In Martin Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, chapter 9 of the book focuses on a discussion of the state in which cattle in the US are reared for production of ground beef, such as that used by fast food chains such as McDonalds. Schlosser claims that these cattle are bred in conditions which are so cramped that they get little exercise, live “amid pools of manure” and are fed on dirty food and water (200).
He claims that this then provides an ideal breeding ground for all types of bacteria which may be dangerous if allowed into the human food chain. In addition to the risk of contracting bacterial disease being increased through these methods of farming, Schlosser also argues that the actual nutritional value of the food is adversely affected. This would therefore indicate that the farming methods which are used by the fast food industry are therefore harmful to health and may require review.
This opinion is of course not shared by all, however, and there is also contradictory evidence which suggests that these concerns may in fact be exaggerated. This essay will examine the two opposing sides of the argument, presenting evidence from recent studies and journal articles.
Fast Food and Bacterial Disease
A study by Rangel et al. examined the epidemiology of the bacterial disease which is caused by Escherichia coli O157:H7 within the US. This is a bacteria which is associated with around 73,000 cases of illness annually, and was first associated with undercooked ground beef patties when it was discovered in the 1980s. As a result of this early associated, this bacteria is now often still mostly associated with contamination in fast food restaurants serving these ground beef patties.
In fact, it is this particular disease which Schlosser mostly refers to when he discusses the risk of bacterial infection in cattle as a result of their living conditions. The study by Rangel et al. Would however appear to suggest that this may actually be an unfair association. Of a total of 8,598 cases which were analysed, only 74 were foodborne. Of these, only 12 originated in fast food establishments. This would therefore seriously call into question the assertion by Schlosser that this bacteria is a problem solely associated with fast food meat production, and certainly suggests that the problem is nowhere near as serious as he implies.
In fact, the figures which are presented by this report are very different to those which are presented by Schlosser in another article, written for the New York Times at a later date in 2006. This article in fact claims that more than 160 people that fall were infected after eating at Taco Bell restaurants alone. In contrast to the figures presented by Rangel et al. this news actually makes the situation seem far more serious.
This claim also was substantiated in a study by Jay et al. who managed to locate the source of a similar outbreak as being an upstream supplier of beef. In this instance an actual farm investigation was not possible however, which means that it is not possible to establish whether the infection of the meat was due to the conditions in which the cattle were being raised or some other factor. Also in the case of the 2006 incident there was no actual solid evidence available that the conditions in which the cattle were bred was implicated in the initial spread of the bacteria.
Arguments around the bacterial risk from eating fast food are however not the only source of contention on the issue. There is also much debate on the actual chemical content of the food, and how this too may pose adverse health risks to the consumer. Stender et al. argue that although many fast food chains have introduced supposedly healthy alternative meals, these are still increase health risks for patrons due to the quality of the ingredients used by these chains (887).
The study utilised chemical analysis and showed that the fat content of the chicken meat used by both KFC and McDonalds varied widely depending on the country in which the product was purchased. The analysis also showed that the meat contained unacceptable levels of trans-fatty-acids, which are an industrially produced form of fat which is associated with a large array of diverse health effects. Overall, their evidence suggests that even the meat which is contained in these ‘healthy’ options is therefore potentially dangerous to human health.
There is however other research which claims that these ‘healthy alternatives’ may not in themselves be harmful, but that instead it is the idea created by the terminology which is leading Americans to instead overindulge in unhealthy food contents.
For example the work done by Chandon and Wansink shows that when meals in fast food restaurants are labelled as being healthy, individuals are far more likely to underestimate the amount of unhealthy food components which they are eating than when these labels are not applied to the food. This would therefore suggest that the problems lay not in the food itself, but in the marketing which is applied to that food.
Schlosser was adamant in his book Fast Food Nation that the conditions in which fast food suppliers are breeding their cattle has been responsible for a decline in the quality of meat provided to patrons. Schlosser claimed that this is so much so as to actually be creating a dangerous increase in the risk to both bacteria and chemicals within the food.
This essay has however shown that this is not an opinion shared by all, with other authors arguing that the situation is in fact far less severe that implied by Schlosser. At the present time it is however very difficult to determine which side is correct, given the strong scientific basis of the argument on both sides. It is however likely that the debate will continue, as those on both sides appear to be very adamant of their case.
Chandon, Pierre & Brian Wansink. “The biasing health halos of fast-food restaurant health claims: Lower Calorie estimates and higher side-dish consumption intentions.” Journal of Consumer Research 34.3 (2007): 301-314.
Jay, Michele T., Valerie Garrett, Janet C. Mohle-Boetani et al. “A multistate outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 infection linked to consumption of beef tacos at a fast-food restaurant chain.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 39.1 (2004): S69.
Rangel, Josefa A., Phyllis H. Sparling, Collen Crowe et al. “Epidemiology of Escherichia coli O157: H7 outbreaks, United States, 1982-2002.” Emerging Infectious Diseases 11.4 (2005): 603-609.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Schlosser, Eric. “Has politics contaminated the food supply?” December 11, 2006. The New York Times. January 16, 2009. <http://www.slowfoodla.com/images/foodsupplypolitics.pdf>
Stender, S., J. Dyerberg & A. Astrup. “Fast food: Unfriendly and unhealthy.” International Journal of Obesity 31 (2007): 887-890.