Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s 2001 exposé Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal both bravely attack the fast food industry and its poisonous influence on American culture. Although they have different modus operandi, Spulock and Schlosser share a common goal, which is to educate the public on a part of life that most people take for granted or dismiss totally. In Super Size Me, Spurlock takes on McDonald’s by embarking on a month-long diet of only McDonald’s food – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As his body and health deteriorate, he also explores the total lack of exercise and proper nutrition in schools. Spurlock truly endangered his life for this experiment, and the results and ramifications are shocking.
In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser attacks the industry from all angles and leaves no corporation unscathed. While Spurlock focuses primarily on the health risks of fast food and specifically McDonald’s, Schlosser examines all the companies, as well as the health dangers, the grievous mistreatment of workers, the homogenization of global business (Spurlock touches on this, too), the chemical modification of food, the meatpacking industry (especially slaughterhouses), the potato industry, the poultry industry, and diseases caused by these misdeeds. McDonald’s emerges as the ultimate villain, not just in Super Size Me, but in Fast Food Nation, where it bears the brunt of the criticism, simply because its practices are the worst. These two works should be mandatory viewing and reading for all Americans, but especially for kids in school. The brainwashing by these companies starts early, and maybe easy access to this information and more proactive awareness could stop it.
Whereas Super Size Me is mainly about the ramifications of fast food in terms of obesity and the impact on children and education, Fast Food Nation is perhaps the most brilliant, important, and complete piece of muckraking ever written. Schlosser exposes the greed and corruption of the government and the biggest corporations, including McDonald’s, as well as their negligence in taking care of the industries and workers responsible for providing this food to the public. These two works perfectly compliment one another and illustrate the problems plaguing society today, and even though they focus on different issues, their messages are the same. “During a relatively brief period of time, the fast food industry has helped to transform not only the American diet, but also our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture” (Schlosser 3). Both Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation point out the monumental flaws present in the fast food industry today, specifically emphasizing the industry’s impact on world homogenization, business practices, advertising, education, food production methods, and obesity.
Ron English, the artist of the eerie paintings of Ronald McDonald displayed in Super Size Me, states in the film, “America’s been McDonaldized, you know. It’s been franchised out.” And this is not only in America; it is happening all over the world. “Becoming a franchisee is an odd combination of starting your own business and going to work for someone else” (Schlosser 94). Again, this merely represents the growing trend of homogenization, as the same businesses pop up everywhere. In the suburbs of Chicago, for example, it is practically impossible to drive more than a few blocks and not see a Walgreen’s. The same fast food restaurants and the same stores appear over and over, even in the most astonishing places. Spurlock draws attention to a McDonald’s in a hospital, perhaps the most appropriate location for one, except maybe a cemetery. But nothing is more appalling than the location of one McDonald’s in Germany, sitting practically on top of the entrance to Dachau, “the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis” (Schlosser 233). Of course, McDonald’s claimed they were not trying to capitalize on the horror of the Holocaust, but “the curator of the Dachau Museum complained that McDonald’s was distributing thousands of leaflets among tourists in the camp’s parking lot…`Welcome to Dachau,’ said the leaflets, `and welcome to McDonald’s’” (Schlosser 233). Trying to turn a profit on the systematic murder of millions of innocent people surely earns the McDonald’s corporation a special place in hell. Apparently, nothing is sacred when it comes to franchising.
During his month-long McBinge, Spurlock visits various schools to see what the kids are eating. At one school (and undoubtedly at most others), the kids are offered a cornucopia of junk food – candy bars, bags of chips, fries, and Swiss Rolls. When one of the workers tells him that they provide Gatorade and lemonade instead of soda, Spurlock points out that a can of lemonade contains just as much sugar as a can of soda. Many kids simply order fries for lunch, and the schools naively think that the kids are eating the fries as a side dish, not the main course. Spurlock follows the kids to their tables and finds that, indeed, kids are eating fries, candy, and chips for their main courses. At another school for kids with behavioral problems, they are served healthy, fresh, non-processed foods, as well as no beef or soda. The attitudes and behaviors of the students improved dramatically. Remarkably, this program costs just about as much as the other programs, but no one wants to lose the money that corporations provide them for placing their products in the schools and keeping them there. Paul Stitt, founder of the company that provides the healthy food program to students, bluntly declares, “They want to be there to addict the children for life.” Also, physical education has been cut drastically in the school system, making it almost obsolete. In fact, says Spurlock, “in the U.S., only one state requires mandatory physical education for grades K-12.” The lack of physical activity and the unhealthy food being provided by the schools could very well prove to be a lethal combination for the nation’s kids.
