Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction Next to death and taxes, fast food might be the most unavoidable experience for Americans. In an age when Ronald McDonald is the second most identifiable fictional character to young children (after Santa Claus), fast food embodies a number of modern American characteristics: the familiar, the ready-made, and the easily disposable. Fast food restaurants are not only a staple on street corners but are becoming fixtures in schools and even hospitals. These ubiquitous chain restaurants have assumed such a large role in American life that they are largely taken for granted.
In the critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser embarks on a journey that raises some disturbing questions about the practices and the food of those big corporations with the family friendly mascots. Schlosser goes out into the field to interview workers and to see the current beef processing practices that have allowed ground beef to become efficient carriers of e. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria. He reveals the collusion between the federal government and corporations that fosters unsafe working conditions for fast food workers and meat packing employees.
He also examines the alarming obesity epidemic among children and adults in the United States and stresses that this "supersizing" of Americans into the context of an epidemic that needs to be urgently needs to be addressed.
Schlosser discusses the eagerness of fast food companies to avoid hiring skilled workers and to rely instead upon highly unskilled workers. In fact, some chains openly embrace "zero training" as their ultimate goal. Since these companies are providing a steady paycheck, is it really the obligation of fast food chains to take an interest in their workers and to teach them job skills? Also, since many of the workers are recently arrived immigrants, doesn't employment at fast food restaurants offer them a toehold in the American economy and an opportunity to move onto a better job?
Over the last several decades, fast food companies have aggressively targeted children in their marketing efforts. Should advertisers be permitted to target children who lack the sophistication to make informed decisions and are essentially being lured into eating high fat, high calorie food through toys and cute corporate mascots? Is it possible that fast food companies - like tobacco companies - are recruiting increasingly younger consumers in order to insure a steady customer base as their older constituents die from heart disease, diabetes, and other obesity-related disorders?
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was the first book to sound the clarion call about the appalling abuses inherent in mass-produced beef. In the decades since its publication, the state of meatpacking has received scant attention. Were you shocked that Fast Food Nation documents some of the same unsafe conditions and practices that Sinclair revealed nearly 100 years ago? Were you under the impression that the unsafe conditions in meatpacking had largely been eliminated and that the United States' beef and poultry industry set the standard for other countries? Does the author's contention that not enough has changed in the meat industry challenge the progressive belief in American capitalism--that it will lift all boats and make constant improvements in working and living conditions?
Fast food chains, despite the myriad problems documented by the author, have an undeniable appeal-they are convenient and offer inexpensive and tasty food. Even if you are disturbed by the practices of these corporations, could you realistically swear off your food, given its ubiquity and mainstream appeal? If you are driving home from work, tired and hungry, and your two choices are a familiar fast food restaurant or an unknown Mom-and-pop, which would you choose? What kinds of implications does this choice have?
If one accepts the author's assertions that the beef processors and fast food corporations are engaging in patterns of unethical conduct, what can the consumer do to modify their behavior? Can the conduct of an individual have an impact on a company's practices? Why is a company most likely to change its conduct? To generate public goodwill? To respond to its employees' concerns? To address diminishing profits?
Since few people would confuse fast food with health food, who bears the greater responsibility for the alarming rate of obesity in children in the United States: the fast food chains that market "supersize" meals to children, or parents who are not educating their children about the benefits of a balanced diet? Can well-intentioned parents maintain control over the eating habits of their children in an era when school districts are contracting to bring fast food into the school cafeteria?
Suggested Sites for Further Information
American Meat Institute (AMI)
The nation's oldest and largest meat and poultry trade association. meatami.com
National Restaurant Association (NRA)
NRA is the leading business association for the restaurant industry. www.restaurant.org
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
The department of the US government with the responsibility to ensure safety and healthful work environments. www.osha.gov
Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP)
S.T.O.P. is a non-profit organization composed of victims of foodborne illness and concerned individuals and organizations. www.stop-usa.org
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
The, public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged, as required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act. www.fsis.usda.gov
Vegan Action (VA)
A non-profit grassroots organization that educates the public about veganism. www.vegan.org
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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