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Fast Food Nation Summary: the 7 best lessons I learned from Eric Schlosser

Quick Summary: Fast Food Nation reveals how big fast food companies reshaped America in pursuit of profit. Eric Schlosser shows how marketing aimed at kids created an explosion of obesity, how big corporations have eliminated many small farmers, and why meatpacking plants can be extremely unsafe and unclean workplaces.
4.5 on Amazon 2001 384 pages

Who is Eric Schlosser and why listen to him?

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Eric Schlosser is an investigative journalist, often writing for magazines like The Atlantic and Rolling Stone. He’s best known for writing this book about the fast food industry. He also wrote Reefer Madness which exposed the truth about the black market in America. The bottom line is: he writes about interesting things in an engaging way. Many reviewers said they couldn’t put this book down.

Almost all of us regularly go out to buy fast food, take off the wrapper and enjoy. Yet we don’t usually stop to think what fast food is doing to our local community, let alone the world.

These are the questions Fast Food Nation explores in fascinating detail:

  • Why has fast food exploded in growth over the past 50 years?
  • What is the fast food industry doing to jobs?
  • And how has it changed the safety of our food, even what we buy in the supermarket?

By the end, you’ll know more about the food you eat (maybe more than you want to know!) But you will be better informed about how fast food is affecting your own health and the health of our society.

1. The fast food industry has reshaped America

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.

Today we take fast food for granted. It’s part of everyday life. We simply expect to find identical stores in every plaza, mall, and highway exit in the country.

And It’s hard to imagine that it didn’t used to be this way. 60 years ago, there was a greater variety of locally owned restaurants with higher priced food. Near the beginning of Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser wants to tell the story of where this cultural revolution started.

In the 1940s, drive-in restaurants were becoming popular, especially around southern California. You drove into the parking lot, a waitress came to take your order, and later she brought the food out to you on a tray complete with metal utensils, glass cups and dishes.

drive thru fast food

In San Bernardino, California, two brothers opened up one of these drive-in restaurants. The McDonald Brothers Burger Bar Drive-In was very profitable, but they still felt it was too slow, complicated and messy.

So in 1948 the McDonald brothers made a risky gamble. They closed their successful restaurant and totally redesigned it. No more drive-in, no more waitresses and no more messy dishes. The menu was simplified to only a few low-cost items, all sold in disposable cups and bags.

The new McDonalds restaurant was a roaring success. Word about their delicious 15 cent hamburgers spread far and wide.

The biggest change was how they made the food. Henry Ford had revolutionized manufacturing with his car assembly lines not long before. In a similar way, the McDonald brothers designed food assembly lines which they called their Speedee Service System. Each worker only did one specific task over and over again. The restaurant layout was even carefully designed to minimize the number of steps each employee needed to make, so they could work as efficiently as possible.

Then a milkshake machine salesman named Ray Kroc came along and he made the golden arches famous worldwide. When he saw that first McDonald’s store, he was amazed how quickly it served the long lines of people that arrived daily.

So Kroc franchised McDonalds stores across the country. Their growth was incredible. In 1960 there were about 250 McDonalds stores, and by 1973 there were over 3,000. In 2020, there are over 37,000 stores worldwide. If you want to hear the full story of McDonald’s business growth, then go read our summary of Grinding It Out by Ray Kroc.

Many others soon copied the McDonald’s idea in their own way. The first Taco Bell and Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurants were opened after the owners visited that first McDonalds store in San Bernardino.

In just a few decades, the US went from eating very little fast food, to eating hundreds of billions of dollars of fast food. Identical stores now repeat in every city and town. The assembly-line approach to making food has taken over.

2. Fast food marketing deliberately aims at kids, harming their health

Every month about 90 percent of American children between the ages of three and nine visit a McDonald’s.

From the beginning, the McDonalds brothers designed their store to attract families, with a clean atmosphere and low-priced food. Ray Kroc took this strategy a few steps further, aiming for kids to convince their parents to come to McDonalds.

The strategy of appealing to children is plainly visible in every McDonalds:

  • The bright colours
  • The happy clown
  • The indoor playgrounds
  • The toys inside Happy Meals

The toys proved to be a very effective tactic, especially when they could latch onto an existing craze. For example, in 1997 McDonalds had a promotion that included a Teenie Beanie Baby with each Happy Meal. During the 10 days of the promotion, they sold 100 million Happy Meals, which was almost 10 times more than their regular amount.

Ronald McDonald Teenie Beanie Baby
Ronald McDonald Teenie Beanie Baby (photo courtesy slgckgc via Flickr [CC BY 2.0])

In 1996 McDonald’s and Disney signed a 10 year marketing contract. McDonald’s could use Disney characters in toys and promotions to attract more kids to their stores. As a side effect, Disney received millions of dollars in free marketing in return.

