Muckraker was the name Teddy Roosevelt gave writers of his day who exposed political and economic corruption and the social hardships caused by the unbridled power of big business. Eric Schlosser sees to it that muckraking makes it into the 21st century in his best-selling Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.

Schlosser tracks the familiar burger and fries of McDonald’s or Burger King every step of the way from a cow to a consumer’s stomach, and the fast food industry from its founders, whom he admires, to the many problems he believes it causes us today.

He provides up-close-and-personal portraits of fast food personalities from “Colonel” Harland Sanders, who said he found it hard “not to call a no-good, lazy, incompetent, dishonest s.o.b by anything else but his rightful name,” to 16-year-old Elisa Zamot who gets up at 5:15 a.m. to make sure that frozen McMuffins are thawed in time for the breakfast crowd at a McDonald’s in Colorado Springs. He goes inside the factories that produce those remarkably uniform French fries and the laboratories that produce the flavors we think come from the food. He takes the reader along to slaughterhouses that, no doubt, have his muckraking predecessor Upton Sinclair rolling in his grave.

“Over the last three decades,” Schlosser writes, “fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society … In 1970 Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion.” Fast food is now taken for granted. It has become “as American as a small, rectangular, hand-held, frozen and reheated apple pie.”

Fast food is tasty and convenient but the price we pay to eat it goes well beyond the tab at the cash register, according to Schlosser. Fast food companies target advertising and promotions – like McDonald’s Happy Meals – at children. They make deals to get their advertising and their food into school cafeterias. Fast food companies, he says, are not concerned that kids who grow up with fast food are more likely to have lifetime obesity problems than did earlier generations or that kids today drink more sugar- and caffeine-laden soda than milk.

He berates the fast food chains for not only fighting against increases in the minimum wage but trying to get legislation passed to allow them to pay less than the minimum. He scorns them for allowing many teenagers to work so long and so late that they can’t possibly get any schoolwork done.

One of the many shameful episodes he relates comes from a suit Taco Bell settled by paying “millions in back wages to 16,000 current and former employees.” The suit had charged that employees were forced to wait until the restaurant got crowded before being allowed to start their shift and forced to clean up for no pay after their shifts ended.

The fact that fast food franchisees have to buy from suppliers selected by the chains has given a handful of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation’s food supply, says Schlosser. Potato farmers, chicken farmers and cattle ranchers are at the mercy of the giant processors who decide what they do, how they do it and what they can earn. He blames the processors for driving many farmers and ranchers off the land.

Schlosser describes cruelty to animals (cows crowded together in feedlots while being fattened for slaughter) and cruelty to humans (fast-moving lines that lead slaughterhouse workers into accidentally stabbing themselves and others).

He blames the meatpacking giant, IDP, for the latter, writing that IDP transformed the industry when it decided it didn’t need skilled and well-paid butchers but could hire unskilled, low-paid workers by organizing the work as an assembly line, each worker doing one task over and over again. Competitors soon followed suit to lower their own costs.

Schlosser sneaked into a slaughterhouse at night to watch employees working within inches of each other, standing ankle-deep in blood, hacking away at carcasses. Sometimes the blood is their own. In addition to stab wounds, there are incidents of lost fingers, lost limbs and death. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one out of three slaughterhouse workers suffers an injury or illness that requires more than first aid and Schlosser thinks that many injuries and illnesses go unreported.

Consumers who don’t care about the plight of workers might well worry about themselves, according to Schlosser. He describes how easy it is for food-borne pathogens to get into ground beef and how much sickness and death those pathogens cause every year. The high speed slaughtering lines allow fecal material to get into the meat. And a massive hamburger-grinding operation provides an efficient system for spreading disease, he writes.

Consumers who think the government is protecting them are wrong, Schlosser contends. Although U.S. government agencies can order a nationwide recall of defective softball bats, they do not have the power to order a nationwide recall of tainted beef. At most, officials can ask for “a voluntary recall” and it is up to the company to decide how much meat needs recalling and when to recall it.

This is so, he says, because the fast food chains and the meatpacking industry have Republican members of Congress in their pockets. Republicans do not come in for any praise in this book. There is no doubt that Schlosser sees a lot of muck that needs raking, but Fast Food Nation is more than an angry polemic. It also offers fascinating behind-the-scenes details, like the chapter entitled “Why the Fries Taste Good.”

The taste that consumers associate with McDonald’s French fries comes from all the years McDonald’s deep-fried them in beef tallow, says Schlosser. However, in 1990, when Americans began worrying about their cholesterol levels, McDonald’s, with great fanfare, switched from beef tallow to vegetable oil. Since then, to ensure that the fries retain their familiar beefy taste, McDonald’s has relied on flavors made in New Jersey.

Schlosser traveled to northern New Jersey where the flavor industry is concentrated to learn that not just McDonald’s fries, but most processed foods Americans eat today, have the words “natural flavors” or “artificial flavors” in their ingredients list. By any name, those are man-made additives that make the food taste the way the processor wants it to taste.

Flavor is both art and science, according to Schlosser. A flavorist has to pay attention to a quality known as “mouth feel” – that is, the unique combinations of textures and chemical interactions that affect how the flavor is perceived. “Mouth feel can be adjusted through the use of various fats, gums, starches, emulsifiers and stabilizers.” To determine mouth feel, flavorists use a texture analyzer that “gauges bounce, creep, breaking point, density, crunchiness, chewiness, gumminess, lumpiness, rubberiness, springiness, slipperiness, smoothness, softness, wetness, juiciness, spreadability, spring back and tackiness.”

Did you know that?

Schlosser writes about F. Gilbert Lamb, the inventor of “a crucial piece of French-fry technology. The Lamb water gun knife uses a high pressure hose to shoot potatoes at a speed of 117 feet per second through a grid of sharpened steel blades, thereby creating perfectly sliced French fries. He tells how Lamb tested his invention in a parking lot shooting potatoes out of a fire hose.

Between the stories about the people he met in his two-year-long investigation of all the components of fast food, the histories of the companies involved and all the places he visited, Eric Schlosser has cooked up an engrossing book. His conclusion is that “the dark side of the American meal” could be a lot brighter if consumers want it to be.

Consumers, he says, can have it their way if they choose to let fast food companies know they don’t like present conditions by walking out the door without ordering.