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Monday, November 3, 2008

My Last Fast Food French Fries

Wow! Has it been a month already? I cannot believe it! Well, I really haven't been cooking all that much over the last month, at least nothing blog-worthy. But I promise to catch up! I spent the last two weeks in Chile, working, traveling and above all, eating tons of tasty Chilean food (and taking pictures of it). The trip, the food and the views will be a topic of another post though. Here, I wanted to write about quite a striking book I read while I was on the road - "Fast Food Nation". I know, I know, I am seven years too late and most of you have read it ages ago, but seven years ago boiling rice was my crown culinary achievement and I certainly couldn't be bothered to care where my fries came from. Times have changed. Now I cook, care and blog about food.

I enjoyed the book very much. So much that I read it in two days all the while craving one last serving of french fries. The book is very informative and quite frightening, though in the lest expected ways. When I started reading it I was anticipating (a) a treatise of why fast food is bad for you, much like "Supersize Me" and/or (b) a rant against the inhumane treatment of animals. While both topics are touched upon in the book, neither is placed in the center of the discussion. Instead, Eric Schlosser presents the reader with an extremely well researched work (the bibliography alone is 69 pages) on the history, development and current world-wide hegemony of the fast food industry. This is a book about the transformation of the American diet, economy, workforce, landscape and popular culture caused by the fast food industry. It is thoroughly enchanting. On a given day a quarter of the US adult population visits a fast food restaurant. 90% of US children eat at a fast food restaurant at least once a month. Ronald McDonald is the second most recognizable face (after Santa Claus) by school children - 96% can recognize him. The profit margin of a cup of soda is ~95%. It is practically impossible to summarize everything the book is about in a paragraph or two. It is also practically impossible to summarize all that is disturbing about the fast food industry in a paragraph or two. Therefore, I would like to mention the two topics which struck me the most: the treatment of workers in the meat processing pants (yes, workers not cows) and the lack any government control over the meat industry.

The chapters describing the meat packing industry, Schlosser's visits to the meat packing plants, his encounters and interviews with workers at the plants all speckled with references to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" were the hardest to read. Now, even though I am a vegetarian, I am very much aware that hundreds of thousands of animals must be killed for all the steaks and hamburgers to show up at the grocery stores and restaurants and I have no illusions that this is done in the most humane manner possible. However I never realized that the people working at meat-packing plants were treated so disgustingly inhumanely! The stories portrayed in the book are beyond belief! Missing fingers, missing limbs, people incapacitated for life being compensated by a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, extremely dangerous jobs without health insurance staffed by illegal immigrants who do not speak English and cannot defend their rights, company doctors deliberately misdiagnosing injuries to avoid paying the medical expenses, companies paying dimes in penalties for the deaths of workers caused by negligence - just a few of the details portrayed in the book. I find it truly bewildering that so much fuss is made over the living conditions of animals (including Proposition 2 - The Prevention of Animal Cruelty Act which just passed in Calofornia) when thousands of people, people who put food on the tables of millions of American families every single day, are treated with such abyssmal inhumanity! It is beyond disturbing! According to a December 2006 PBS article not much has changed since Fast Food Nation was written in 2001: "In early 2005, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants" which concluded that the working conditions in America's meat packing plants were so bad they violated basic human and worker rights. This was the first time the human rights organization had criticized a U.S. industry." Isn't anyone paying attention?

The several country-wide produce scares in the last one year (was it tomatoes and spinach?) made me read very carefully Eric Schlosser's discussion of the dangers of the centralization of meat-production, or any production: "Today a cluster of illnesses in one small town can stem from a bad potato salad at a school barbeque or -- or it may be the first sign of an outbreak that extends statewide, nationwide and even overseas." Millions of tons of meat infected E. Coli and Salmonela can be distributed unchecked throughout the country, sicken thousands of people, and no government agency has the right to issue a recall and inform the public that they should not buy the infected meat! A voluntarily recall can be issued by the company weeks and months after the discovery of the infection, long after the infected product has already been sold and consumed. Since when did eating a steak become risky business? Apparently, a large amount of money and effort have been invested by the meat industry to prevent the institution of control. Isn't this frightening? The Secretary of Agriculture is quoted to have said: "We can fine circuses for mistreating elephants but we can't fine companies for violating food-safety standards."

In short, if you haven't read "Fast Food Nation", read it. I recommend it.

What now? It's not that I have ever been a big fast food fan. I was 17 years old (and already a vegetarian) when I walked into a McDonald's restaurant for the first time, I think it was in Belgrade, so I do not have the childhood allegiance or comfort food association. And, honestly, I've never had a hamburger, let alone a BigMac. Yet, aside from reasons loosely defined as "they don't serve anything I eat", I have never consciously avoided them. In fact, french fries and/or a frosty is my occasional fare after a late night out. Given that the majority of fast food purchases are spontaneous, I may as well be the typical customer. Or should I say "was" the typical customer. I here-by solemnly swear to never eat at a fast food restaurant ever again. I had my last serving of (Jack In the Box) fast food fries last Sunday, November 2nd, 2008. I oppose their practices, I oppose their corporative greediness, exploitativeness and manipulativeness. Fast food chains very much remind me of Walmart, like the food version of it (seen Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price?). Well, I won't be spending my money there no more.

And if I were to ever buy meat, I'd rather know the name of the cow/chicken it came from. (Sorry, Monica!)

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