Book Review: Fast Food Nation

A Powerful Exposé On the True Costs of Eating Fast Food

Fast_Food_NationFAST-FOOD NATION EXPOSES A SLOW, PAINFUL DEATH FOR DINERS, FARMERS AND THE EARTH.

In the decade since Eric Schlosser’s excellent Fast Food Nation was published (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), there have been several books and documentaries that hit upon the same basic concept: that the industrialization of food is bad for human health, it hurts the environment and it has been hugely disruptive to traditional agriculture and all other food-related industries.

Revisiting it today, the topic is no less relevant or newsworthy. Michelle Obama, in her role as first lady, would be hard to imagine for almost everyone on earth in 2001. But in 2011, her main focus — combating childhood obesity, with the collateral benefit of addressing the generous avoirdupois of adults as well –– hits on the very issues Schlosser discussed in Fast-Food Nation.

The argument of the book goes something like this: the foods we eat today are bred and raised in ways that are very different from how farming and ranching were done prior to the 1970s. Agricultural output is up and costs are down, providing more food at cheaper prices. The portion of our wallets being spent on food averages out to about 16 percent, much lower than the 40 or 50 percent of 80 years ago. When more food is available for less money, it’s not too hard to see how and why we would eat more. Along with the extra food, however, are diminished nutrients and greater risks of food-borne diseases.

Of note, manifestations of diseases such as E. coli and salmonella are not just about vomiting for a day. They kill — the elderly, the sick, children and even erstwhile healthy adults. Meanwhile, very overweight children today are already acquiring the diseases of adult overindulgence (high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and early signs of heart disease) — before adolescence.

Some argue there is an increase in hair loss as well from these low-nutrient, calorie-dense diets that proliferate in our fast-food culture. Those foods are predominantly French fries, beef-based meals (including but not restricted to hamburgers), breaded and fried reconstituted chicken (think Chicken McNuggets and its imitators, found everywhere), as well as all kinds of processed, packaged foods that are largely based in cheap, government-subsidized wheat and corn. Hair, skin and nails generally reflect the overall health of the individual; however there is no correlative data that indicate hair loss has increased in parallel with the rise of the ubiquitous fast-food restaurant.

Quick Service Restaurant living in five factoids

Fast Food Nation covers a broad spectrum, a complete look at all the pieces that make up the QSR industry. “QSR” is the industry’s acronym for itself, standing for Quick Service Restaurant, in and of itself a study in messaging that averts our attention from unattractive truths. They want us to believe the food is not so different but the service is. It’s just like what you would make at home if you had the time, we are expected to believe.

I actually read the book several years ago in full. But just picking it up today, it’s possible to almost randomly locate key facts that tell different parts of this story. Qualifying that all numbers are from 2001, when Fast Food Nation was published, here are five such factoids that help us understand how our Happy Meals have some very sad consequences.

#1. We’re loving It. “In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2001, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars.”

In other words, we collectively eat fast food a lot. And what the numbers do not reflect is the kinds of foods eaten at home that resemble fast food, in both form and nutritional content. A lot of products made of reconstituted chicken meat that is deboned, breaded, fried — and, importantly, foods that can be eaten with one’s fingers while driving a car — can also be purchased frozen and reheated for family dinners in one’s own kitchen.

Fast-food dining in America is more than a weekly event, according to the CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) study, which was conducted out of the University of Minnesota, Northwestern University and the University of Alabama. Published in the British medical journal The Lancet, the study found that the frequency with which Americans consume fast-food meals ranges between 1.3 and 2.3 visits per week (lowest users were Caucasian women, while the most frequent diners were African-American men). This consumption level has risen consistently in studies over the past 30 years.

#2. The henhouse got a lot bigger. “The poultry industry was transformed by a wave of mergers in the 1980s. Eight chicken processors now control about two-thirds of the American market. These processors have shifted almost all of their production to the rural South, where the weather tends to be mild, the workforce is poor, unions are weak, and farmers are desperate to find some way of staying on their land.”

What is going on began, largely, with the development of the Chicken McNugget in 1979. Perversely, it came about as awareness of the degree of saturated fat in beef was causing consumers to shift their consumption over to chicken. McDonald’s developed this finger food by mixing white meat with stabilizers before being breaded. But processing that meat — affordable in those nonunion, rural plants, getting live chickens from farmers who make very little profit from their huge, caged chicken factories — removed all health benefits and made those McNuggets just as fatty as the beef.

The 2009 movie Food, Inc., which Schlosser co-produced, and the books The End of Food (by Paul Roberts; Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan; Penguin Books, 2006) have since detailed the horrific chicken factory conditions that serflike “independent” farmers maintain to remain suppliers within the system controlled by those eight chicken processors.

#3. Free range can’t work for everybody. “Each head of cattle needs about thirty acres of pasture for grazing, and until cattle start producing a solid gold nugget instead of sirloin, it’s hard to sustain beef production on such expensive land.”

