On Friday, Nov. 17, at theaters around the country appeared an unexpectedly ambitious film based on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a nonfiction blast at the culture and commodities of the fast-food industry. First published in 2001, Schlosser’s book analyzed not only the history of companies like McDonald’s, but also their advertising to children, their exploitation of teen workers and the synthetic flavor compounds in their foods. Schlosser went further than this, too, connecting trends in fast food with the growth of American suburbs and their reliance upon automobiles, with consolidation in the meatpacking industry (four meatpacking firms now slaughter 84 percent of all beef consumed in the U.S.) and with the pressure on small ranchers and chicken growers that has resulted from the explosion of restaurants selling burgers and McNuggets.

Armed with his avalanche of facts (he researched the book for two years), Schlosser built an argument that was cohesive and consistent and, somewhat unexpectedly, audiences loved it. In 2002, Fast Food Nation was among the top-10 best-selling paperbacks of the year; it remained on The New York Times best-seller list for two years. At this point, the book has been translated into 20 languages, has sold millions of copies around the world and is now used in college classrooms around the country.

All of this is notable, in part because Fast Food Nation originally was not accompanied by the hype that usually attends books expected to be best-sellers. Its reviewers, for example, did not anticipate its success. Rob Walker reviewed the book for The New York Times Book Review in 2001, and as he remembers, “So far as I’m aware, there wasn’t any huge prepublication marketing blitz or anything; it wasn’t one of those books that gets a lot of hype in advance.”

So what made people read the book? One of its attractions may be the volume of data it presents. Schlosser collected so much information that at least one jaw-dropping figure is present on every page, all from verifiable sources. In one famous section, for instance, he cites a USDA study of beef-processing plants nationwide that noted that “78.6 percent of the ground beef contained microbes that are primarily spread by fecal matter.” For those who miss the point of this statistic, Schlosser reinterprets it in short form: “There is shit in the meat.”

Not only was the book based on comprehensive and meticulous research, but it was also well-written. Schlosser employed an easy-to-follow organization, and he never engaged in elitism toward his subject or degraded into polemic. Walker confirms, “He did a good job of reporting. He was also making a case that seemed pretty factual, but not shrill; he didn’t come across as an advocate, someone who was an activist who was writing a book.” This is perhaps what gives the book its potency: Schlosser was not a vegetarian, an organic farmer or a Ralph Nader campaign activist. He was simply a journalist.

Of course, McDonald’s hated him. Arguably the world’s most recognizable brand (next to Disney), McDonald’s was inevitably to become the primary target of Fast Food Nation. The company, like Wal-Mart, is easy to bash, in part because it has achieved a scale that other businesses slavishly envy: 73 percent of U.S. households live within three miles of a McDonald’s, and an estimated one out of every eight workers in the U.S. has at some point worked at one. McDonald’s is also the largest owner of retail property in the world; it spends more money on advertising than any other brand; it operates more playgrounds than any private entity in the U.S., has the nation’s bestselling line of children’s clothes and is one of the largest distributors of toys.

It’s difficult to say whether Schlosser’s book directly impacted the monolithic McDonald’s, but the restaurant did post its first quarterly loss in the 50-year history of the company in 2002, one year after the book’s publication. More abstractly, Fast Food Nation was so widely read that it is now firmly lodged in the discussion of food, and its legacy has been to open up a whole field of possibility for popular nonfiction that hasn’t been touched since Upton Sinclair penned The Jungle. Schlosser’s work inspired the production of works like Morgan Spurlock’s popular film Supersize Me (2004), which prompted McDonald’s to stop supersizing meals six months after its release. This summer saw publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a Schlosser-esque comparison of food options available to American consumers, as well as a host of other food-analysis books. In May of this year, Schlosser also published Chew On This!, a version of Fast Food Nation aimed at middle-schoolers.

Food is an extremely popular topic right now, and it hasn’t been such a hot topic, perhaps, since processed foods first started making it onto the market in the ’50s and ’60s. At that time, highly processed foods were strange and new, and they were sold in different ways from their contemporary counterparts.

