Fast Food Nation
Eric Schlosser
Contributed by Katlyn Weinert
Chapter 9

This chapter opens with an anecdote about the largest recall of food in the nation’s history. In 1997 approximately 35 million pounds of ground beef was recalled by Hudson Foods because a strain of E Coli was found in the food. However, by the time the beef was recalled, 25 million pounds had already been eaten.

Schlosser notes that the nature of food poisoning is changing. Prior to the rise of large meatpacking plants, people would become ill from bad food in small, localized arenas. Now, because meat is distributed all over the nation, an outbreak of food poisoning in one town may indicate nation-wide epidemic. Every day in the United States, 200, 000 people are sickened by a foodborne disease. Schlosser argues that there is one simple reason for why eating a hamburger can make you seriously ill: there is shit in the meat. 

Hamburgers were previously associated with the poor and thought unsafe to eat. White Castle, the country’s first hamburger chain, worked hard in the 1920s to prove that its meat was safe to eat. Before World War II, Americans ate pork more than any other meat. However, rising incomes, falling cattle prices, and the rise of the fast-food industry later propelled beef ahead of pork in the American meat-eater’s diet. However, numerous outbreaks of E coli in the past few decades demonstrate that beef is not entirely safe. E coli can also be spread by infected persons for up to two weeks. Americans, especially children, continue to be made ill by E coli every year. 

The way cattle are raised, slaughtered, and processed provides an ideal setting for E coli to spread. Feedlots have been compared with crowded European cities of the Middle Ages, where disease raged because of unsanitary conditions. Rising grain prices have affected what cattle are fed. While cattle are designed to eat grains and grass, they are often fed the remains of other animals (including animal waste). 

Schlosser offers a detailed account of the legislation and agendas of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations relating to the beef industry. Essentially, Schlosser finds a tension between Republican support for big business and Democratic insistence on regulation of the meatpacking industry. These agendas are further complicated by the meatpacking and fast-food industries financial support of the Republican Party. While the Clinton administration pushed legislation that would toughen regulations in the meatpacking industry, the Republican-controlled Congress failed to enact bills introduced in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999. 

In addition to the potential hazards of beef consumption, Schlosser illustrates how restaurants, particularly fast-food restaurants, are frequently unsanitary and result in potentially dangerous conditions for food production.


In this chapter, Schlosser is interested in exploring the horrors of E coli. Interestingly, it seems that he feels he must heighten the horror of E coli’s potential by comparing it with AIDS. This comparison has some benefits: Schlosser’s audience is probably fairly well-informed about AIDS; there are some similarities between AIDS and E coli such as when they were discovered and that they can be spread to healthy individuals by infected individuals. However, this comparison is overwrought and serves little purpose other than inciting emotion in the reader. E coli does not kill as many people as AIDS and it is not fraught with the same political/ social history as AIDS; moreover, it is spread in an entirely different fashion (with the exception of the potential for hazardous blood transfusions). 

Schlosser’s invocation of The Jungle, conversely, is particularly apt. Moreover, it is a disturbing reminder that we had once come so far in ameliorating the problems of the meatpacking industry—only to find ourselves right back where we started. Similar to the rest of the book, this section locates much of the responsibility for the downward spiral of regulations and standards squarely on the shoulders of the Reagan and Bush administrations. 

This chapter takes the added step of interrogating the issues of control and power within the political milieu of America, by illustrating how financial contributions affect legislation. The meatpacking and fast-food industries are able to make large financial contributions to the Republican Party because of their size and strength in the American economy. It would be interesting to see if Campaign Finance Reform has does anything to assuage this problem.

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