July 24, 2003


Just finished "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser. This book is a couple of years old, and it serves as an incomplete but in depth study of the history and impact of the fast food industry on America. Very readable and interesting, and I plan to look for more by the same author.

Schlosser explores how beef is processed with a lot of detail on how the assembly line beef processing plants work. It goes without saying (doesn't it?) that governmental oversight has been bought off thanks to heavy donations to Republicans. Schlosser has a good time pointing out how free-spirited, independent and anti-government all the big beef businessmen are, despite the fact that every single one of them got huge help from governmental agencies like the Small Business Administration to get off the ground.

It goes without saying (doesn't it?) that Republicans have allowed beef industry executives to exchange huge campaign contributions for the right to write their own laws at the state and federal level. The result is that beef we buy at the grocery store is literally full of shit (including the dangerous strains of E. Coli, Salmonella, etc. in the fecal matter). About the only thing that has raised the standards for beef we get from fast food places is the E. Coli scare at Jack in the Box and other places. The resulting threat of lawsuits means that fast food companies place strict rules on the beef they get from processing plants, far more strict than the government imposes.

As for the working conditions, it goes without saying (doesn't it?) that Republicans have hamstrung governmental agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Labor Relations Board, the US Dept. of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration by cutting funding or changing the rules by which they operate. The result is that beef processing plants can hire illegal aliens by the truckload, working conditions are horrible, and the health standards for the workplace and the output are essentially non-existant.

The frequency of injuries and deaths in the slaughterhouses is staggering from what little can be learned (because the government isn't allowed to keep meaningful statistics and the slaughterhouses routinely fake their reports anyway). The average worker lasts less than six weeks at one of these places, which is why they broadcast on Spanish language stations in the barrios of America and in Mexico trying to find warm bodies to fill spots. We organize against Nike sweatshops in Asia, but these places have far worse working conditions, and it seems like no one cares.

It's not that the whole book is filled with the kind of liberal screed that I've just written. It's just what I thought was the most interesting stuff. Schlosser also talks about the origins of the industry, telling the stories of the first McDonald's restaurant in California and how it grew, etc. He talks about where the fries come from, the flavor industry, how the whole franchise system works. I think the best quote about restaurant operations comes from a typical teenager who said, "I wouldn't eat anything from this place that I didn't prepare myself."

I guess the only advice the author really has other than becoming a vegetarian is that we have to look to buy beef from places that keep the processing humane, sanitary and under control. There are places like this, and they aren't very expensive compared to the normal price of beef. They are just really hard to find.

Posted by Observer at July 24, 2003 08:59 AM

Comments on entries can only be made in pop-up windows while those entries are still on the main index page. Sorry for the inconvenience this causes, but this blocks about 99.99% of the spam the blog receives.

Just one comment on this quote:

' I think the best quote about restaurant operations comes from a typical teenager who said, "I wouldn't eat anything from this place that I didn't prepare myself." '

I knew lots of kids who worked fast food when I was a teenager, and none of them thought that way. I'm sure there are kids like that, but I suspect he just took the most sensationalistic quote for his book, otherwise it'd be boring.

Posted by: Humbaba on July 24, 2003 09:29 AM

I knew a lot of teenagers who worked at fast-food places, too (including my brother), and I would totally agree with the original quote. Spitting on food. Dropping stuff on the floor and slapping it back on the grill. Nose-picking, finger-licking, butt-scratching and just generally poor hygiene. The McDonald's I take the kids to every Saturday on library day is at least staffed by adults, and the manager really seems on the ball and always there.

One thing I would like to change would be to find a place to buy raw meat aside from what you get from the processing plant in grocery stores. I promised myself I would look into it.

Posted by: Observer on July 24, 2003 09:36 AM

I'm not trying to say that it NEVER happens, but you can't convince me that it happens to every burger, just very rarely.

A classic Simpson's quote, when KrustyBurger had the 1984 Olympics game where they rigged it so you only won a free burger if the US won typically-Eastern Bloc events like power lifting, then the Eastern Bloc boycotted that Olympics so KrustyBurger had to give out a bazillion free burgers.

Krusty went on TV announcing that he'd personally spit in every 100th burger.

Homer pats his stomach and his huge stack of free burger coupons and states smugly, "I like those odds!"

I honestly don't care if one in a thousand of my fast food orders has been dropped or spit in. (And I doubt it's that often, more like one in five thousand). Spit's pretty clean, otherwise we wouldn't be kissing other people, and floor dirt isn't that big a deal either, cripes my kids eat tons of it.

