Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fast Food Nation Review

I'm not a fanatical liberal, and I don't think that animals should have the same rights as humans. I don't come from the "Save the whales, kill the babies" camp. I don't generally boycott restaurants because of their treatment of animals, and I'm not a member of the Sierra Club or PETA.

But I am a reasonable human being who, because of Christ's work in my life, cares more about human beings than the preservation of the free market. After reading the book Fast Food Nation, my eyes have been opened to what author Eric Schlosser calls "the dark side of the all-American meal," with all its incumbent greed and social injustice.

In his exhaustively researched treatise on the American fast food industry, Schlosser barrages the reader with almost 300 pages of relentless, hard-hitting facts. The notes section of the book alone adds another almost 100 pages. But the book reads more like a series of well-written magazine profiles than a cold, dry encyclopedia. Schlosser covers the issues--the rise of McDonald's and its attempt at global conquest, the woes of the meatpacking industry and the proliferation of foodborne pathogens, to name a few--with the doggedness of a seasoned investigative journalist and appropriate doses of sensitivity and objectivity. While his arguments generally lean toward the left, he focuses on the struggles of real people, which leaves critics little room for argument. You can argue opinions, but it's hard to rebut experiences that have left people's lives in shambles.

This human-centered viewpoint provides some of the most poignant scenes and the book--and some of its most powerful arguments. Schlosser shares one man's story that he says epitomizes the modern-day dilemmas faced by workers in the meatpacking industry, who are mostly immigrants from Latin-American countries. Kenny worked in the meatpacking industry for over 16 years, an uncanny stint in a revolving-door industry where terrible working conditions combined with large companies' desire not to pay for benefits leads to an amazingly high turnover rate. Kenny, a stout Latino, endured injury after injury without compensation from his company. Ironically, he felt a strong loyalty for the company that led him to become a staunch ally in their fight against labor unions, organizations that he would desperately need in the future. Because of the stress and an endless string of senseless injuries, his first marriage failed and his body is now badly broken. After saving a man's life at a factory, he received nothing more than a paper certificate. And after his last injury, as he lay in a hospital bed, the company fired him without even telling him in person.

Kenny's story isn't the only interesting and relevant anecdote in Schlosser's narrative. He attended a restaurant owners' conference where the keynote speaker was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He researched a McDonald's in Plauen, a small city in Germany where public demonstrations contributed to the unification of Germany and the crumbling of the Berlin wall. The restaurant is situated about a mile from the Dachau concentration camp, but the chain promises it's not trying to capitalize off of the people who come to see the place where about 30,000 Jews and gypsies died senselessly. Their position was given a bit more credence when they stopped distributing flyers on cars in the parking lot of the concentration camp that said "Welcome to Dachau, and Welcome to McDonald's."

Call me liberal, but I do think there's something wrong about exporting a cultural of obesity and self-indulgence to nations around the world. Having traveled to China, I can say that it's fun to see signs of Americana in countries that have been closed to ideologies of civil liberties and free trade. But that shouldn't come at any cost. We have to be vigilant to ensure that economic expansion doesn't cause our moral compass to malfunction.

Will I stop eating burgers and tacos because of Schlosser's book? Probably not. But at least I will know another side to a complicated issue, one that impacts real human beings in a negative way on a day-to-day basis.

1 comment:

gina said...

To get you into further trouble, let me recommend another book that could get you called names or kicked out of the Bible belt...not really. Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher is a thought-provoking book to say the least. i've never been very politically active so i'm not suggesting it on that basis. But it rightly broadens the concept of stewardship beyond us dropping money in the plate. How does what we do with our time and money reflect what we SAY is truly valuable? It's not written specifically for Christians, but i think it'd do us all some good to read it and have our religiosity shaken a bit. Let me know if you read it.