When it comes to wordplay, Eric Schlosser, author of the bestseller Fast Food Nation, is a gourmet chef. But on closer inspection,
the arguments he cooks up result in a serious case of intellectual indigestion.
Schlosser, a talented writer and even better self-promoter, came to fame with the 2001 publication of his book. With the help of
the media, which hyped Schlosser’s writing without challenging his “facts,” Fast Food Nation made The New York Times
bestseller list. Many publications put it on year-end lists of the “best books of 2001” — resulting in renewed interest.
Schlosser was smart enough to know that a study of the intricacies of the “fast food” industry would not appeal to most book-buyers.
So instead of presenting an objective investigation of this major industry, or giving a fair shake to companies like McDonald’s
(which offers one in 15 Americans entrée into the workforce), Schlosser used “fast food” as the basis for a rhetorical assault on capitalism.
“Greed” is the ingredient that gives Fast Food Nation its flavor. Schlosser seems utterly shocked that these businesses exist… in order to make money! And to rage against business, Schlosser had no problem in engaging in what The Wall Street Journal called “cavalier manipulation of data.”
Fast Food Nation is piled high with anecdotes and served with a fat helping of skewed data. It’s all intended to support Schlosser’s case that “fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society” in harmful ways. It’s not about the food itself; Schlosser himself says fast food tastes “pretty good” and that “the odds are low that eating a burger is going to make you sick.” Instead, it’s a diatribe against the very concept of making a profit by creating a product that consumers enjoy.
Schlosser says he doesn’t eat “ground beef anymore,” but not because he’s “worried about getting sick from it; I’m pissed off at the corporate greed.” He blasts McDonald’s for reaping in “17 cents in pure profit” on every large Coke it sells, assuming that the sort of people who buy his book (at a profit to the author) will be disgusted by the notion of making money.
But he’s strangely silent on the benefits to consumers of a hamburger that costs only a dollar — except to use this, too, to attack the industry. Schlosser claims that “increasing the federal minimum wage by a dollar would [only] add about two cents to the cost of a [99-cent] fast food hamburger,” ignoring a nearly endless supply of available economic data to the contrary generated by university economists including winners of the Nobel Prize in economics.
Instead, Schlosser uses one report from the Department of Agriculture to make his case — and inappropriately at that. His two cents “evidence” comes from a study of labor costs and price hikes for the sale of prepared food and drinks in general, not just the fast food industry. More importantly, 75 percent of the employees studied were not even in the minimum wage range.
Schlosser is too savvy a polemicist to let something as small as facts stand in the way of a good rant. Counting every minor scratch and bump, Schlosser claims that meatpacking is “the most dangerous job in the United States.” The government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics disagrees. On its ranking of truly dangerous industries — those with the most “injury and illness cases involving days away from work” — meatpacking doesn’t even make the top 25.
Bad data and a lack of logic do not stop Schlosser from claiming the worst about the fast food industry. He tries to have it both ways on
overtime hours, writing that “managers try to make sure that each worker is employed less than forty hours a week, thereby avoiding any overtime payments.”
But labor unions support the very practices Schlosser condemns. Overtime penalties for work in excess of 40 hours is federal policy. This is designed to discourage employers from establishing schedules of more than 40 hours per week, and instead encourage hiring more employees.
This is not the only place where, despite Schlosser’s progressive politics, he seems almost reactionary. Schlosser notes that “inside job” robberies at fast food restaurants occur because those they employ — the young, poor, and minorities — are also responsible for much of the nation’s violent crime. Is he suggesting these at-risk individuals should not be given jobs and a chance?
Decidedly selective in his presentation of data, Schlosser realizes that a cavalcade of deceptions is necessary to leave the reader with his funhouse-mirror image of the fast food industry, where fat-cat executives in fancy suits get rich while entry-level restaurant workers struggle to get by.
These are just a few selections from Fast Food Nation‘s menu of mistruths. Schlosser, himself the wealthy son of a former NBC president, knows exactly what he is doing: Crafting a politically motivated weapon to fire against restaurants that play such a vital role in helping entry-level and at-risk Americans enter the workforce.
Professional rabble-rousers like Schlosser pretend to care about those poorer than them — just like Schlosser pretends to care about the facts. But in reality, these are just the means to an end: The glorification of political dogma at the expense of truth. And that is the most unappetizing morsel of them all.