Actually, most meat prior to the 1970s was from cattle grazing on open land. But today, instead of grazing, most beef cattle in our food system spend their entire lives in feedlots, where they trudge around in enclosed pens of mud, eating a scientifically designed meal that is comprosed of primarily grain and additives that include protein from other animals, including other cows (i.e., cows eat cows in this system, even though by nature cows are vegetarian). More than two-thirds of the antibiotics used in the United States are used on animals, with the other third going to men, women and children. We consume residual antibiotics with our sirloin steaks. The problem with animal waste disposal is not fully resolved and leaves lagoons of foul-smelling dung evaporating in the sun and drawing flies — and not recycled as fertilizer, as it had been for thousands of years preceding chemical fertilizers (costs to transport the waste to corn-growing areas are prohibitive, given how specialization has put the two at great distances apart).

Problematic feedlots are created by demand for affordable beef. Historically, meat in many cultures and many time periods was quite limited, available only to the rich. But now a hamburger can be purchased for a dollar, accessible to even the homeless person. As emerging economies in China and Brazil increase their consumption of beef, this phenomenon of cows that never eat a blade of grass can only get bigger. The fact that red meat protein requires six times the resources as equivalent amounts of protein found in plants illustrates that the burden on resources is unsustainable.

#4. Ole McDonald wants to kill himself. “The suicide rate among ranchers and farmers in the United States is now about three times higher than the national average.”

Schlosser writes about how in the 1950s and early 1960s, the most popular television programs were about cowboys and the Wild West. The dream of East Coast city folk was to move to places such as Texas and Colorado and Montana, to buy a cattle ranch and to live the life of the open range. But the only way to make money — short of becoming a boutique grass-fed beef-raising operation, with fickle and uncertain markets that resist paying the higher prices these old-ways ranchers need to charge — is to buy into the feedlot system.

Feedlot ranching is dirty and disheartening. And “ranchers” are subject to the whims of feed sellers and beef buyers, middlemen caught in a vice with little control on what ultimately determines their profitability. Toss in an E. colioutbreak or other diseases that render a rancher’s beef unmarketable and you get financial catastrophe. When a sixth-generation rancher loses the farm, a not-infrequent event, there is great shame over what he fails to pass on to his own children. Similar scenarios exist in the broiler- (chicken-) and hog-raising sectors of agriculture, while corn growers grapple with their own loss of control to seed sellers, fertilizer and herbicide companies and processor-buyers who trade through the commodity markets in Chicago.

#5. More than just a tummy ache. “Every day in the United States, roughly 200,000 people are sickened by a food-borne disease, 900 are hospitalized and fourteen die. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a quarter of the American population suffers a bout of food poisoning each year.”

The author notes how food-borne illnesses used to originate with spoiled homemade mayonnaise at church potluck dinners. Bad for the church members but limited in scope to a few dozen people at most. But in recent years we’ve seen that “the rise of huge feedlots, slaughterhouses, and hamburger grinders seems to have provided the means for this pathogen (E. coli) to become widely dispersed in the nation’s food supply. American meat production has never before been so centralized: thirteen large packinghouses now slaughter most of the beef consumed in the United States,” says Schlosser.

More ominously he reports that “food-borne pathogens can precipitate long-term ailments, such as heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, neurological problems, autoimmune disorders and kidney damage” (“Chronic Sequelae of Food-borne Disease,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 3, no. 4 [October/December 1997]).

In other words, after the bloody diarrhea passes, it is possible that longer-term problems of a serious nature may stick around.

Which serves as an apt metaphor for our deal with the devil, where we trade a healthy body and healthy earth for convenience and low cost. It might work well for now, but if you are on kidney dialysis from a food-borne illness — or just continually overindulge, which leads to debilitating diabetes, heart disease or cancer — just how cheap and convenient is your life?

Take charge of your food

There are some ways to fight back, of course. They may not be convenient, at least in the short term, but they might be a way to ensure a better food and earth future for your children and grandchildren.

  • Learn to cook: The fewer processed foods you eat, the less demand you create on the whole system. This of course means reducing or eliminating your purchases at QSRs.
  • Carry trail mix: The reason we patronize fast-food restaurants against our best intentions is they are there when we are hungry. Keeping a baggy of nuts and dried fruits with you at all times, especially when traveling, will give you a much healthier snack than anything you would find at a fast-food outlet.
  • Shift from a meat-based to a meat-light diet: You reduce your carbon footprint considerably when you eat smaller portions of beef and pork and with lesser frequency, shifting instead to healthier protein sources: chicken, eggs, fish, nuts and legumes (all kinds of beans).
  • Become a “locavore”: When you actively look for locally grown foods, you help build a market that largely averts the factory-farm system, favoring agriculture that is local, most often involving a family-run operation and probably raised with fewer antibiotics and chemical fertilizers. Find local foods at farmers markets, through buying co-ops and community or at-home gardens.

In all likelihood, the larger fast-food chains will always be there selling burgers and fries and shakes. But there’s nothing to say that with a shift in consumer preferences to healthier, locally grown products, the likes of McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Burger King might jump on the sustainably produced locavore bandwagon, too.