In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser asserts, “What we eat has changed more in the last forty years than in the previous forty thousand” (7). And since the foods have changed so rapidly in such a short period of time, the ways that the food is made has had to change just as much to keep up. “In the potato fields and processing plants of Idaho, in the ranchlands east of Colorado Springs, in the feedlots and slaughterhouses of the High Plains, you can see the effects of fast food on the nation’s rural life, its environment, its workers, and its health” (Schlosser 8). Gradually, farmers and ranchers are being brutally pushed aside to make way for suppliers that are more suitable to the needs of McDonald’s and the rest of the fast food industry, and the suicide rate among that group has increased considerably (Schlosser 146). Instead of building a competitive market, the potato, beef, and poultry industries are being taken over by a handful of conglomerates that completely own the market. “Today the top four meatpacking firms – ConAgra, IBP, Excel, and National Beef – slaughter about 84 percent of the nation’s cattle” (Schlosser 137-138). In addition, “the McNugget helped change not only the American diet but also its system for raising and processing poultry” (Schlosser 140). Fast food has irrevocably changed the way people make food, and that change is not a positive one.
Similar to the fast food companies, the meatpacking industry relies on a workforce comprised of people it can exploit to the fullest – immigrants. These workers are unaware of their basic rights, and joining a union is practically forbidden. Since the number of cattle that need to be slaughtered keeps increasing with the rising demand of the fast food companies, specifically McDonald’s, it makes sense that the number of injuries on the job also keeps increasing. Schlosser found that workers were “under tremendous pressure not to report injuries” (175). For whatever reason, as things got more dangerous, the government got more lax about safety laws, most likely because the corporations were giving an awful lot of money to make sure things went their way, even at the expense of their workers. In one of the most despicable incidents of deception, IBP was actually found to be keeping two sets of logs, one that contained actual injuries, and a fabricated one that they showed to inspectors (Schlosser 180).
After only thirty days on his McDonald’s diet, eating three meals a day there and restricting his physical activity to the bare minimum like most Americans, Spurlock was in danger of damaging his body beyond repair. His liver had taken a serious beating, his cholesterol increased by sixty-five points, he experienced depression, and he gained twenty-four and a half pounds. When he tried to reach someone from McDonald’s for an interview, he was unsurprisingly given the runaround. Spurlock acknowledges that his project was extreme, and he counters, “But the scary part is, there are people who eat this food regularly. Some people even eat it every day.” Anyone who works at McDonald’s can no longer claim that eating its food has no harmful side effects, because even if people eat it less often, it is still harming them or even killing them, just at a slower rate. As Daryl M. Isaacs, one of Spurlock’s doctors in the film, rightly says, “And there’s no reason whatsoever why fast food has to be so disgusting.” A mere six weeks after Super Size Me’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where Spurlock took home the Best Director prize, McDonald’s decided to do away with Supersized portions, claiming the decision was not influenced by the film at all.
All in all, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation boldly attack the very nature of our culture today, leaving no institution unscathed in their searing criticisms. The entire fast food industry shares the blame, but McDonald’s is an easy target because, quite simply, it is the biggest and the worst of them all. Things do not have to be this bad. “The fast food chains insist that suppliers follow strict specifications regarding the sugar content, fat content, size, shape, taste, and texture of their products. The chains could just as easily enforce a strict code of conduct governing the treatment of workers, ranchers, and farmers” (Schlosser 268). But at the end of the day, “nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food” (Schlosser 269). The real people who have the power to change the system are the people who buy the product, and as long as people keep giving fast food companies their money, nothing will ever change. Every human being should be required to watch Super Size Me and read Fast Food Nation, and anyone who can still eat at McDonald’s afterwards is in serious denial.