also enabled the supermarkets to fire most of their skilled butchers.
The by-now-familiar wave of consolidations followed, driven by the market’s new demands for standardized, uniform products. In such an...
Think more deeply about what goes into your fast food meal.
Why do you think the major fast food chains have such a powerful economic grip over the nation’s food producers?
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In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which shocked the conscience (and turned the stomach) of the nation by exposing audiences to the dangerous and unsanitary conditions in America’s slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. Scenes that depicted tubercular hogs being led to slaughter and workers being maimed and killed on the job (and then packed into sausages) revolted and outraged readers at the dawn of the 20th century. The novel inspired the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, which was tasked with ensuring nationwide food-safety standards.
If Upton Sinclair were alive today, he would be aghast at conditions in today’s meatpacking industry and marvel at how little has changed. The meat you see at your local supermarket (or in your Big Mac) gives little hint of the gruesome and dangerous process behind how it got there.
Truly disturbing scenes await those who visit a slaughterhouse—or the workers who toil in them. Decapitated cattle carcasses. Organs yanked out of dead animals with bare hands. Ankle-deep pools of blood. Workers severing the carotid arteries of dead cows. All of this is just part of the scenery on a typical business day in America’s meatpacking industry. And this is just what’s at the end of the line, after the cattle have already been killed. The scenery becomes even more violent as one goes further up the production line, where workers interact with live cattle.
As cattle enter the slaughterhouse from the pen, they are greeted by a worker known as the “knocker,” who shoots them in the head with a stun gun that knocks them unconscious. This individual’s job is simply to shoot cattle in the head like this as they are herded into the slaughterhouse through a narrow shoot. After they’re knocked out, the animals are shackled to a chain and lifted through the air to the next area of the factory, where they are killed and dismembered.
(Shortform note: The scenes at these facilities are so gruesome and heartrending that the meatpacking industry has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent...
Beyond its exploitative labor practices at every level of the supply chain, fast food has also proven an ideal vector for the spread of foodborne pathogens into America’s food system. Because of the fast food industry’s demands for highly centralized production and enormous scale, tainted meat (particularly the ground beef used in hamburgers) processed at one meatpacking plant can cause a nationwide epidemic of food poisoning—with tragic and deadly consequences.
Outbreaks of E. coli, a virulent pathogen primarily found in beef, have become far more common since the rise of fast food. One 1997 outbreak was traced to a single plant in Nebraska that had been built to supply ground beef to Burger King, resulting in the nationwide recall of 35 million pounds of meat (25 million of which had already been eaten). Most of the other major foodborne pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, and Clostridium are caused by animal feces making it into the meat we eat.
Foodborne pathogens cause more than just an upset stomach. They can lead to heart disease, neurological disorders, kidney damage, and even death. And they’re becoming more common and more widespread thanks to fast food’s revolutionary changes in how American food is produced. A centralized system of food production exponentially expands the reach and scope of outbreaks, where they might have been confined to a particular locality just a few decades ago. The very same system that creates enormous amounts of uniform ground beef for McDonald’s and Burger King is also highly adept at spreading disease. Foodborne illness has truly gone viral.
Tragically, some of the worst stories of fast food-related foodborne illness are those involving children. In 1993, doctors in Seattle noticed a sharp spike in the number of local children being admitted to emergency rooms with bloody diarrhea. Health officials traced the source to E. coli in hamburger patties at Jack-in-the-Box that had originated from a California-based meatpacking company. Eventually, more than 700...
Fast food began in Southern California as a quintessentially American product, boosted by US postwar prosperity and powered by the nation’s growing rates of automobile ownership, highway construction, and suburban sprawl. From these roots, the industry expanded to take over the rest of the country. But it hasn’t stopped there: fast food is now available in almost every country on the planet. Through this global conquest, it has reshaped how the entire world eats and lives.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ending in the final dissolution of the superpower state in 1991, was a dramatic moment in world history. All across Central and Eastern Europe, people took to the streets, refused to obey the orders of Soviet police and military officers, overthrew puppet Communist governments, and participated in free democratic elections for the first time ever. Little did they know that the fall of the Soviet empire would signal the rise of another: that of fast food.
Just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, McDonald’s announced that it planned to open a location in East Germany, the first in the former Soviet Union. Indeed, fast food chains have become a leading indicator of Western economic development in Third World or post-communist states. They are often the first international corporations to arrive after a country has made the decision to open its markets to foreign investment. In the early 1990s, McDonald’s frequently awarded franchises to former Communist officials, thanks to their proven combination of connections and leadership skills.
Fast food has aggressively positioned itself in former Soviet states and even recruited ex-Communist leaders to serve as spokespeople. In 1997, Mikhail Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial. He was hired to serve as a warm and familiar face who could help introduce the Russian...
Think through how the world can push back against the fast food chains.
Do you think fast food chains should be held responsible for the violations committed by the meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses that supply them? Explain why or why not.
It seems like fast food is an unstoppable force as it reshapes communities and cultures, forces workers into exploitative relationships, contributes to global health problems, and despoils the environment. However, there are concrete steps that workers, activists, and elected officials can take to bring the industry to heel.
Explore the main ideas in Fast Food Nation.
Do you eat fast food? If so, will reading this summary change that? Explain why or why not in a few sentences.