Chew on This Summary

Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson

Chew on This

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Chew on This Summary

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Written by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson, Chew on This is a follow up to Schlosser’s earlier non-fiction book, Fast Food Nation. But, where Fast Food Nation was written for adults, Chew on This is written specifically for a middle school audience. As Eric Schlosser put it, “Chew on This is meant to get kids thinking about how they’re being targeted and marketed to, the consequences of being a part of this food culture, the consequences for their own bodies, and the consequences for society.”

Schlosser and Wilson pull no punches in describing the realities of the Fast Food industry, but they always stay firmly grounded in objective and scientifically provable facts. The book starts with the history of fast food restaurants, beginning with Charlie Nagreen’s food booth at the Outagamie County fair in 1885. Nagreen sold meatball sandwiches, but decided to flatten his meatballs so they wouldn’t roll off the bun, inventing the first hamburger.

The McDonald brothers, Richard and Maurice, decided to open their own drive-in restaurant and developed the Speedee Service System, which combined self-service with an assembly line process.  Businessman Ray Kroc later took over the McDonalds franchise and implemented companywide guidelines on menu choices and ingredients. He made exclusive deals with large-scale food producers to process food items to his specifications so that, no matter what McDonalds you visited, you would get the exact same dining experience. Kroc also borrowed an idea from his friend, Walt Disney, and began marketing campaigns aimed at children.

The idea behind this marketing strategy was that, if a child made a positive bond to a brand, not only would they cajole their parents into taking them to that restaurant more often, but they themselves would continue to do business with that company when they grew up. Fast food places would: hire clowns, cater birthday parties, build play-lands, start kid clubs, serve happy meals, and give away toys – lots of toys.

The book then addresses the fast food industry’s effect on communities. The affordability of automobiles and the growth of suburban neighborhoods created a demand for low cost food made and served quickly; which in turn, created a need for cheap, unskilled labor. The obvious answer was teenagers. The assembly line process meant an employee only had to learn one step to start working, and then gradually learn each part of the system over time. Teenagers could be paid minimum wages and only work part-time. Promotions could include little to no change in actual pay, and even store management could find themselves working for little more than everyone else. Fast food companies that only hire part-time employees do not need to offer any benefits, such as health care.

Schlosser and Wilson then describe the truths about artificial flavors and colors and how they have more to do with marketing than nutrition. Next, they discuss the harmful effects of soft drinks and how they contribute to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and heart-related problems. They also cover the growing relationship between fast food companies and public school systems, where the companies are actually buying the rights to serve their food in school cafeterias.

Chew on This then deals with the issues of industrialized beef, pork, and chicken processing. It unflinchingly describes the inhumane treatment of the animals and the crowded and unsanitary environment they live in – which can lead to fecal matter and E. coli bacteria in the food. It also talks about the extremely unsafe working conditions, where workers with long, sharp knives must do their jobs in crowded rooms at a high rate of speed and work with machines designed to quickly chop flesh and bones.

Finally, the book comments on the global effects of the fast food industry. It talks about how fast food chains are opening restaurants throughout Europe, the Mid-East, Africa, South America, Japan – anywhere and everywhere they can open up a franchise, they do. And along with the restaurant comes the unhealthy food, the underpaid employees, the assembly line systems, the frozen, preprocessed, artificially flavored and colored products, and the marketing strategies that are aimed at children.

Schlosser and Wilson do offer a few good examples of positive alternatives to corporate fast food restaurant, such as the Edible Schoolyard Program, the In-N-Out Burger chain, and Burgerville.

One of the major themes in Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food is the unhealthy nature of industrially processed foods. It points out that not only does fast food have little, if any, nutritional value, but it has also been linked to dangerous medical problems such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. The risk of having health problems increases if children include fast food in their regular diets because of the addictive nature of soft drinks and the psychological effects of marketing directly to children.

Perhaps the most important and prominent theme throughout the book is the danger of a profits-first mindset. This allows for deplorable treatment of both employees and livestock. Workers are under-paid, given little if any benefits, and easily replaced. The animals suffer short, terrible lives and brutal deaths. Within the pages of their book, Schlosser and Wilson criticize an industry that seems willing to cut corners, manipulate and endanger children, abuse its employees, and increase its growth regardless of who gets hurt along the way.