Kids are bombarded with advertising. In 2001 when this book was published, kids were watching more than thirty thousand TV commercials every year. Today many of those commercials are online. There’s also a troubling trend for public schools to accept corporate advertising. Schools say this gives them a larger education budget, but critics say school should remain one of the few sanctuaries where kids can be free from advertising.

All this marketing has had a terrible effect on kids health. According to the CDC, about one-quarter of kids in the US are overweight or obese, a number that has doubled since the 1970s.

childhood obesity chart CDC
Childhood obesity over time (chart courtesy The Center for Disease Control [public domain])

Dr. Michael Greger has been sharing nutrition facts with the public for many years. In his book How Not to Die, he explains the science behind why eating less sugary, salty, processed foods can help us live longer at a healthy weight. He also explains we should eat more whole plant foods to avoid diabetes, cancer, heart disease and more. To learn scientifically proven rules for eating healthier, go read our summary of How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger.

Here is a video of Dr. Greger explaining the role marketing played in causing the obesity epidemic:

Fast food restaurants specifically aim to attract kids. Toys, play areas, bright colours and entertainment cross-promotions are very effective. As a result, childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years.

3. Fast food workers are unskilled, interchangeable, part-time and non-unionized

As we mentioned before, the first fast food restaurants adopted an assembly line approach to making food. And when every worker is doing one simple task over and over again, that removes the skill from the job. As a result, workers become easily replaceable.

In fact, modern fast food executives try to “deskill” jobs as much as possible. Machines are designed with buzzers and timers to remove all human judgment from of the work. In McDonalds the burgers are cooked for a preset amount of time by presses that lower and raise with one push of a button. Pizza chains use ovens with conveyer belts to ensure every pizza is cooked for the same length of time.

As a result, big fast food chains can hire mostly adolescents who are willing to work for less money. There is no reason fast food jobs couldn’t be done by stable full-time adult workers, aside from them costing more. In each store, there are only a handful of managers who are paid full-time salaries.

McDonalds has done everything it can to avoid unions, and so far it’s worked. If there are rumours of a union forming, the company sends a squad of managers to gain information and talk the workers out of it.

In 1997 workers at a McDonalds near Montreal Canada fought a long legal battle to unionize. They were weeks away from certifying their union, then the store suddenly closed and everyone lost their jobs. The owners said the store was losing money. An unlikely claim because only a fraction of one percent of McDonald’s go out of business every year in Canada. Later a headline in the newspaper National Post said: “Did someone say McUnion? Not if they want to keep their McJob.”

Business executives design fast food jobs to require as little skill as possible, so workers can be easily replaced. Much of the cooking is automated through timed machines. This helps giant companies avoid unions, higher wages or more full-time workers.

4. Fast food’s push toward mass processed food has left small farmers struggling

The change from many small farms to a fewer big food companies has been happening quietly over the last 50 years.

When McDonald’s began, they bought fresh potatoes from 175 different local companies. They peeled and cut all their potatoes in each restaurant, a very labour-intensive process.

Then in 1965, J.R. Simplot convinced Ray Kroc to switch to frozen fries. He told Kroc it would cut costs and ensure more standardized fries. Customers didn’t taste a difference, so McDonald’s was soon buying most of their fries frozen from Simplot Foods.

Small farmers are at an increasing disadvantage. To survive, they must compete for contracts from a few giant food processors. For example, 80% of frozen fries are made by just 3 companies: Simplot, Lamb Weston and McCain.

To win contracts with these companies, farmers have done everything they can to cut their costs and raise their yields. They’ve adopted many new types of growing technologies. And it’s worked—sort of. Farmers now grow 30% more potatoes per acre than 20 years ago. However, because every farmer is doing this, there are far more potatoes for sale, and the end result is prices of potatoes going down. Small farmers are more productive than ever, yet finding it hard to stay in business!

Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast food restaurant, perhaps 2 cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes.

Chicken McNuggets and Disappearing Ranchers

It can be hard to understand the impact a few fast food companies like McDonald’s can have on entire industries. In 1983, McDonald’s chicken McNuggets started being sold across the US. Within one month, McDonald’s was the second biggest chicken buyer in the country.

Early on, McDonald’s signed a contract with Tyson Foods ensure they had enough chicken for their McNuggets. A little while later, Tyson Foods had grown to become the second biggest chicken processor in the US.

chickens baby farm

Tyson Foods breeds and later processes chickens, but they rely on thousands of so-called independent contractors to raise the chickens. That’s the riskiest part of the process. The contractors invest $150,000 or more of their own money to build poultry houses. The contractors never own the chickens in these houses. Tyson Foods supplies the baby chicks, requires the contractors to follow their strict rules while raising them, and at the end the chickens are weighed and paid for according to Tyson’s formula.

