The book is divided into two sections: "The American Way", which interrogates the beginnings of the Fast Food Nation within the context of post-World War II America; and "Meat and Potatoes", which examines the specific mechanizations of the fast-food industry, including the chemical flavoring of the food, the production of cattle and chickens, the working conditions of beef industry, the dangers of eating meat, and the global context of fast food as an American cultural export.
Fast Food Nation opens with discussion of Carl N. Karcher and the McDonalds brothers, examining their roles as pioneers of the fast-food industry in southern California. This discussion is followed by an examination of Ray Kroc and Walt Disney's complicated relationship as well as each man's rise to fame. This chapter also considers the intricate, profitable methods of advertising to children. Next, Schlosser visits Colorado Springs, CO and investigates the life and working conditions of the typical fast-food industry employee: fast-food restaurants employ the highest rate of low-wage workers, have among the highest turnover rates, and pay minimum wage to a higher proportion of its employees than any other American industry.
The second section of the text begins with a discussion of the chemical components that make the food taste so good. Schlosser follows this with a discussion of the life of a typical rancher, considering the difficulties presented to the agricultural world in a new economy. Schlosser is perhaps most provocative when he critiques the meatpacking industry, which he tags as the most dangerous job in America. Moreover, the meat produced by slaughterhouses has become exponentially more hazardous since the centralization of the industry: the way cattle are raised, slaughtered, and processed provides an ideal setting for E coli to spread. Additionally, working conditions continue to grow worse. In the final chapter, Schlosser considers how fast food has matured as an American cultural export following the Cold War: the collapse of Soviet Communism has allowed the mass spread of American goods and services, especially fast food. As a result, the rest of the world is catching up with America's rising obesity rates.
Evolution of the fast food industry
The book continues with an account of the evolution of fast food and how it has coincided with the advent of the automobile. Schlosser explains the transformation from countless independent restaurants to a few uniform franchises. "The extraordinary growth of the fast food industry has been driven by fundamental changes in American society. During that period, women entered the workforce in record numbers, often motivated less by a feminist perspective than by a need to pay the bills. In 1975, about one-third of American mothers with young children worked outside the home; today almost two-thirds of such mothers are employed. As the sociologists Cameron Lynne Macdonald and Carmen Sirianni have noted, the entry of so many women into the workforce has greatly increased demand for the types of services that housewives traditionally perform: cooking, cleaning, and child care. A generation ago, three-quarters of the money used to buy food in the United States was spent to prepare meals at home. Today about half of the money used to buy food is spent at restaurants - mainly at fast food restaurants."
Marketing to children
Regarding the topic of child-targeted marketing, Schlosser explains how the McDonald's Corporation modeled its marketing tactics on The Walt Disney Company, which inspired the creation of advertising icons such as Ronald McDonald and his sidekicks. Marketing executives intended that this marketing shift would result not only in attracting children, but their parents and grandparents as well. More importantly, the tactic would instill brand loyalty that would persist through adulthood through nostalgic associations to McDonald's. Schlosser also discusses the tactic's ills: the exploitation of children's naïveté and trusting nature.
In marketing to children, Schlosser suggests, corporations have infiltrated schools through sponsorship and quid pro quo. He sees that reductions in corporate taxation have come at the expense of school funding, thereby presenting many corporations with the opportunity for sponsorship with those same schools. According to his sources, 80% of sponsored textbooks contain material that is biased in favor of the sponsors, and 30% of high schools offer fast foods in their cafeterias.
In his examination of the meat packing industry, Schlosser finds that it is now dominated by casual, easily exploited immigrant labor and that levels of injury are among the highest of any occupation in the United States. Schlosser discusses his findings on meat packing companies IBP, Inc. and on Kenny Dobbins. Schlosser also recounts the steps involved in meat processing and reveals several hazardous practices unknown to many consumers, such as the practice of rendering dead pigs, horses and chicken manure into cattle feed.
Schlosser notes that practices like these were responsible for the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, aka Mad Cow Disease, p. 202-3), as well as for introducing harmful bacteria into the food supply, such as E. coli O157:H7 (ch. 9, "What's In The Meat"). A later section of the book discusses the fast food industry's role in globalization, linking increased obesity in China and Japan with the arrival of fast food. The book also includes a summary of the McLibel Case.
In later editions, Schlosser provided an additional section that included reviews of his book, counters to critics who emerged since its first edition, and discussion of the effect that the threat of BSE had on US Federal Government policy towards cattle farming. He concluded that, given the swift, decisive and effective action that took place as a result of this interest and intervention, many of the problems documented in the book are solvable, given enough political will.