A serving of fast food that even America can't stomach
Q News, The Muslim Magazine, Issue 329, Dhu Al-Hijjah 1421/March 2001
If your biggest worry about eating at a fast food restaurant is whether to order a burger and fries or barbecue grilled nuggets and a strawberry milkshake, then swallow hard and think again.
According to Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, a best-selling new book that is putting millions of Americans off their deep-fried favourites, you are actually making a decision that involves biting into a slab of chemically enhanced beef made from the meat of more than 100 different cows that is probably contaminated with E-coli bacteria and almost certainly containing faeces of some sort.
Alternatively, you may be swallowing a drink containing over 60 artificial colours and flavours and nibbling at chicken that only smells like it's been near a barbecue thanks to being doused in smoke flavoured "aroma chemicals".
In a land where one in four people, from Bill Gates and former President Bill Clinton down, eats at McDonald's, Burger King, KFC or other fast food chains every day and more school children recognise Ronald McDonald's than the Christian cross, the loss of appetite is stunning. So nauseating are chapters detailing how beef is transformed from cows to burgers that some reviewers admitted to skipping parts of Eric Schlosser's book that is expected to reach Britain in March.
There are stories of old dairy cows being mechanically slaughtered in factories where workers have titles like "first legger, knuckle dropper and navel toner" before their meat is laboratory tested for "mouthfeel" and processed with addictive flavourings and artificial aromas.
Once in the restaurant the food is prepared in a way that makes the stomach of many fast food workers curdle. Schlosser reports: "The safety of the food seemed to be determined more by the personality of the manager on duty than by the written policies of the chain. Many workers would not eat anything at their restaurant unless they'd made it themselves. One employee said that food dropped on the floor was often picked up and served. Another employee told me that one kitchen worker never washed his hands at work after doing engine repairs on his car.
"And several employees at the same restaurant in Colorado Springs provided details about a cockroach infestation in the milkshake machine and about armies of mice that urinated and defecated on hamburger rolls left out to thaw". So huge is the influence of firms like McDonald's that The Economist magazine checks currency fluctuations by comparing prices of Big Macs across the globe. Schlosser argues that in America the quest for the perfect low-cost burger, served up with the least expense in the shortest possible time, has contributed to the spiralling obesity of the population. He says it has led to the industrialisation of cattle ranching, stopped meat-packing workers from forming unions or demanding safety standards and turned the high school children and desperate adults who serve the food into morons thanks to modern equipment that has rendered any skills or thinking ability obsolete.
However, the author does does not believe that the problem is irreversible and deals like McDonald's 33 percent buy-out of healthy eating chain Pret A Manger may signal the way fast food is delivered to us in the future.
As Schlosser put it: "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 you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit."
Quotes from the book:
p202: "The rise in grain prices has encouraged the feeding of less expensive materials to cattle, especially substances with a high protein content that accelerate growth. About 75 percent of cattle in the United States were routinely fed livestock wastes -- the rendered remains of dead cattle -- until August of 1997. They were also fed millions of dead cats and dead dogs every year, purchased from animal shelters. The FDA banned such practices after evidence from Great Britian suggested that they were responsible for a widespread outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "mad cow disease." Nevertheless, current FDA regulations allow dead pigs and dead horses to be rendered into cattle feed, along with dead poultry. The regulations not only allow cattle to be fed dead poultry, they allow poultry to be fed dead cattle...
The waste products from poultry plants, including the sawdust and old newspapers used as litter, are also being fed to cattle. A study published a few years ago in 'Preventative Medicine' notes that in Arkansas alone, about 3 million pounds of chicken manure were fed to cattle in 1994."
p221: "The current high levels of ground beef contamination, combined with the even higher levels of poultry contamination, have led to some bizarre findings. A series of tests conducted by Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, discovered far more fecal bacteria in the average American kitchen sink than on the average American toilet seat. According to Gerba, 'You'd be better of eating a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in your sink.'"
p169-171: "One night I visit a slaughterhouse somewhere in the High Plains. The slaughterhouse is one of the nation's largest. About five thousand head of cattle enter it everyday, single file, and leave in a different form. Someone who has access to the plant , who's upset by its working conditions, offers to give me a tour...
