The Dark Side of the Moo 1/1/2004
After New Year’s resolution of improving their diets have begun to sag, about a quarter of all American adults return to eat at fast-food restaurants every day. The cheap, salty and convenient fast food is laden with saturated fat and calories, and nearly devoid of anything vaguely nutritious. The tempting allure of chemically-enhanced flavor compounds has made it easy for half of America's adults and one-quarter of its children to become obese, double the rate of a generation ago.
Beyond the traditional criticisms of fast food being a gateway food to obesity, diabetes and bad skin, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation prods into the greasy business ethics of the corporations that sell the food. From the sophisticated marketing aimed at children to the fast foods being foisted into public schools in a budget crisis, Schlosser exposes how the industry has shaped the eating habits of children. The accomplishment of our children watching more than an average of 21 hours a week of television is that the only fictional character with more recognition than Ronald McDonald is Santa Klaus. Schlosser details the exploitation of the huge minimum wage workforce of primarily unskilled teenagers and recent immigrants. The chain restaurants withhold medical benefits to keep costs low and ensure high turnover of employees to avoid unionization, while being generously subsidized by taxpayer dollars for providing nonexistent “training” to low-income workers.
The dominance of the fast food industry has given a few corporations unprecedented control over American agriculture. McDonald's, the nation's largest purchaser of meat and potatoes, has encouraged consolidation and centralized production. The homogenization of the American diet has destroyed the rural farmer, smaller businesses and worker’s rights. Fast Food Nation’s exposes how the industrialization of food production and cattle raising has created the possibility of epidemics of food-borne illnesses. The USDA and its safety regulations are increasingly hamstrung in the pro-business environment created by the generous campaign contributions of the meat packing industry. The meatpacking industry has been very successful in derailing any real regulatory changes in their food safety practices. The industry standard is to pack cattle into gigantic feedlots and herd them through processing assembly lines operated by poorly trained immigrants willing to work in extremely dangerous conditions. Meatpacking is the most dangerous occupation in America, with triple the injury rate of factory work. These conditions magnify the hazard of large-scale food poisoning as the intense speed of the operating conditions and the unsanitary working conditions leave room for many errors. Schlosser quotes former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman as saying, "We can fine circuses for mistreating elephants but we can't fine companies that violate food-safety standards."
Supersize the Epidemic
Schlosser doesn't mince words when it comes to E coli contamination, he says it like it is:
Manure gets mixed with meat. This lack of sanitation can put pathogens such as salmonella and Escherichia coli 0157:H7 in our food supply. . Schlosser cites a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) study that found 78.6% of ground beef contained microbes spread predominantly by fecal contamination. These words hit home, as the upslope winds of a coming storm bring in the reek of the feedlots in nearby Greeley. Just outside of Boulder, Greeley is home to one of the largest feedlots in the US, housing over 300,000 cattle in their last 90 days of feeding before slaughter. That same plant owned by ConAgra Foods recalled more than 18 million pounds of ground beef in the summer of 2002 when the meat was linked to an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 that caused 46 illnesses in 16 states. This strain of E. coli is one of the worst forms of food poisoning and the most problematical to treat. Antibiotics have proven ineffective in treating this strain, as the use of antibiotics to kill the pathogen worsen the illness by causing the E. coli to release powerful toxins, known as Shiga toxins, that attack the lining of the intestine. Schlosser reports that in about 4% of reported E. coli 0157:H7 cases, the Shiga toxins released develop hemolytic uremic syndrome which can lead to kidney failure, and that about 5% of children who develop the syndrome die . E. coli 0157:H7 is now the primary cause of renal failure among American kids.
An independent arm of the USDA prepared a investigative report on the ConAgra meat contamination at the request of California Rep. Henry Waxman and other Democrats which found that the recall was "ineffective and inefficient" and that most of the tainted meat was already consumed and never recovered by the time that ConAgra held their voluntary recall. The lawmakers criticized the USDA, saying that weeks before the July recall, federal meat inspectors knew the plant repeatedly tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7 but did nothing. Schlosser's research reveals that under current law, the USDA cannot demand a recall and its operating procedure is usually to negotiate with the meatpacking company over the timing and scale of the recall. Once a company has voluntarily decided to pull the contaminated meat of the shelves, it is under no obligation to inform the public, or even state health officials, that a recall is taking place.
In the end, Schlosser puts the power back in the hands of the consumer. Government regulators may have their hands tied, but when the consumers who spend over $100 billion on fast food (incidentally more than on cars, education, computers or music) indicate their preference with their pocketbooks, the companies hustle. When a goliath like McDonald’s demands change, the meatpackers and industry listen. Concern for consumer backlash has prompted McDonald’s to ban genetically modified potatoes, to take beef extract out of their french fries in communities with large Hindu populations and to stop using diseased cattle in their hamburgers.
The best way for consumers to make their choices heard is to change their shopping patterns. Pete Kastner, a Greeley rancher, says, "I use the alfalfa that I grow and supplement with grains but I know that with the profit margin so slim for beef producers who sell to the feedlot, that there are a lot of reasons to cut corners. If a rancher doesn't market directly to consumers as organic or natural beef as I do, they have little choice. By using bovine growth hormone, you can get an additional 10% increase in weight on a steer. By using animal byproducts as a high protein feed, you can cut costs. This is a wake-up call for Beef consumers; you got to know your producer and know what you put in your stomach."
Mad Cow in the US
American meat producers have a rude awakening with the first confirmed outbreak of Mad Cow disease in the US. Mad cow disease, scientifically known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a brain-wasting disease that is transmitted to cattle from contaminated feed and has an incubation period in the animals of four to six years before it can usually be detected. BSE is linked to a similar human form of the incurable, fatal disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Compared to the E. coli outbreaks, there have been few cases of that disease reported worldwide, primarily in the United Kingdom, among people who ate BSE-contaminated meat. The USDA's website says that veterinarians inspect every animal, and that many animals with apparent neurological disorders are tested for BSE. They describe their testing as "aggressive" and the probability of Mad Cow disease in the US as “unlikely“. In fact, last year the federal government tested roughly 20,000 cows - healthy and sick. This "aggressive" testing is less than 1% of the 2.4 million cattle sent to slaughter each year in the US; in comparison, Japan tests 100%. Both the human and cow versions of this deadly disease have long incubation periods before detection and most of the meat we eat comes from cows younger than 2 years.
From Cannibals to Vampires
Cattle consuming feed consisting of cow parts initiated and amplified the outbreak of BSE in the UK. Though cannibalism has been outlawed for cows, the FDA feed ban still allows the cows to eat sheep, pig and chicken parts. This allows the large corporations to save money as the increase in grain prices has created an economic incentive to feed high-protein waste products to cattle on a regular basis. Schlosser gives examples of the 3 million pounds of chicken manure fed to cattle in Arkansas in 1994 and the ongoing industry practice of dead pigs and horses being processed into cattle feed. The meatpacking conglomerates also managed a loophole in the FDA's feed ban, blood and blood products are exempt from the ban. A common industry practice is to use dried blood from the slaughterhouse to wean calves even though scientists have known for many years that blood can transmit BSE-type diseases.
The lack of integrity of industrial food has resolved my New Year's resolution to take responsibility for both what my food does to my body and my community.