The Bear Left Review of Books
Fast Food Nation
384 pages / $13.95
Welcome (Back) to the Jungle
In 1906, in his fictional work The Jungle, Upton Sinclair described in graphic
terms the horrors of the real meatpacking industry in Chicago. The book caused a national
sensation and led to limited but positive reforms of the industry. In 2001,
Eric Schlosser published Fast Food Nation, a thoroughly non-fictional
account of the impact of fast food on the cities, diet, economy, and culture of
America. While Schlosser's book is chock full of documentation, its impact
has been minute compared to the impact of Sinclair's novel. Schlosser's biggest
impact has been to get McDonald's to admit that it had spiked its french fries for
years with beef extract.
In Washington today, the giant corporations that control a huge portion of
the beef and poultry industry have enormous clout. When Republicans decry the
reach of the Occupational Health and Safety Organization (OSHA), the beef and
poultry lobbies cheer the loudest. These industries hate OSHA and all it stands
for. They are also the industries that require the most oversight. yet
the federal government can recall defective tires, pajamas, or toys, but it
cannot mandate the recall of tainted meat, no matter how pathogenic it might be.
Schlosser ably shows how large corporations have already turned poultry farming
in America into a rural assembly line, and how they control the slaughter,
processing, and marketing of much of the American beef supply. McDonald's
and the fast food empires that copied its business methods are just the final
industry between the food sources and the consumer. A panoply of other industries
prepares, processes, and freezes most of what is eaten in fast food restaurants,
from french fries to buns to cola to hamburgers.
Schlosser relies on personal interviews, company histories, and hundreds of press
accounts of farming, slaughterhouse, and restaurant practices. The existing media
coverage, however, lacks his focus on the fast food industry as a whole. A host
of important issues are ripe for more scrutiny.
- Fast food in general and hamburger chains in particular exacerbate the worst
practices of the poultry, pork, and beef industries. Despite recent prohibitions
on cattle feed designed to prevent mad-cow disease in humans, all sorts of things
can be still be fed to cattle. Feeding them cattle blood, food waste from restaurants,
or practically any waste from the poultry industry is completely above board. Poultry
can and often are fed a diet that includes protein from chickens. The animals
that Americans are most likely to eat are in effect cannibals. The hamburger
chains prefer to use beef from worn-out dairy cattle, because these cattle have less
fat and are cheaper than steers. But these cattle are most likely in practice
to be fed animal protein.
- Schlosser carefully documents that much beef in America is literally crappy.
Most of the pathogens in beef, such as listeria or salmonella bacteria, come
from fecal matter. The slaughterhouse system, evolved to produce cheap ground beef,
creates this health hazard by making the slaughtering process rapid and error-prone.
Furthermore, most frozen ground beef, like that used at most hamburger chains,
mixes meat from many beef cattle. If one side of beef is contaminated with fecal
matter, then tons of ground beef from that plant can get contaminated.
- Americans have grown to believe that "corn-fed" animals mean meat of the
highest quality. In practice, beef cattle feed on grass until they are fed grain,
chiefly corn, in giant feedlots that resemble open sewers. The combination of the
filthy environs and the unbalanced diet forces feedlot owners to pump their cattle
full of antibiotics.
- Schlosser devotes two chapters to documenting how meatpacking
is perhaps the single most dangerous profession in America. Although
the meatpacking industry has a huge potential impact on public health,
its workforce is poorly trained, poorly paid, and poorly supervised
by the government. Meatpackers are increasingly non-union immigrants
with little say in the safety or hygiene in their workplaces. Their plight
echoes not only the plight of fast-food workers who generally earn close
to the minimum wage, but also to farmers who receive very little income,
let alone profit, from each fast food dollar.
- Schlosser also takes a sociological look at the symbiotic relationship
between fast food and suburban sprawl. Fast food chains pick locations based
on population trends using proprietary software. But the suburbs of America's
fastest-growing cities depend on chains like McDonald's and Burger King to
act as pioneers for their commercial districts.
- Finally, Schlosser shows that market forces can effect change in the
food industry. When McDonald's, fearful of a public backlash against genetically
modified food, forbade its suppliers from using genetically modified potatoes,
sales of altered potato seed plummeted. Likewise, in 2001 McDonald's forced its beef
suppliers to certify that they met the government's four-year-old restrictions on
animal feed. Until McDonald's laid down the law, a significant segment of the cattle feed
industry had been commingling prohibited and allowed feeds, or mislabeling prohibited feed.
McDonald's and its ilk have the market power to effect real change in the food
industry, but they rarely use that power for good.
One need not be a vegetarian to welcome Fast Food Nation
and the light that it shines of the culture of fast food. Schlosser
explains how the fast food industry reduces food to its economic base.
To a typical fast food chain, the money is not in the hamburger or
the chicken, but in the french fries and soft drinks. The value
of the meal is not in the skill of the chef, but in the uniformity
of the previously frozen product. The cheap hamburgers and chicken
nuggets reflect the influence of the beef and chicken industry in
keeping their products cheap. When things are really cheap, consumers
should ask why.
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