“A lot of this has to do with notions of modernity,” argues Felicity Northcott, an anthropologist at Johns-Hopkins University. “What you had were TV dinners, for instance, and the idea was that people who are smart and educated didn’t really need to cook anymore. So you had all of these processed foods and it was a sign of being modern, eating foods that were highly processed.”

In the early years of processed foods, modern living meant modern food, which doesn’t rot or mold and tastes great five months (or five years in some cases) after it was manufactured. Taste is important, of course, and in his work Schlosser is careful not to judge the flavors of fast foods as being mediocre or bland. It turns out, however, that the flavors present in modern fast food and other processed foods are synthesized by chemists in lab coats and manufactured in factories, and that these chemical compounds are present in foods in such tiny amounts that one drop of bell pepper flavoring, for instance, is enough to add flavor to five swimming pools. These flavor compounds are necessary because processing food destroys its flavor and necessitates the addition of synthetic flavors under esoteric names like “natural” and “artificial” flavoring. Thus, in the McNuggets, milkshakes and even the french fries (long praised by the public and even food critics) at McDonald’s, the flavors are simply chemical compounds synthesized in a lab, manufactured on a large scale, and then added to the finished products before they arrive frozen at the restaurants.

For Schlosser, fast food is merely symptomatic of this aspect of the American food system, a system of processed food. Currently, he points out, “90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food.” Processed foods are no longer really sold as symbols of modernity because we’re all so used to them, but instead are now offered as inexpensive and convenient alternatives to meals cooked from scratch. Schlosser’s statistic, then, points to the volume of food being used to replace the cooked-from-scratch method. Of course, it makes sense in light of the modern supermarket, where nine out of 10 aisles are devoted to frozen, canned, dried or otherwise manufactured foodstuffs, and the only nonprocessed sections are the produce aisles and the aisles dedicated to nonfood products. The statistic also points to the ways in which most of the food at fast food and other chain restaurants arrives at the restaurants frozen.

These details emerge in a chapter of Fast Food Nation titled “Why the Fries Taste Good,” where Schlosser’s research takes him to a flavor-manufacturing facility in New Jersey. In some cases, he reveals, these added flavors and colors come from unexpected sources. Cochineal extract (or carmine), for instance, comes from the body of an insect that lives in Peru and the Canary Islands. The bug eats a red berry and its body is dried and ground into a pigment that is used to make certain foods look red or pink. “Dannon strawberry yogurt gets its color from carmine,” Schlosser notes, “as do many frozen fruit bars, candies, fruit fillings and Ocean Spray pink grapefruit juice drink.”

These kinds of details are surprising, but this surprise itself demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge on the part of the American consumer. Where does this food come from and what is it? If the old adage about being what you are eating is true, and if we so obviously don’t know where our food comes from, then what can we know about ourselves?

Industrial Food

To understand how this situation came to be, it’s important to consider the history of our food system. Schlosser starts his book with the premise that, “Fast food and its consequences have become inescapable, regardless of whether you eat it twice a day, try to avoid it, or have never taken a single bite.” His point is that the social and economic implications of fast food extend far beyond the health of the people who eat it. In fact, Schlosser argues, the success of the fast-food industry has encouraged a centralized and industrialized food system, and this centralization has led to some unexpected problems.

To illustrate this, consider the following point: In 1968, McDonald’s bought beef from 175 local suppliers, but the nature of their business was such that they wanted uniform hamburgers, and so, within one year, they reduced the number of suppliers to five. It’s no surprise to some experts, then, that in 1973, just a few years after the switch, McDonald’s had the first major nationwide outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.

Nicols Fox, author of Spoiled: Why our food is making us sick and It Was Probably Something You Ate, was one of the first writers to address the problem. At the moment, “Hamburger meat is ground in Colorado and it’s made up of hundreds of different cows from four different countries,” she says, in a description that applies to all ground beef, not merely that served at fast-food restaurants.

“When that massive production of hamburger is created,” argues Fox, “if there’s one contaminated cow, it can contaminate the entire lot, and then that entire lot is made into little frozen hamburger patties that are then distributed all over the United States. Thus, instead of having maybe one or two people get sick, you have an outbreak that can cover the breadth of the United States.”

