Slaughterhouse to side-order a side-order a slippery slide

He calls on consumers to lobby the U.S. Congress, to use boycotts to force the fast food giants to reform, to simply walk away from all that delicious mouthfeel. FAST FOOD NATION: THE DARK SIDE OF THE SIDE OF THE ALL-AMERICAN MEAL

Financial Post
February 3, 2001

Slaughterhouse to side-order a slippery slide
Torn Hawthorn

By Eric Schlosser Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $38.95

The temptations are everywhere along those four-lane arterials: Golden Arches, Old-Fashioned hamburgers, Home of the Whopper. Who can resist? You can enjoy four major food groups — fat, salt, sugar and grease — without leaving the comfort of your car.

Imagine feasting on a Wendy's 99-cent chili as an appetizer, followed by a Whopper with a side serving of McDonald's fries (Super Sized, of course) and some of the Colonel's coleslaw, washed down by a bathtub-sized bucket o' Coke (or maybe a large strawberry milkshake from DQ), topped off with a maple glazed from Tim Hortons. Talk about your Happy Meal.

The stuff can taste good. But none of it will ever taste quite the same after you've read Fast Food Nation, a compelling if stomach-churning investigation by American journalist Eric Schlosser.

Let's start with taste (as in flavour, not esthetics). Those yummy fast food fries owe much of their flavour to white-coated scientists in laboratories. Schlosser visited International Flavors & Fragrances near an interstate off-ramp in Dayton, N.J., where he sniffed a scented strip that smelled like a grilled hamburger. The wizards at these chemical plants wrestle with "mouthfeel," the combination of texture and chemical reactions that affects how we perceive flavour. But this exposé is small potatoes compared to what Schlosser finds at the slaughterhouse.

Those chapters put the gross into engrossing. Schlosser, whose book began as a series for Rolling Stone magazine, details several gruesome slaughterhouse deaths (of humans, not cattle). Workers lose their limbs; they slash one another open with long knives; one unfortunate soul is decapitated.

Schlosser accuses the giants who control the meatpacking industry of turning "one of the nation's best-paying manufacturing jobs into one of the lowest-paying, creat[ing] a migrant industrial workforce of poor immigrants, tolerat[ing] high injury rates, and spawn[ing] rural ghettos in the American heartland."

Take poor Kenny Dobbins, an illiterate giant of a man. He loved working at his meatpacking plant, was hailed in a company newsletter for returning to work soon after back surgery, and stayed despite a long list of crippling injuries. He even backed up his employer in a successful fight to stop a union from signing up workers. Finally, his loyalty was rewarded with betrayal. After he suffered a massive heart attack on the job, the company fired him.

Working conditions at the slaughterhouse affect the quality of the beef that ends up wrapped in bright paper on plastic trays. Poorly trained workers are more likely to mess up the cutting of carcasses; too often, stomachs and large intestines are accidentally ripped open, the contents spilling onto fresh meat.

Schlosser offers "a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill. There is s—t in the meat." Feces that contains the E. coli bacteria is often splashed on meat that is later ground into hamburger. Since huge batches of meat are now mixed together, the potential for widespread contamination is tremendous. Four people died and more than 200 were hospitalized in the western United States during an E. coli outbreak in 1993. The sick either ate a contaminated hamburger at Jack in the Box restaurants, or came in contact with someone who had eaten one of the tainted burgers.

Fast Food Nation is written in a breezy, magazine style that goes down as easy as a frosted malt. The breeziness, though, contributes to an irritating tendency to toss out blanket statements ("the Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross") and unverifiable numbers ("one of eight U.S. workers has at some time worked at McDonald's").

Far too many of his figures are also extrapolated from taking a small sample and multiplying hundredfold or millionfold.

Of a $1.50-order of fries at a fast food restaurant, he states, perhaps two cents goes to the farmer who grew the potato. How does he come up with the figure? It takes about a half-pound of potatoes to produce a large order of fries, which weighs about a quarter pound. A typical farm price is $4 to $5 per hundredweight of fresh processing potatoes, about four or five cents a pound. It's a precarious way to come up with a statistic and distracts from the legwork done at the chemical plant and at the slaughterhouse.

He does make a convincing argument for the banning of advertisements aimed at children. Our kids are being manipulated into manipulating us into taking them to restaurants they should rarely patronize, even if fast food is "as American as a small, rectangular, hand-held, frozen, and reheated apple pie."

Schlosser ends his polemic with a do-gooder call to action. He calls on consumers to lobby the U.S. Congress, to use boycotts to force the fast food giants to reform, to simply walk away from all that delicious mouthfeel. "[T]urn and walk out the door," he concludes. "It's not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way."

Tom Hawthorn is a freelance reporter in Victoria, B.C.

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