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    Another reason to avoid fast food

    By ALECIA SWASY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


    FAST FOOD NATION:

    The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

    By Eric Schlosser

    Houghton Mifflin, $25.60

    * * *

    Want to curb those cravings for a cheeseburger?

    Take a spin through an IBP meat packing plant in Nebraska, where the air smells of burning hair, blood, grease and rotten eggs.

    Such plants once killed 175 cows per hour, but demand for more fast-food burgers means they now slaughter up to 400 per hour, creating working conditions reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

    Recent immigrants are paid low wages to work in the most dangerous jobs, with injury rates three times higher than a typical U.S. factory. Lose a finger and you'll probably get $2,200 in compensation. On good days, the line slows a bit because they're filling orders shipped to Europe, which has stricter standards on meat processing than the United States.

    It's rare that the Feds step in to levy fines at such sweatshops. OSHA is grossly underfunded and understaffed, thanks to constant budget cuts that leave millions of inspections to a handful of agents. If a meat packing plant's own injury logs show a safe workplace, OSHA stays away.

    But thankfully, author Eric Schlosser started nosing around the meat packing industry as part of his broader investigation of what's really inside that bag of burgers and fries. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal focuses on McDonald's and how its tentacles have shaped the food industry, politics in Washington and dining around the globe.

    This book will give consumers and fast-food titans a major stomach ache. Big surprise that the folks at the Golden Arches didn't cooperate with the author. But Schlosser did an exhaustive job reporting and documenting this book -- 55 pages of endnotes detail his research. And he gathered a lot of rich information from those inside the meat packing plants, on potato farms and behind the fry baskets.

    The growth of fast food is amazing. In 1970, Americans spent $6-billion on burgers and fries. By 2000, they spent $110-billion. And it's spreading around the globe. McDonald's even opened a restaurant down the road from the Nazis' first concentration camp. "Welcome to Dachau and Welcome to McDonald's" leaflets greet visitors to a Big Mac promotion.

    The profits for McDonald's, Burger King and others are huge, thanks to big markups on products like soda, which costs the restaurant 9 cents and sells for $1.29. And help is cheap, thanks to a large workforce of teenagers. Schlosser found cases of McDonald's breaking state and federal laws because 15-year-olds worked 12-hour shifts. In one restaurant, an assistant manager brought her 5-year-old to the restaurant, insisting that crew members babysit the child.

    The most disturbing parts of the book show the nasty world of slaughtering and processing beef. Schlosser chronicles one worker named Kenny who climbed into gigantic blood tanks and gut bins to clean up a salmonella problem at a Monfort meat plant in Nebraska. For eight hours, he scrubbed the tanks with chlorine. His lungs were burned from the chemicals. He had numerous other injuries from his nearly 16 years at the plant. Eventually, he was fired. No one from the company told him. He learned the news when he called Monfort with questions about his health insurance coverage. "They used me to the point where I had no body parts left to give," Kenny said. "Then they just tossed me into the trash can."

    Given recent press coverage of tainted meat scaring consumers in Europe, this book provides another source of worry about the cleanliness of meat processing. About 200,000 people get sick every day from a foodborne disease. Of those, 14 die. In a USDA study, 78 percent of ground beef tested contained microbes spread by fecal material.

    The author argues that cozy ties and hefty contributions by meat packing companies to Republican members of Congress have kept the laws weak. For instance, the USDA does not inform the public when contaminated meat is recalled from fast-food restaurants. The agency and the meatmakers argue that details on distribution of meat are "trade secrets." That's a familiar trick by corporate titans and their lawyers who don't want the consuming public to know what really goes into their food, medicines or laundry detergents.

    As the author notes, it's easier for the government to recall defective stuffed animals versus removing tainted meat from the shelves. He calls on consumers to lobby for safer working conditions and tougher food safety laws. "American workers and consumers deserve at least the same consideration as overseas customers," he writes.

    Schlosser admits he likes cheeseburgers and fries, but he no longer buys fast food. "Not until the industry changes its ways." He suggests consumers do the same: "A good boycott, a refusal to buy," he said, "can speak much louder than words."

    - Alecia Swasy, assistant managing editor/business at the Times, is the author of Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble.

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