“There’s shit in the meat.”
This revelation sets the stage for the film Fast Food Nation, a drama loosely based on Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book of the same name. The movie follows several separate stories: Don Anderson’s mission to uncover the truth behind the meat his company, Mickey’s, uses for its popular hamburgers; high school student and Mickey’s employee Amber’s realization of the corruption and animal cruelty behind the fast food she makes; and the exploitation of illegal Mexican immigrants, who come to America hoping for a better life, but find only ill-treatment and abuse in the meat processing plant they work at. Mainly, Fast Food Nation scrutinizes the problems of unsanitary and unsafe work environments, contaminated food, and animal and worker mistreatment.
As consumers of fast food, people do not usually think about what must happen in order for them to be able to buy a hamburger. As long as it tastes delicious, what could be wrong? The truth is that the hamburger is only the final step in a lengthy—and often corrupted—pyramid of people and processes. It is part of a food system that includes commercial, human, and animal links. Pitfalls are present in every part of the system, from the initial steps of brutally slaughtering cows—graphically shown in the film—to the concluding stage involving the dirty actions of displeased fast food workers who spit in their customers’ food. In between, there is the widespread mistreatment of workers in meat processing plants. These laborers are sometimes sexually harassed by managers, and use dangerous machinery that not uncommonly removes human limbs. They are physically unable to keep up with the fast pace of the machines, which results in tainted meat and introduces a secondary theme: advancement of technology. Although progress quickens production, it also means that more and more workers are thrown into the workplace without training to operate potentially hazardous machines. Because workers possess neither job nor physical security, they are unhappy and often resort to drugs, contributing to even more work accidents and carelessly prepared meat.
The beginning and end of the film are important exemplifiers of the fast food system. At the beginning, the scene comprises of cheerful families eating at Mickey’s. One particular hamburger is taken apart; the camera slowly zooms in on the meat, to the point where the viewer finds it slightly disorienting. This is symbolic of the fast food system, how meat is the heart of the system, and how there is much more to meat than what meets the eye (or taste buds). The conclusion of the film neatly wraps up the film with an ironic twist when a new group of Mexican immigrants cross the border, and the children are greeted with bags of Mickey’s hamburgers. This illustrates how fast food has become an American symbol, and demonstrates how deep the fast food system has penetrated American culture, to the point of no escape.
Although it is largely a drama film, Fast Food Nation shows much of what happens behind the bright and welcoming counters of fast food restaurants. After watching it, viewers will definitely think twice before biting into a hamburger.