If the contractor doesn’t like this arrangement, there isn’t much they can do. Chicken farmers used to have many processors they could sell their chickens to. Today a few big companies like Tyson Foods dominate the market, buying out smaller rivals.

In the beef industry, small ranchers are also disappearing. Cattle are increasingly raised by large industrial farms, then slaughtered by large meatpacking firms.

In 1970 the top four meatpacking firms slaughtered only 21 percent of the nation’s cattle. […] Today the top four meatpacking firms—ConAgra, IBP, Excel, and National Beef—slaughter about 84 percent of the nation’s cattle. 

The big meatpacking companies have large feedlots of live cattle which they call “captive supplies.” Small ranchers say when cattle prices go up, they unfairly use these cattle to bring prices back down. The large meatpackers argue the feedlots exist to ensure their slaughterhouses have a steady supply of cattle.

Just one huge company like McDonald’s can reshape entire food industries, as happened with potatoes, chicken and beef. Chicken McNuggets alone turned McDonald’s into the second biggest chicken buyer in the US. Small farmers are at a disadvantage because they are increasingly selling to a few large buyers.

5. Meatpacking jobs have become increasingly more dangerous and unpleasant

Jobs in meatpacking plants (where animals are slaughtered and disassembled) have always been dangerous. But back in the 1940s and 50s, unions had raised the wages so workers were paid an above-average middle-class income. These old unionized meatpacking plants were almost all found in one district of Chicago.

Then in 1960 two executives started the Iowa Beef Packers company, or IBP for short, which would totally change the industry. In IBP slaughterhouses, they created assembly lines of workers, eliminating the need for skilled workers and cutting costs. IBP opened these new plants in rural areas without strong union influence.

As IBP became more successful, other companies copied their approach. Soon the unionized slaughterhouses in Chicago were forced to close down one after another.

Today the largest meatpacking complex in the US is found near the town of Greeley, Colorado. In 1979 there was a long bitter strike at the complex, essentially a battle between union workers and the company. The plant was closed down. When it reopened in 1982, there was no union and the company hired entirely new workers earning 40% less than before.

Today many slaughterhouses rely on migrant workers. Poor and uneducated immigrants are willing to work for less money and dislike unions. In the Greeley plant, 2 out of 3 workers can’t speak English. And Iowa Beef Packers actively recruit workers in their Mexico City office. They even run buses from Mexico to their US plants. But they say they only hire people authorized to work in the US.

Every year at least 33% of meatpacking workers suffer a work-related injury. Injuries in slaughterhouses can be brutal. The most common ones are cuts. Workers often have to work side to side, hacking away at meat with large sharp knives.

There are good reasons to believe many injuries are not reported. Plant supervisors are often rewarded bonuses that partly depend on keeping the injury rate down, which creates a perverse incentive to not report every injury.

In some states like Colorado the employer can choose the doctor who determines the seriousness of the injury. If injuries are not easily visible, then companies often take legal measures to fight and appeal the claim. Even when a worker wins compensation, the benefits are by no means a lottery ticket. Eric Schlosser reports that in Colorado, losing an arm will get you $36,000 while a serious permanent disfigurement to you head or face will give you $2,000 at most.

Turnover at the Greeley plant is now 80 percent per year, reflecting the unpleasant working conditions. Some executives have suggested they’re not troubled by that number because there are cost savings. New employees don’t receive health insurance until 6 months and vacation pay until 12 months after starting work.

In the 1970s, meatpacking went from being a well-paid unionized job to a low-paid assembly line job usually done by migrant workers. These are some of the most dangerous jobs in the country, with injuries often underreported by companies.

6. Big food companies actively resist necessary food safety regulations

In 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control estimates that:

  • 48 million people get sick from food poisoning each year,
  • 128,000 go to the hospital and
  • 3,000 die.

Modern food industrialization has made food poisoning outbreaks far more potentially deadly. 100 years ago, if your local butcher sold contaminated meat, then a few dozen people would be affected. Today, if a major slaughterhouse has an outbreak of dangerous bacteria, then millions of people could be exposed to it within a few weeks.

The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: there is shit in the meat.

There are many types of harmful bacteria that can cause sickness in people, or death in extreme cases. Most of these come from contact with fecal material. In beef slaughterhouses, contamination usually happens either when the hide is cut off or the intestines are taken out.

