Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Book Review: Fast Food Nation.

I did this one in reverse. I saw the movie first, and then read the book.

While the process this time was unintentional, I find it far more satisfying to read the book after experiencing the movie.

For example, after reading A Civil Action (by Jonathan Harr), I judged it one of the finest books about litigating mass torts in the US. Then I saw the 1998 movie starring John Travolta, and felt as unsatisfied as a Cubs fan leaving Wrigley Field after Steve Bartman's unsolicited fielding play a few years ago. (

Reading the book first often leads to disappointment because the movie cannot possibly capture all the details and nuances of the book. Conversely, if the movie captures your attention, the book can fill many vacuums left by the film.

Following this strategy, I saw the movie, Fast Food Nation. While I had heard of the best-selling book, I hadn't read it when I stepped into the theater late last year.

I reviewed the film, sensing it squandered a lot of potential. Read the review here:

Consequently, this perceived unfulfilled potential intrigued me enough to purchase the book. The book didn't dispel my initial thoughts. It plumbs depths only hinted at in the film.

The book explores the histories of the various fast-food eateries, including the mavericks who launched and built them. It also looks at the factors contributing to their rise, such as the interstate freeway system, marketing, and economic forces over the past 50 or so years.

But the book digs deeper. It examines the processes that shape how food is brought to the masses, including food additives, food safety, and the "kill floor." The portrait is very disturbing. "The hides are pulled off by machine; if a hide as been inadequately cleaned, chunks of dirt and manure may fall from it onto the meat." (p. 203.) The book reminded me of The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair, which similarly exposed slaughterhouse practices around the turn of the last century.

One of the more interesting passages to me was the book's exploration of franchising. Here's a pertinent passage: "Once a contract is signed franchisees are largely on their own....When a contract is terminated, the franchisee can lose his or her entire investment." (p. 99.)

The author, Eric Schlosser, then laments adequate federal laws to protect franchisees, who obviously are at a tremendous power/resource disadvantage relative to their franchisors. Schlosser however ignores state franchise laws. As I have litigated franchise issues in several cases, I can attest to the fact that California, for instance, provides a statutory scheme that provides numerous protections to franchisees in this State.

In any event, the book devolves however into a stark binary pattern. For example, in Schlosser's world, Democrats are good; Republicans (except Teddy Roosevelt [who served as president about 100 years ago]) are bad. Independents are good; big corporations are bad. Reality is far more nuanced, and this superfluous boosterism just detracts from the legitimacy of the message.

Similarly, Schlosser's alarmism is, well, alarming. Here's a sentence I chewed on a few times before moving on: "Anyone who brings raw ground beef into his or her kitchen today must regard it as a potential biohazard, one that may carry an extremely dangerous microbe." (p. 221.) It's called cooking; let's not get carried away here.

I found the book very thought-provoking in ways the movie failed to be. For this reason, I can recommend the text, if not the film.