Although Eric Schlosser wrote this book in 2001, I just got 'round to reading it. I was familiar with its themes from The Jungle, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Super Size Me, and other works on food, business, and culture, but this book still taught me quite a few things and made me think about numerous other things. It reinforced my conviction that a vegetarian diet is a good idea in the United States, that regulators -- often "captured" by industry -- do not always serve customers, and that more and cheaper is not always better.
The book has 10 chapters. In the first two, we learn of how fast food and sprawling urban southern California grew hand in hand, as technology and assembly lines fed a population losing touch with the origin and social dimension of food. In chapters 3 and 4, we get a damning view of labor practices and government subsidies. I was displeased to see how (predictably) job training grants and sub-minimum wages were used to decrease costs instead of benefiting teen employees.
Chapters 5 through 9 go into the production of fast food, and beef in particular. Although these practices (high-speed slaughter by ill-trained workers of unhealthy cattle, producing meat of dubious quality) are revolting, and appalling (especially since we do not appear to have made much improvement since Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906!), what really bothered me was the lobbying and deception by industry -- and their support by politicians -- in their attempt to sell burgers mixed with shit to consumers in "McHappyMeal" boxes.
If anything, this book reinforces the conventional wisdom that regulations can provide a useful minimum standard of behavior, preventing a race to the bottom (in quality, safety -- and cost) among firms willing to cost costs or raise profits in places that do not, ultimately, serve consumers. Of particular note was the way in which the USDA was willing (is willing?) to buy the worst quality food from industrial slaughterhouses and feed it to children in schools. Ironically, those kids may be safer eating at fast food restaurants that care more about their reputation (and competition) than school bureaucrats.
The last chapter describes how the American idea of fast food fares in the rest of the world. Although foreigners may consume "McDos" because it's chic, others do not because their traditional food (and bureaucrats) are better.
One thing I didn't expect to read about was the cultural affinity between McDonald's and Disney (clean and orderly), or the ways in which industrial production is so dehumanizing (see Small is Beautiful) and socially-destabilizing (see my review from this morning). Even worse is Schlosser's killer point: all of these costs may come with little benefit: It's possible to eat good food, served by well-paid workers, at low prices. (In 'n' Out, a small-family chain, sells burgers at prices that are competitive with McDonalds.) If that's true, then we have to ask "where's the profit?" in selling that beef, if the production costs are so "cheap." I'd guess that some of it goes to shareholders, some goes to additional advertising, and some of it goes to executives, but I'd guess that a good chunk goes to powerful agribusinesses -- ConAgra, ADM, Switft, Tyson, et al. -- and paying for all the harm, lobbying and mistakes that accompany a system that's being pushed 110 percent. That's a pity, since it seems that we are paying a high cost for food that provides little benefit.
I give this book FIVE stars, despite an occasional lapse into populism.
Bottom Line: Cook for yourself and your family, from scratch. if you can't do that, eat at a restaurant that does that same thing. If you can't afford either, then reconsider how much you spend on food -- on keeping yourself healthy -- compared to big screen TVs, cars, dress shoes, etc. Anyone can eat healthy for less than $5 per day -- start with rice and beans, fruits and vegetables -- but few of us choose to. Take another look at your choices.