Fox was asked to review Fast Food Nation for the Washington Post in 2001 because of her work on the subject of foodborne pathogens. Schlosser also relied heavily on her work to compose his “What’s in the Meat” chapter, and he has called her books “the two best on foodborne pathogens.” Fox was interested in E. coli O157:H7, salmonella and other foodborne pathogens that can sicken or kill human beings, and her thesis is that centralized production has made these diseases not only more prevalent, but also more deadly. In one startling example, Fox pointed out that in one sample year, “The USDA had found that 98 percent of the chickens that it had tested were, in fact, contaminated with salmonella.” These illnesses are problems “we really hadn’t confronted before that were associated with food,” says Fox. “I looked at how changes in lifestyle, culture, food production, processing and distribution had really created these new pathogens, and they really were new.”

In a recent example of this problem, E. coli-infected spinach from California sickened 199 people in 26 different states in September and October. This is a symptom of industrial agriculture, thinks Mel Lions, co-founder of the San Diego Roots Network. “At this time of year, spinach should grow pretty much everywhere in North America, no problem,” says Lions, “but because of the industrial agriculture system, most of the spinach is grown in Salinas or other California counties.”

“When what should have been a local outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 occurred, it shut down all spinach consumption in the whole country,” argues Lions. “That should have rung bells for most people: ‘Why don’t we grow spinach here in Maine or in Florida?’ That’s a symptom of an over-industrialized food system where the chains of production are so thin and stretched out and centralized that something like that can really disrupt the whole crop.”

Changing Attitudes

In the last five years, consumer trends that probably come out of health-conscience shopping have forced grocery stores to consider these issues, and corporations like Whole Foods have actively tried to meet a growing demand. In fact, Whole Foods and other stores have been so successful that other grocery stores are now following suit.

However, one huge obstacle is shipping. A grocery store might claim to carry local, organic produce, even if that produce was first shipped hundreds of miles away for packing, before being shipped back to the grocery store.

It seems so inefficient, so why is it organized in this way? The answer is that there is no one to do the work of packing produce, which grocery chains need to distribute food to their many stores.

Most agree that grocery stores alone cannot change the way in which we consume food in this country, because their business models rely on shipping huge amounts of food over long distances, and shipping is probably one of the most fundamental and most ignored aspects of the American food system. In fact, California grows most of the rest of the country’s produce, and no matter what state you live in, in today’s agricultural environment, the average food item travels 1,500 miles before it reaches a consumer’s plate.

“I’m afraid that in a country where 1 percent of the population is growing food for the rest, the imbalance is incredibly precarious,” says organic farmer and activist Michael Ableman. “In order to do this, the U.S. is wholly dependent on shipping foods long distances.”

Ableman is the founder and executive director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, a project that emphasizes small-scale urban food production, and he’s been involved in California’s organic-farming movement for the past three decades. “As energy costs reach a critical level — in other words, as oil becomes more expensive,” Ableman argues, “we’ll have no choice but to grow food closer to where the food is being consumed and in ways that are more sustainable.”

Sustainability is an often-used term in the discussion, and while not everyone agrees on the conditions for sustainability, one important aspect is the connection between agricultural commodities and fossil-fuels usage, a point that Michael Pollan attempts to emphasize in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. According to Pollan, seven to 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are burned for every calorie of energy consumed in the United States. On a related note, Pollan also points out that the agricultural industry uses a fifth of all petroleum consumed in the United States, about as much as cars do.

Ableman clarifies the point, confirming, “It’s not just transportation of food that’s oil-based; it’s the fertilizers and the tractors and the whole food system, including refrigeration. The number of fossil fuel-based oil calories in relation to food calories is staggering. Every calorie of food is dripping with oil.”

Again, it’s surprising to think of our food in this way, but the surprise itself points to the point: One reason we may never question where food comes from is that it is a commodity protected from questions. Examples abound of ridiculous processed food items that are in themselves somewhat odd: Twinkies, green ketchup, Cheesewhiz and McNuggets. These all demonstrate the ways in which processed food has become fundamental within a food system that, as Schlosser points out, “has changed more in the last 40 years than in the previous 40,000.” In fact, the industrial food system is now so fundamental that it rarely occurs to us to wonder how it got that way. Until recently, that is.

