Fast Food Nation - One Burger
Contains Flesh Of 100's Of Cows
By Edward Helmore and John Arlidge
The Observer - London

Fast Food Nation:
One Small Bite for Man,
One Giant Problem for Mankind

The jostling lunchtime queue at McDonald's in Manhattan's Union Square last week resembled the countless others that line up under the Golden Arches at the same time every day in almost every city in the world. The comfortably familiar menu, of Big Mac, the Big'n'Tasty meal and the Chicken McSandwich, was also the same. Only a Robert Mapplethorpe print of flowers revealed that this was New York, not Edinburgh, Cairo or Beijing.
Hungry diners knew what they wanted and wanted what they got. "It's garbage but it's tasty," said June Darine wolfing down a cheeseburger and fries with a chocolate milkshake for which she had paid £2.20. "McDonald's has the best fries, Burger King has the best burgers, Wendy's has the best chicken nuggets, the burritos at Taco Bell are good, and I like the spicy barbecue chicken wings at KFC," she added.
Her friend, a large African-American woman called Carmen, agreed. "It's a quick fix, but it's junk. It's not real food. I'll be feeling hungry again in a couple of hours."
America, which invented the hamburger by accident when Richard and Maurice McDonald got so fed up with diners stealing cutlery from their cafe they came up with a hot sandwich customers could eat with their fingers, is the world's number one consumer of fast food. Diners want their food cheap and they want it to taste the same everywhere.
But, for the first time, Americans' appetite for fast food is being questioned. A new book - Fast Food Nation , by American journalist Eric Schlosser - has lifted the polystyrene lid on the global fast food industry and the effect it has on the diet, health, work practices and rural life of America. The global food giants are used to being taken to task in print; many publishers are still paying the libel bills.
What makes Fast Food Nation different is that it is not the predictable anti-meat, anti-fat, anti-additives, anti-non-dairy creamer, anti-have-any-fun rant against McDonald's, Taco Bell, TGI Friday, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC and Domino's. It is meticulously researched and powerfully argued, with stories from the farm and the slaughter house to the table and the morgue.
Schlosser, 41, says: "The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society" - notably obesity, food poisoning, rural poverty and environmental degradation. In a country where former President Clinton regularly ordered his driver to take a detour to McDonald's, Schlosser's views have sparked a storm. Although the food giants themselves have yet to speak out, normally cautious commentators are hailing Fast Food Nation as the beginning of the end of the American love affair with all things fat and fried.
The New York Times said the book will "not only make you think twice before eating your next hamburger, but it will also make you think about the fallout that the fast food industry has had on the social and cultural landscape". Another critic added: "Every now and then, some work of mere mortal beings comes along to lift the veil, or perhaps the hem, of time and let the rest of us catch a glimpse of the future of our rich, dumb and out-of-control republic."
Fast Food Nation will reignite the diet debate in Britain when it is published here this week. Despite growing interest in home cooking and celebrity chefs, Britons, Schlosser shows, consume more fast food than any other Europeans. Obesity and food poisoning are growing faster than at any time in our history. Many doctors blame rising consumption of the kind of pre-processed, pre-cooked fatty foods that the big chains serve with relish.
What has forced Americans to confront what one commentator calls 'the horror of the Happy Meal' is the sheer weight of statistical and anecdotal evidence Schlosser uncovered in the two years he spent interviewing hundreds of fast food workers, farmers, ranchers and meatpackers, and eating the food they produce.
They might have preferred to remain ignorant, but thanks to TV, radio and the internet most consumers now know that a 'single fast-food hamburger con tains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle' that spend their last days packed in feedlots full of pools of manure.. America's gigantic meat factories produce up to 800,000 lbs. of minced beef a day. Poor hygiene practices in abattoirs have led to a sharp rise in the spread of the pathogen E. coli 0157 . A typical artificial strawberry flavouring found in milkshakes is a cocktail of more than 50 chemicals. Every day in America 200,000 people get food poisoning, 900 are hospitalised and 14 die.
Americans now spend $120 billion a year on fast food, more than on higher education, PCs, computer software or new cars, or on magazines, going to see films, recorded music, newspapers, videos and books combined. Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast food restaurant, a meagre two cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes. Ninety-six per cent of American schoolchildren can identify Ronald McDonald, more than recognise the crucifix.
If Schlosser's publishers had wanted to create a stir, they could not have picked a better time to go to press. Alarm over outbreaks of E. coli food poisoning and mad cow disease is reaching the public for the first time across the Atlantic. The US last week joined Canada and Mexico in banning imports of Brazilian beef as a precaution against BSE.
But Fast Food Nation is about more than simply food. Whatever the brand, Schlosser says, those who consume fast food are taking a big bite of ideology, if not pure dogma. Although it masquerades as a healthy mix of American faith in science, efficiency and technology, generously spiced with free market principles, the values the fast food industry cherishes are, Schlosser argues, capitalism at its worst.
The giant agribusinesses and abattoir chains that supply restaurants are driving America's small farmers off the land. Those who employ burger-flippers are hostile to workers' rights and have bitterly resisted minimum wage laws. They invest large sums designing equipment so streamlined that it requires as little skill as possible to operate while accepting vast US government subsidies for teaching job skills to the poor.
Fast food firms, Schlosser argues, preach the values of consumer choice and democracy - as long as it is a choice between burgers, pizzas and microwaved slices of apple pie. As Ray Kroc, a McDonald's founder, said, expressing decidedly un-American ideals: "We have found we... cannot trust some people who are non-conformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry... The organisation cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organisation."
Derived from an essay he wrote for Rolling Stone on the slaughterhouses of Colorado, Schlosser acknowledges that fast food does have some things to recommend it. "It's convenient, it's inexpensive and it tastes good. And people need to eat, but they don't have any time to prepare their own food." The industry, he adds, employs some four million Americans.
What began in the 1940s as a handful of hot dog and hamburger stands in southern California has spread across America and the world. Can its onward march last? Schlosser says there are signs the fast food revolution may have peaked. The growth of the big chains, at least in the US, has slowed.
McDonald's now derives most of its profits from revenue generated outside the US. A shift in values - nutritional, social and cultural - is driving the company to invest in new, more upmarket foods. In Britain it has bought Aroma coffee houses and, last week, bit off one third of the high-quality organic chain, Pret A Manger. As most people in Western countries get richer, they will, Schlosser hopes, trade up from burgers.
'This industry has been driven by a lack of awareness of its practices, as well as an absence of values,' he writes. "Culturally, the essence of this industry is uniformity and conformity. The key to the success has been recreating identical restaurants that serve identical food. In a different era, with different values, that might not succeed as well as it has over the last 20 years. I may be a deluded optimist... but I would argue that that might be one of the downfalls of this industry." Hold the pickles.

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