  1. The hide of a cow often contains residue of mud and feces. When it is removed, then some of that can contaminate the meat. (This job is usually done by a machine.) This problem could be greatly reduced through better sanitary conditions at feedlots and slaughterhouses. Right now it’s normal for cows to live in extremely crowded and dirty feedlots, often standing in their own filth. An additional problem is they are given a lot of antibiotics, which encourages deadly new species of pathogens to evolve.
  2. Meat can also become contaminated when the intestines are cut and pulled out. This is usually done by hand. If a cutting mistake is made, then the contents of the cow’s stomach or colon can spill out onto the meat. One IBP worker told Schlosser that 1 out of 200 cattle he gutted would have some spillage. The chance of these errors greatly increases when the line speed is faster. Even worse, the cattle that follow can also become contaminated.

The Jack in the Box E. Coli Outbreak

In 1993, there was a large outbreak of food poisoning around Seattle. More than 700 people became sick, including many children. Four people died. Doctors eventually traced the problem back to e.coli 0157:H7 bacteria found in undercooked hamburgers sold from Jack in the Box fast food restaurants.

Robert Nugent was president of the company that owned Jack in the Box. He knew they had to salvage the restaurants reputation somehow, so he hired a food scientist named David M. Theno to develop a strict food safety program.

lab testing science

The cornerstone of that program was microbial testing. The factories supplying ground beef to Jack in the Box were now required to test their meat for bad bacteria including e.coli 0157:H7 every fifteen minutes. They also had recording thermometers in their meat delivery trucks and a more rigorous safety training program for employees.

In the 1980s, the meatpacking industry actively resisted microbial testing in their plants. Although microbial testing could potentially save lives, they argued it would be too complicated and expensive. But it doesn’t need to be. The Jack in the Box’s food safety program only increased the cost of their beef by one penny per pound.

A large barrier to better food safety is often the USDA itself. This department is given the contradictory goals of promoting agriculture business and regulating it. It is often run by the heads of the industries it was designed to regulate. As a result, there is often very little direct government oversight in meat processing plants.

However, some of the big meatpackers have invested a lot of money into food safety technology. IBP has installed steaming cabinets in all their factories. Sides of meat enter the cabinet and are blasted with high-temperature steam for several seconds which eliminates 90% of the bacteria.

Dangerous bacteria sometimes transfers from feces to meat during processing. Today the risk of food poisoning has increased because cows are often kept in unclean conditions and meatpacking workers are rushed to slaughter as fast as possible. The meat industry has blocked food safety regulations like microbial testing.

7. Public pressure can create positive change in the fast food industry

At the end of Fast Food Nation, there is a chapter written 10 years after the book was first published. Schlosser shares what he believes has changed since he wrote this book.

First of all, he says junk food advertising and obesity are worse than ever. It’s true that there is a rising number of health conscious people. However, this is really a small minority compared to most people who eat more fast food than before.

However, there is still hope.

Positive changes in the fast food industry have happened in the past, and even more are possible. The key is public pressure. For example, pressure against McDonald’s caused them to stop serving burgers in plastic polystyrene boxes and start using paper boxes. This change was made simply because the public demanded it.

A man named Edward Bernays wrote a great book back in 1928 called Propaganda. This book was later renamed Public Relations. Bernays is considered the father of public relations. He was actually the nephew of the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud.

In his book Propaganda, he was already talking about how people like to buy from companies that share their values. If you are curious about how mass opinions in our culture are shaped by invisible forces, then definitely go read our summary of Propaganda by Edward Bernays.

In recent times, the shoe company Nike was forced to improve working conditions in their overseas factories. Shocking news articles were published exposing Nike’s so-called sweatshops and customers said they would no longer buy the shoes unless big changes were made.

In the European Union, more stringent food and worker safety regulations have reduced some of the problems Schlosser talked about in this book. In fact, when meat is being prepared to be exported to the EU from a US meat plant, they have to work in a different way. One worker told Schlosser the factory lines are slowed down so they can meet the higher EU safety standards. Workers actually enjoy working on these days. A slower pace reduces chance of injury and helps them work more carefully.

There are also positive examples of fast food In-N-Out Burger. This is a family-owned fast food chain with 150 locations near California. They pay higher than minimum wage to new workers. They give great benefits including medical and dental insurance to full time workers. The average salary for a store manager is $160,000 per year. Yet In-N-Out Burger is still able to compete with other fast-food chains. They offer good quality low-priced food that attracts crowds of customers.

In the past, big corporations have changed their ways in response to public pressure. For example, McDonald’s switched from polystyrene to paper boxes. Public pressure could also create better food safety, and better working conditions and wages.

Conclusion

Over the past few decades, fast food companies have grown so much by giving people what they want: cheap food that tastes good. But there have been many side effects from their explosion in popularity.

Our cities have changed. The food industry has changed. Even people have changed dramatically as obesity becomes more widespread, along with the health damage obesity causes.

In the end, it’s up to each one of us to step back and look at the changes that have occurred. Is it right? And if not, what can we do to make more positive changes?

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