Rethinking the Supermarket

Whether or not you’ve heard of Fast Food Nation, it has probably been much harder to ignore the way in which the selling of food has radically changed in the intervening years since the publication of the book. Wal-Mart now controversially (as with everything they do) sells organic produce and even organic milk. Grocery stores, small and large, have been re-organizing, emphasizing healthy, organic, locally grown foods. Even McDonald’s has started selling organic, locally grown coffee in certain parts of the country, although in this case their media contact took pains to assure me that they were not doing so in response to any political attitudes on the part of their customers. Apparently, McDonald’s customers in the Northeastern U.S. simply have “a flavor palette that prefers this particular coffee bean over our other offerings.” In short, there may be a revolution in food taking place, but the corporations are actually showing up a little late to the party.

This precipitous shift has actually been discernible in the last five years in thriving farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, which are produce subscription services for particular farms.

Gail Feenstra studies these trends for the UC Davis sustainable-agriculture program SAREP, and she has also noticed a large increase statewide over the last five years. “The number of farmers’ markets increasing is a good example” Feenstra says. “There are now over 450 farmers’ markets in the state. Five years ago it was a lot lower than that. CSAs are also steadily increasing.

“Even the Safeways now have organic sections,” she notes. “Did that happen five years ago? No.”

Many organic farmers and activists urge, however, that the entry of large supermarket chains into the organic market is merely a dilution of the values upon which the organic movement was founded. Dairy farming is a good example. Because of the ways in which cattle are kept on conventional farms, in close proximity to each other and their feces for the duration of their lives, they are prone to illness. It is for this reason and others that they are fed antibiotics, a situation from which the pharmaceutical industry benefits greatly — most of the antibiotics sold in the United States go into animal feed.

Organic dairies were started by farmers to resist these conditions, but now that the market is dominated by large, corporate, organic dairy farmers, many complain that the word “organic” no longer carries the same weight. For instance, Wal-Mart’s organic dairy supplier, Aurora, has a dairy farm in Colorado with 4,000 cows living under conditions that a Whole Foods spokesman described as “unacceptable” for that company’s standards.

More generally, the entry of huge corporations like Wal-Mart, not to mention the success of Whole Foods, may reveal the way in which consumers are looking more and more for the sources of their foods.

“The thing for me that’s really so interesting,” says Ableman, “what is most fundamental and necessary for health and well-being and human stability? There aren’t too many things more important than food, and yet it’s treated with such disregard. Most people just have no interest in really understanding how their food comes to them.”

Felicity Northcott at Johns Hopkins surmises, “People in this country are very alienated from the whole process of eating. What we do is we go into these fast-food places and it’s always the same thing, it’s always mediocre. It’s not about how we make a connection with food. It’s about eating for eating’s sake rather than any kind of sensual experience.”

Still, there are important reasons for considering where food comes from. Northcott argues, “As long as it ends up on their plate and it looks like a burger and french fries, consumers don’t want to know anything else, and therefore they take no responsibility for eating what they eat, in terms of political responsibility.” But there is a political responsibility —“60 percent of all vegetables eaten in this country are potatoes,” offers Northcott, “and the potato is one of the few vegetables that is subsidized by the government, so that when you eat, it’s a political decision. There are implications for the people who grow the food, the people who pick the food, the people who process the food and, ultimately, the people who eat the food.”

Indeed, we are connected to these food systems in unexpected ways. “It becomes important to your health to know the living and working conditions that the people who pick and pack your produce live under,” argues Nicols Fox. She refers to a 1996 outbreak of Cyclospora in the U.S. to illustrate her point: “Are there bathroom facilities in that raspberry patch in Guatemala? Or are people using the irrigation ditches as bathrooms and then using that same water to dilute the pesticides that they spray on your raspberries? That’s actually how raspberries in Guatemala became contaminated, and I think people are beginning to understand that it matters.”

Maybe they are beginning to understand that it matters, and it may be easier to get answers with this growing interest in the subject. Of course, if consumers aren’t asking questions about where their food comes from, maybe it’s time to start.