Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fast Food Nation

Elisa wanted a review of Fast Food Nation, so here it is. (WARNING: Long Post)

Overall, the book is fascinating and disturbing. Now I have to decide what to do with my new knowledge. These are the main things in the book that stood out to me. Be prepared: you might not want to know some of this.
  • Franchises are not covered by federal laws that protect employees.

  • Out of every $1.50 spent on an order of fries at a fast-food restaurant, perhaps 2 cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes.

  • Chicken McNuggets are wildly popular among young children - and contain twice as much fat per ounce as a hamburger

  • The entire chapter about slaughterhouses was disturbing and appalling. The people that clean the slaughterhouses at night cant see or hear anything. And the machinery they clean is usually moving. Some workers are literally ground up into nothing or beheaded. At a beef plant where five men died the same way, National Beef was fined $480 for each man's death. Way to communicate that dangerous working conditions are unacceptable.

  • The US government can demand the national recall of defective toys, sneakers, stuffed animals, but it cannot order a meatpacking company to remove contaminated, potentially lethal ground beef from fast food kitchens and supermarket shelves. In most of the cases presented in the book, the USDA knew about contaminated meat and had to NEGOTIATE with the company to pull meat off shelves. And the companies always get to say they are voluntarily recalling meat, giving the appearance they are being proactive, when usually this step is taken weeks or months after the contamination has been discovered. And they are under no legal obligation to inform the public or state health officials that a recall is taking place. The USDA now informs the public about every recall, but will not reveal where the contaminated meat is being sold. (Is it any surprise that we had a problem with spinach recently?)

  • 10,000 pounds of beef laced with glass were distributed

  • Current FDA regulations allow dead pigs, dead horses and dead poultry to be fed to cattle, and dead cattle to be fed to poultry.

  • In 1999, USDA tests showed that 47% of a Dallas-based plant's ground beef contained Salmonella, which indicates fecal contamination. With this knowledge, the USDA still purchased thousands of tons of meet from this plant for distribution in schools. The USDA finally took action and shut the plant down. They sued to get their plant back open and won. In 2000, they argued successfully that high levels of Salmonella did not prove that conditions in the plant were unsanitary.

  • One of the Bush administration's first food safety decisions was to stop testing the National School Lunch Program's ground beef for Salmonella. In the 10 months the USDA had been testing, 5 million pounds were rejected due to contamination. Due to bad publicity, the administration reversed course three days later. But why would they want to stop testing in the first place?

  • The USDA recently decided to perform E.Coli tests on the ground beef it buys for schools; this decision was made more than seven years after the Jack in the Box outbreak. Why the long wait?

  • Super Size Fries have 610 calories and 29 grams of fat.

  • The manufacture of frozen cheese pizzas is regulated by the FDA, but if a pizza has pepperoni on it, the USDA, which can't demand a recall, has food safety jurisdiction. Eggs are regulated by the FDA, but chickens are regulated by the USDA. Salmonella has been almost entirely eliminated from Swedish and Dutch eggs, but more than half a million people in the US become ill from eating Salmonella-infected eggs and more than 300 die.

  • An American food processor can expect a visit from an FDA inspector, on average, once every 10 years.

  • At the time of printing (January 2001) the roughly 200,000 fast food restaurants are not subject to any oversight by federal health authorities. Yeah, that makes lots of sense.

  • Texas is the only station in the Union that allows a company to leave the workers' comp system and set up it's own process for dealing with workplace injuries. When a worker is injured at an IBP plant in Texas, he is presented with a waiver. Signing the waiver means surrendering your right to sue. If you sign the waiver, you may receive medical care by seeing a company-approved doctor. If you seek a second opinion, you lose all medical benefits. If you don't sign the waiver, you could be fired on the spot. And the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that is perfectly legal. Wow, that sure makes me proud to be a Texan.
Now do you see why I don't know what to do with this knowledge. Do I boycott all fast-food restaurants, even though meat from restaurants and supermarket chains must come from the same place. Do I become a vegetarian? But then I'd have to worry about spinach. What about the federal government? What can I do to make the FDA and USDA effective? It's appalling that the government can know about contaminated meat and not do anything about it. The book is pretty hard on Republicans because the majority of lobbying money from the meatpacking, restaurant, supermarket and fast food industry is paid to Republican politicians. We do have an election coming up, so I could find out where the candidates stand on this issue. I doubt this is something I can find on their campaign websites. I'm sure there is a way to find out what companies contribute to each candidate's campaigns, but I don't know how.

