A few years ago, an old friend of my husband watched her three-year-old son die after eating a tainted hamburger at a fast-food chain in Oregon. She is a pediatrician, and her son had good care; but there was simply nothing anyone could do for him.

He was one of many Americans who become sick from what they eat. According to a 1999 study by the Centers for Disease Control, 200,000 people are sickened by food daily, 900 are hospitalized, and 14 die. That amounts to a quarter of the American population over a year’s time. Most of these poisonings are not deadly, but there is enough E. coli 0157:H7 (the toxic strain responsible for the Jack in the Box deaths out West in 1993, among many others) floating around for concern.

The problem, simply put, is caused by manure in your meat, and I do mean yours: A 1996 USDA study found that over 78 percent of the ground beef sampled contained microbes that are spread generally by fecal material. Yet the U.S. government, which can recall consumer products ranging from toys to automobiles, does not have the legal power to recall tainted meat, or even to release information to the public about where that meat is being sold (unless under a brand name at a retail outlet, but not at a fast food restaurant). Nor can it impose punitive fines. The recalls you have heard about have been limited, voluntary, and often late, after much of the poisoned meat had already been consumed.

Erie Schlosser, in a chapter describing his unauthorized visit to a High Plains slaughterhouse, explains how our ground beef becomes so dirty. An ever-changing crew of Mexican and Latin American workers, many of them with little English or education, work disassembly lines that may process up to 400 cattle an hour. The speed of the lines is such that they can require a worker to make six cuts a minute on a full-sized cow. (Anyone who has cut up a chicken knows ten seconds isn’t much time to separate bone from bone.) Speed, plus the lack of emphasis on cleanliness and the common occurrence that a cow stomach or bowel is pierced and sprays the meat; the ill health of many feedlot cattle, which are packed so closely into the lots that they foul eat other with their waste; the incredible truth that a single hamburger can contain meat from dozens or sometimes hundreds of cows—all of this makes it remarkable that any American hamburger is untainted.

Fast food is cheap; it is convenient; it is quintessentially American; and it has become an American staple—so much so that a quarter of the country eats it on any given day. Yet fast food is, along with television, one of the great leveling evils of modern life. The very sameness, immediate availability, and ostensible “quality” that has made McDonald’s so successful has also helped to make all American cities look alike. The franchising system McDonald’s perfected has been imitated by so many other kinds of restaurants and businesses that it is now a political statement (and sometimes an inconvenience) to shop at a locally owned store or eatery.

To be truly pro-American beef you must be pro-American beef farmer, but cattle, potatoes, and many other farm products have a concentration of sellers now (Schlosser argues) that is reminiscent of affairs before the Sherman Act was passed to bust up the beef trust. A potato farmer earns about two cents on a $1.50 order of fries, and it wasn’t so long ago that pig farmers were selling at a loss while pork prices at the supermarket remained stable. It’s no use saying that only the invisible hand of consumer demand has brought us to this point; as Schlosser and many others document, our own government promotes consolidation and mega-franchising. Once consolidated, large organizations of any kind can largely shape their market and supplier base. However you may feel about trustbusters and government regulation, what chance does a family business have against a multimillion-dollar corporation—let alone a cartel?

Schlosser packs much detail into a highly readable and convincing narrative that touches on the many aspects of a “fast-food nation,” from the high injury rates among meatpackers to the alchemy of the flavoring industry to the pervasive influence of cheapness-at-any-cost on the culture of an entire country—and now, the world. The book also contains a number of piquant asides: how, in the 1920’s, General Motors secretly bought up many city trolley systems, dismantled them, and turned the companies into bus lines with GM-manufactured buses; how the character of Ronald McDonald was created in 1963 by Willard Scott, later of Today show fame, who was soon deemed too portly to play the part.

But among the answers Schlosser proposes to the problems he so effectively describes, the only one that seems to offer hope, or any immediate protection, is a change in how we spend. Jack in the Box now offers (Schlosser says) clean meat, having forced its suppliers, after the 1993 poisonings, to test their meat rigorously for microbes; only a similar p.r. disaster could prompt McDonald’s or Burger King to do the same. Who wants to eat a hamburger there in the meantime? Or to buy supermarket beef while waiting for OSHA to hire a reasonable number of inspectors? In any case, 50 United States may simply be too many to allow for any national regulatory solution. We are left with only the much less convenient solution of slow food: buying meat from a farmer or rancher or local butcher we know, or can get to know—one who has inspected his processor—and cooking the meat ourselves.

That is, these days, a very un-American answer, and I have little hope it will be widely adopted. Nor is McDonald’s concerned. Earlier this year, one of its spokesmen replied by fax to a New York Times reporter who called the company to request a response to Mr. Schlosser’s criticisms. The fax said: “His opinion is outvoted 45 million to I every single day, because that’s how many customers around the world choose to come to McDonald’s for our menu of variety, value and quality.”


[Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company) 356 pp., $25.00]