Fast Food Nation – Book

June 19, 2010

I recently finished reading Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser, and man, if this book doesn’t get you to switch to a vegetarian diet, it will at least get you to stop eating fast food. The back description reads: “Fast food has hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad. That’s a lengthy list of charges, but Eric Schlosser makes them stick with an artful mix of first-rate reportage, wry wit, and careful reasoning. Schlosser’s myth-shattering survey stretches from California’s subdivisions, where the business was born, to the industrial corridor along the New Jersey Turnpike, where many of fast food’s flavors are concocted. Along the way, he unearths a trove of fascinating, unsettling truths – from the unholy alliance between fast food and Hollywood to the seismic changes the industry has wrought in food production, popular culture, and even real estate.”

Here are some of the (depressing) factoids I learned from this book:

  • Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and music – combined.
  • A generation ago, 3/4 of the money used to buy food in the U.S. was spent to prepare meals at home. Today about 1/2 of the money used to buy food is spent at restaurants – mainly fast food restaurants.
  • The typical American now consumes approx. 3 hamburgers & 4 orders of french fries every week.
  • Every month about 90% of American children between the ages of 3 – 9 visit a McDonald’s.
  • Most fast food is delivered to the restaurant already frozen, canned, dehydrated, or freeze-dried. A fast food kitchen is merely the final stage in a system of mass production. Foods that look familiar have in fact been completely reformulated.
  • What we eat has changed more in the last 40 years than in the previous 40,000.
  • The fast food chains now stand atop a huge food-industrial complex that has gained control of American agriculture.
  • About 1/5 of the nation’s 1 and 2 yr olds now drink soda.
  • About 90% of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food.
  • The flavors of fast food do not originate in their restaurant kitchens, but rather in distant factories (2/3 of which are in the NJ Turnpike), run by other companies.
  • “Flavor” is primarily the smell of gases being released by the chemicals you’ve just put in your mouth.
  • The FDA does not require flavor companies to disclose the ingredients of their additives.
  • Many of New Jersey’s flavor companies also manufacture color additives, which are used to make processed foods look appealing.
  • A “natural” flavor is not necessarily healthier or purer than an artificial one. The distinction is based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually contains. Natural & artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods. They are also manufactured at the same chemical plants.
  • The McNugget changed both the American diet and its system for raising and processing poultry.
  • The suicide rate among ranchers and farmers in the U.S. is now about 3 times higher than the national average.
  • The unrelenting pressure of trying to keep up with the speed of the disassembly line has encouraged widespread methamphetamine use among meatpackers. Supervisors have been known to sell crank to their workforce or supply it free in return for certain favors, such as working a 2nd shift.
  • Many female workers have sex with their supervisor as a way to gain a secure place in American society, a green card, a husband – or at the very least a transfer to an easier job at the plant.
  • The death rate among slaughterhouse sanitation crews is extraordinarily high. The nation’s worst job can end in just about the worst way. Sometimes these workers are literally ground up and reduced to nothing.
  • Much of the increase in foodborne illnesses can be attributed to recent changes in how American food is produced.
  • The meatpacking system that arose to supply the nation’s fast food chains, has proved to be an extremely efficient system for spreading disease.
  • Food tainted by organisms has most likely come in contact with an infected animal’s stomach contents or manure, during slaughter or subsequent processing.
  • A modern processing plant can produce 800,000 pounds of hamburger a day. A single animal infected with E.coli can contaminate 32,000 pounds of that.
  • The USDA has the power to conduct microbial tests on cattle that have already been slaughtered, but cannot test live cattle in order to keep infected animals out of slaughterhouses.
  • Worn-out dairy cattle are used to make about 1/4 of the nation’s ground beef. They are also the most likely to be diseased and riddled with antibiotic residues.
  • The stresses of industrial milk production make dairy cattle even more unhealthy than cattle in a large feedlot. They can live as long as 40 years, but are often slaughtered at the age of 4, when their milk output starts to decline.
  • Under current law, the USDA cannot demand a recall. It can only consult with a company that has shipped bad meat and suggest that it withdraw the meat from interstate commerce.
  • Once a company has decided voluntarily to pull contaminated meat from the market, it is under no legal obligation to inform the public – or even state health officials – that a recall is taking place.
  • The enormous buying power of fast food chains has given them access to the cleanest ground beef. The meatpacking industry is willing to perform rigorous testing for fast food chains that it refuses to do for the general public. Food served at school cafeterias should be safer to eat than what is sold at fast food restaurants, not less safe. American taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for food that might endanger their children.
  • Other countries have enacted much tougher food safety laws & implemented much more thorough food inspection systems. The working conditions and food safety standards in the nation’s meatpacking plants should not improve on days when the beef is being processed for export. American workers and consumers deserve at least the same consideration as overseas customers.

This book is chock-full of good information. But don’t take my word for it. Go out and read it for yourself. It surprised, shocked, and at times horrified me. It definitely changed the way I view the fast food industry. Schlosser does an excellent job of revealing what actually happens during all stages of creating fast food – from the ranch, to the rendering plant, to the flavor and color factory, and finally to the restaurant. I want to share a few more quotes and ideas that I think are appropriate in closing:

  • The low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect its real cost – and should. The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society. The annual cost of obesity alone is now twice as large as the fast food industry’s total revenues.
  • “I do not believe, that the great object in life is to make everything cheap.” -Henry M. Teller, Republican Senator from Colorado
  • Eating in the U.S. should no longer be a form of high-risk behavior.
  • The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if we demand it.
  • Next time you consider buying fast food, “think about where the food came from, about how and where it was made, about what is set in motion by every single fast food purchase, the ripple effect near and far, THINK ABOUT IT.” -Eric Schlosser

*Disclaimer: This book was written back in 2001, so some of the facts and numbers may have changed between now and then. Although sadly, I doubt for the better.

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