Do I shrug my shoulders and assume nothing will change, or do I try to be the change I wish to see in the world? I've just listed a few things that stuck with me reading this book. The book taken as a whole is much more damning. The write makes a good point: the execs who run the fast food industry are business men. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if we demand it. They will sell whatever sells a profit.

But can we make them? Has anyone totally given up fast food restaurants? I boycotted McDonalds for five of six years, but that had more to do with their treatment of my friend. But if I would do that for my friend, why couldn't I do it for all other the voiceless people that experience something similar. Do I not worry about everything in this book, as one person suggested, because if I worried about everything wrong in the world, I would go crazy.

Can you tell that I'm completely torn about how to react to this book? So much that I read was hard to read. I can't imagine seeing it come to life. But I will go see the movie when it comes out. And I suggest you read the book or watch the movie. Then you can join me in my moral dilemma and state of absolute confusion.


Melanie said...

I watched that documentary "Super-size Me" a couple years ago. I couldn't eat french fries for about a year, and I've never been the same with the fast food since then. (I was never much of a fan of fast food, anyway, though.) I'd be interested in this book you read since it seems to have a lot of information about the government regulations of food. Scary stuff.

Elisa said...

Yep. That is a lot of scary stuff, and I understand the feeling of not knowing what to do with all of that information. I'm very sorry for the people who died in that way. How horrible. I hope that as people find out about this stuff that the government feels the pressure to regulate where they should.

I don't eat a lot of fast food, but I also don't see myself totally boycotting it. I agree that as consumers demand better food, these businesses will respond. Just yesterday in the newspaper I saw an adverstisement for Chipotle saying "get your antibiotics from your doctor, not your chicken," emphasizing the point that they use only a certain type of chicken, and I think Chiptole is owned by McDonald's.

janie said...

I've read most of that book, and I agree that it's ridiculously disurbing, mostly on a how-could-our-government-be-that-sleazy sort of way. I could boycott them, I think. You wanna? :)

But it just seems like that's not effective, me being one person. I know one person can make a difference, but that's just not going to make enough of a difference for me to feel good about. The question is, how do we do something on a larger level that will make LOTS of people boycott?

Here's the site on campaign contributions, a la Jon:

Rachel said...

I find it funny that we are planning a massive boycot of the fast food industry. Jamie, you are SO Eric Brocovich! You and I discussed this last week. As much of a reality as this is, it's hard for me to want to know that kind of information. I don't want to be one of those people that's scared to live because of all that is bad in the world. You have to turn a blind eye to a degree so you don't become phobic of the outside world.

Jamie said...

It's not about being scared to live. I can't in good conscience buy an SUV, truck, etc with bad gas mileage. Can I in good conscience give my money to the fast food industry knowing that people are getting injured and dying in the process of producing my hamburger, all for the sake of convenience and a little extra profit?

Rachel said...

My aunt and uncle are really into preventative care, health food, vitamins, etc. The last time I went to visit them they told me all about what you listed off in the book. They buy mostly organic stuff, and I have slowly jumped onto the organic bandwagon. I buy when I can, but some products (ie. meat) are just too expensive. I do buy organic milk, cage-free organic eggs, cheese when I can, and many other products that have just started appearing on grocery aisles (not just at the health food store). They can be more expensive, so I am not totally there, but for the most part I see a huge difference in the quality of the products and that helps justify the extra expense. They just taste better. I have a hard time drinking non-organic milk now because I can taste the difference. Not too many organic fast food chains though! I do try to stick with those that have made the health conscious switch (ie "all-natural chicken", etc.) So it isn't just one person if we all do a little something, it can send a message.

Jamie said...

I, too, buy organic when I can. The cost factor prevents me from buying it all the time, and sometimes availability. I love organic milk because it tastes better and lasts longer. But I've stopped buying it because it's too expensive and I don't drink enough milk to ever finish the half gallon.

We have a selection of burrito places in town, and even though Cilantro's is my fave, Moe's emphasizes healthy food and community involvement, so I try to choose them.

patrick said...

just watched Fast Food Nation, it's an impactful flick to say the least... earlier today i passed up a sausage mcmuffin because of it. Evidently it is worth passing up fast food for more than health reasons.