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"Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food," author Eric Schlosser concludes. "The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: Stop buying it."

Now that shouldn't be difficult for anyone who reads his commentary on the grisly business of cattle slaughtering, the awesome unhealthiness of the food or the fact that "there is shit in the meat," his succinct explanation as to why hamburger-eaters risk serious illness with every bite.

But stomach-turning stories about fast food are nothing new: Over the past few years, the public has heard reports of E. coli in hamburger patties, restaurant employees found flavoring food with their own bodily secretions and, of recent infamy, a deep-fried chicken head discovered in a box of McDonald's chicken nuggets.

And yet America -- and, increasingly, the world -- continues to scarf fast food, a super-size testament to the success of the industry Schlosser dissects in this eloquent and thoroughly researched volume. He traces fast food's rise from a few drive-in restaurants to global corporations that rely on the fragrance industry, factory farming and legions of poor, unskilled workers.

The modest number of gross-out anecdotes in the book -- incidental to its argument that the industry has helped maintain an economic underclass -- profoundly has changed the way food is produced, padded the populace with fat and significantly influenced popular culture. Fast food, Schlosser notes, also has altered the very landscape, blighting streets and highways with bright, plastic architecture that announces the presence of thousands upon thousands of efficient, homogenized fast-food restaurants.

Food for thought: One out of every eight U.S. workers has, at one time, been employed by McDonald's, the world's largest owner of retail property and the biggest private playground operator in America. And every month, according to Schlosser, 90 percent of American kids between the ages of 3 and 9 can be found munching under the Golden Arches.

Despite the author's cautious optimism about the power of consumer choice, these and other depressing statistics he produces seem to bode poorly for the future, making today's children look like tomorrow's inevitably loyal citizens of a Fast Food Nation.

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