I'm far more grossed out by all you folks who live in cockroach country eating roach parts and roach shit in every meal.

Doesn't Whole Paycheck (errr, Whole Foods) have good quality well-treated meat?

Posted by: Humbaba on July 24, 2003 11:18 AM

Truth is most places do not because some idiot somewhere decided that meat processed in a grocery is not as safe as stuff processed at a plant. In addition, newer food-content laws require that they be able to put a better figure for %-fat on beef than most groceries can manage if they grind their own. I know that this has struck Safeway up here. I am less sure of Whole Foods and Larry's.

The other observation is that one-in-a-thousand or even five thousand ain't that good. Take our host, Observer... He and three kids go once a week to McDougals... That's 4 meals about 50 times a year (assuming that Felicity doesn't go). 5 years (or 25 years) and someone is exposed to something. Like Humbaba I'm not concerned about the dirt or spit than I am about blood/bandaids or poor hygiene resulting in fecal matter. I figure that you're safer if you are observant about how a place does business... The problem with the statistics like one-in-a-thousand is that they ignore clustering... The kid who makes 500 meals in one shift with bad hygiene means that there are 1000 other places making good mels that day and so the choice of a good or bad establishment will have a huge effect.

Posted by: Seattle Astronomer on July 24, 2003 11:52 AM

I might care more if I ate fast food weekly. I eat at McDonalds only a few times a year, by far my most frequent fast food would be Burrito Del Mar, (well, Taco Del Mar) where you watch 'em make it in front of you. True, they could taint the meat or bean bins, but a normal immune system is relatively good at dealing with it. I mean, we're evolved to eat nearly-rotting carcasses etc.

Posted by: Humbaba on July 24, 2003 12:44 PM

We're also evolved to have a typical lifespan of, what, about 35 years?

Posted by: Observer on July 24, 2003 01:24 PM

Notice the only fast-food deaths have been in very young children with weak immune systems. Out of a bazillion meals.

"I like those odds" - Homer Simpson

Posted by: Humbaba on July 24, 2003 01:57 PM

There's a lot more than that, and in perfectly normal healthy adults, too. It's all in the book. Some of those E. Coli strains are nasty. Definitely *not* limited to kids.

Of course, a lot of bacterial infections and other kinds of food-related illnesses are almost impossible to track down the source. Not enough people report them, or (more likely) the governmental health agencies who are supposed to track these things are underfunded and understaffed.

Posted by: Observer on July 24, 2003 02:06 PM

Sounds like Upton Sinclair a hundred years later.

Too bad that instead of TR we have Duh-bya.

Posted by: Feff on July 24, 2003 02:41 PM

There is a lot more healthy normal adults dying from eating fast food? How is it that this is in this book but not in the media.

I think if people were dying after eating McRonalds there would be just a *slight* uproar...

Republicans in office or not. Librul media or not.

Posted by: Humbaba on July 24, 2003 03:21 PM

You'd think there would be an uproar. You'd think there would be a liberal, highly publicized modern-day Upton Sinclair. But you'd be wrong. The corporate media just doesn't really care, and most Americans just don't care either. They figure it is unlikely to affect them, I guess.

Just do a Google search on E Coli, fast food, that sort of thing. The facts are out there. What's in question is how they are being presented or emphasized to the public. Sure, youngsters and the elderly are more susceptible, but that doesn't mean healthy adults are immune. They can and do die from it.

Go get informed if you care to.

Posted by: Observer on July 24, 2003 03:32 PM

I'm more concerned about large portion size and low nutrition content than germs. My ex takes the kids to eat that stuff every Wednesday just to spite me, and the kids eat fries and coke for dinner. If they did that every day, they would be fat and malnourished at the same time.

Posted by: Shamhat on July 24, 2003 04:14 PM

Observer, look for all natural beef and chicken at Whole Foods and HEB Central Market if you have one. Sunset Harvest also carries it, but they may be local only to Austin. Some of the newer and larger HEB's are starting to carry it in their premium meat cases as well. It's pricey, but I'll pay the extra for free range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organically fed beef and chicken when I can. I also buy eggs that come from free-range, grain-fed chickens. I haven't gone totally organic or anything, but I'm doing what I can pretty frequently.

Posted by: Perkusi on July 24, 2003 09:01 PM