27 Jan 2010

Fast Food Nation -- The Review

Although Eric Schlosser wrote this book in 2001, I just got 'round to reading it. I was familiar with its themes from The Jungle, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Super Size Me, and other works on food, business, and culture, but this book still taught me quite a few things and made me think about numerous other things. It reinforced my conviction that a vegetarian diet is a good idea in the United States, that regulators -- often "captured" by industry -- do not always serve customers, and that more and cheaper is not always better.

The book has 10 chapters. In the first two, we learn of how fast food and sprawling urban southern California grew hand in hand, as technology and assembly lines fed a population losing touch with the origin and social dimension of food. In chapters 3 and 4, we get a damning view of labor practices and government subsidies. I was displeased to see how (predictably) job training grants and sub-minimum wages were used to decrease costs instead of benefiting teen employees.

Chapters 5 through 9 go into the production of fast food, and beef in particular. Although these practices (high-speed slaughter by ill-trained workers of unhealthy cattle, producing meat of dubious quality) are revolting, and appalling (especially since we do not appear to have made much improvement since Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906!), what really bothered me was the lobbying and deception by industry -- and their support by politicians -- in their attempt to sell burgers mixed with shit to consumers in "McHappyMeal" boxes.

If anything, this book reinforces the conventional wisdom that regulations can provide a useful minimum standard of behavior, preventing a race to the bottom (in quality, safety -- and cost) among firms willing to cost costs or raise profits in places that do not, ultimately, serve consumers. Of particular note was the way in which the USDA was willing (is willing?) to buy the worst quality food from industrial slaughterhouses and feed it to children in schools. Ironically, those kids may be safer eating at fast food restaurants that care more about their reputation (and competition) than school bureaucrats.

The last chapter describes how the American idea of fast food fares in the rest of the world. Although foreigners may consume "McDos" because it's chic, others do not because their traditional food (and bureaucrats) are better.

One thing I didn't expect to read about was the cultural affinity between McDonald's and Disney (clean and orderly), or the ways in which industrial production is so dehumanizing (see Small is Beautiful) and socially-destabilizing (see my review from this morning). Even worse is Schlosser's killer point: all of these costs may come with little benefit: It's possible to eat good food, served by well-paid workers, at low prices. (In 'n' Out, a small-family chain, sells burgers at prices that are competitive with McDonalds.) If that's true, then we have to ask "where's the profit?" in selling that beef, if the production costs are so "cheap." I'd guess that some of it goes to shareholders, some goes to additional advertising, and some of it goes to executives, but I'd guess that a good chunk goes to powerful agribusinesses -- ConAgra, ADM, Switft, Tyson, et al. -- and paying for all the harm, lobbying and mistakes that accompany a system that's being pushed 110 percent. That's a pity, since it seems that we are paying a high cost for food that provides little benefit.

I give this book FIVE stars, despite an occasional lapse into populism.

Bottom Line: Cook for yourself and your family, from scratch. if you can't do that, eat at a restaurant that does that same thing. If you can't afford either, then reconsider how much you spend on food -- on keeping yourself healthy -- compared to big screen TVs, cars, dress shoes, etc. Anyone can eat healthy for less than $5 per day -- start with rice and beans, fruits and vegetables -- but few of us choose to. Take another look at your choices.


Josh said...

Great post!

I'd like to direct you to an article at Mother Earth Magazine on the viability of grass-fed beef, as a tangent to this. The coolest comment: Finishing off a grass-fed steer takes 2 acres, almost exactly the amount of land it takes to grow the grain to finish off a CAFO steer.


james rickert said...

You know, David... I heard a rumor that you ate some beef when you were at Harris Ranch. How come I couldn't get you to eat any meat when you were up here touring our place?

You've seen how we raise our animals... we're pasture based, but do have an expansive feed yard. We grow our own organic barley in Colusa, (never corn), and feed that to our animals so we have a consistent supply of fresh organic beef to supply to consumers year-round. If we were 100% grass fed in our climate, we'd only have good quality beef a few weeks out of the year- and have to freeze it... not very sustainable (or tasty). Plus, we have trained and very skilled workers that have a year round job, not a seasonal one if we were all grass fed.

David- come on out to the Ferry Building and try one of our burgers sometime- www.pratherranch.com Tell them James from the ranch sent you!

Jeff L. Haynes said...

David, I'd like to hear more on the water/beef relation. Especially in regards to pollution and water quality. Here in Shasta county there are several creeks and streams that meander through cattle country. One of them, Anderson Creek, flows through miles of small family farms. At the point where it empties into the Sacramento river the water is so polluted that fish from the creek are not edible. I'm not advocating not eating meat, just concerned about the meat/water interface.
By the way, I have a Prather Ranch Seven bone roast on the stove as I type, you really should give it a try.

james rickert said...

Jeff- Nice call on the roast! I can smell it over here in Bella Vista! Glad to see another Shasta County-ite speaking up about agriculture... aren't you in the Churn Creek Bottom? BTW, I set up a blog at http://rickertjames.blogspot.com/ so follow along if you get bored!

Another issue with Anderson Creek from what I understand is the old septic systems. Also, a lot of rural residential, where use of chemicals is largely not regulated. Lots of horses there (I've got nothing against horses for the record)... but many horse pastures look like the martian landscape (no vegetation). I'm glad we are not located in the Anderson Creek watershed... didn't that get a lot of attention via the Irrigated Lands Program monitoring program?

David Zetland said...

@James -- I NOW eat beef sometimes, and I STILL regret passing on your generous offer. I'll be back!

@Jeff -- beef that's NOT raised in CAFOs *can* easily be sustainable and good for the environment. Just need enough space/set back from rivers, etc...

David Zetland said...

DS says: "that's why i started cooking and cut on intake of meat."

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