On the kill floor, what I see no longer unfolds in a logical manner. It's one strange image after another. A worker with a power saw slices cattle into halves as though they were two-by-fours, and then halves swing by me into the cooler. It feels like a slaughterhouse now. Dozens of cattle, stripped of their skins, dangle on chains from their hind legs. My host stops and asks how I feel, if I want to go any further. This is where people get sick. I feel fine, determined to see the whole process, the world that's been deliberately hidden. The kill floor is hot and humid. It stinks of manure. Cattle have a body temperature of about 101 degrees, and there are a lot of them in the room. Carcasses swing so fast along the rail that you have to keep an eye on them constantly, dodge them, watch your step, or one will slam you and throw you onto the bloody concrete floor. It happens to workers all the time.
I see: a man reach inside cattle and pull out their kidneys with his bare hands, then drop the kidneys down a metal chute, over and over again, as each animal passes by him; a stainless steel rack of tongues; Whizzards peeling meat of decapitated heads, picking them almost as clean as the white skulls painted by Georgia O'Keefe. We wade through blood that's ankle deep and that pours down drains into huge vats below us. As we approach the start of the line, for the first time I hear the steady POP, POP, POP of live animals being stunned.
...We walk up a slippery metal stairway and reach a small platform, where the production line begins. A man turns and smiles at me. He wears safety goggles and a hardhat. His face is splattered with gray matter and blood. He is the "knocker," the man who welcomes cattle into the building. Cattle walk down a narrow chute and pause in front of him, blocked by a gate, and then he shoots them in the head with a captive bolt stunner -- a compressed-air gun attached to the ceiling by a long hose -- which fires a steel bolt that knocks the cattle unconscious...For eight and a half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses a few times and shoots the same animal twice. As soon as the steer falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs, shackles it to a chain, and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air.
I watch the knocker knock cattle for a couple of minutes. The animals are powerful and imposing for one moment and then gone in an instant, suspended from a rail, ready for carving. A steer slips from its chain, falls to the ground, and gets its head caught in one end of a conveyor belt. The production line stops as workers struggle to free the steer, stunned but alive, from the machinery. I've seen enough."
p218-219: "A 1983 investigation by NBC news said that the Cattle King Packing Company -- at the time, the USDA's largest supplier of ground beef for school lunches and a supplier to Wendy's -- routinely processed cattle that were already dead before arriving at its plant, hid diseased cattle from inspectors, and mixed rotten meat that had been returned by customers into packages of hamburger meat. Cattle King's facilities were infested with rats and cockroaches. Rudy "Butch" Stanko, the owner of the company, was later tried and convicted for selling tainted meat to the federal government. He had been convicted earlier on similar charges. That earlier felony conviction had not prevented him from supplying one-quarter of the ground beef supplied to the USDA school lunch program."
p172: "Knocker, Sticker, Shackler, Rumper, First Legger, Knuckle Dropper, Navel Boner, Splitter Top/Bottom Butt, Feed Kill Chain -- the names of job assignments at a modern slaughterhouse convey some of the brutality inherent in the work. Meatpacking is now the most dangerous job in the United States. The injury rate in a slaughterhouse is about three times higher than the rate in a typical American factory. Every year about one out of three meatpacking workers in this country -- roughly forty-three thousand men and women -- suffer an injury or work-related illness that require medical attention beyond first aid. There is strong evidence that these numbers, compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, underestimate the number of meatpacking injuries that occur."
p230: "...when a McDonald's opened in Kuwait, the line of cars waiting at the drive through window extended for seven miles. Around the same time, a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca set new sales records for the chain, earning $200,000 in a single week during Ramadaan, the Muslim holy month."