Examining the global impact of American culinary imperialism

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Safar 19, 1437 2015-08-01

Book Review

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

FAST FOOD NATION: WHAT THE ALL-AMERICAN MEAL IS DOING TO THE WORLD by Eric Schlosser. London: Penguin Books, 2002. Pp. 386. Pbk. £7.99.

As the US carried out its illegal invasion of Iraq, worldwide condemnation mounted. With the exception of a few unpopular regimes and a cadre of military-industrialists at home, it seemed as if the whole world was finally awakening to the depravity of America’s disastrous policies. While many governments were silent or bowed to American intimidation and bribery, it was clear that popular voices on the streets were rising against the US. The protest movement manifested itself in several ways, including rejection of the global symbols of American hegemony, the most visible of which is the fast-food industry.

It is well known that one of America’s main sources of income is the sale of military technology, so to a certain extent global hatred of America and its allies serves the purpose of expanding its military rule, which promotes American hegemony. But it is perhaps not so well known that, next to arms and ammunition, the most lucrative American businesses worldwide are the entertainment industries, which, broadly defined, include not only cinema, music and other media, but also the fast-food industry. Most citizens of the world have no say in how their governments rule them and dispose of their resources, even in the ‘democratic’ states, where elections serve primarily to pass power on within a military-industrial elite. With citizens powerless to prevent their governments from spending money on American weaponry, consumer activism has emerged as a new way of expressing political opinions.

It has become a relatively common sight to see American fast-food restaurants being trashed and picketed, and, with the help of boycotts, many have been forced to shut down. But while the weapons industry relies on force, fear and intimidation to sell its products, such tactics cannot be used to promote the entertainment industries; imagine the absurdity of people being marched at gunpoint to consume their weekly quota of junk food. Consumerism is the antithesis of militarism (even the antidote sometimes), and its success relies on associating consumption with happiness and leisure. While recognizing and taking action against this sends a powerful message, to view fast food only in political terms is misleading. It is just as important to examine the cultural and health implications of this industry.

Despite the global reach of the American fast-food industry, it has lowly origins in post-war southern California, in the birth of a culture based on the automobile and television. Before becoming a global force, it first created wide-ranging cultural and social changes in the US. Americans now spend more money on fast food than they do on higher education, computers and automobiles. The fast-food industry has redefined eating habits, farming, employment and other aspects of American society; as the industry goes global the same redefinition results elsewhere.

In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist, examines the "all-American meal" and its impact at home and abroad. Schlosser spent three years learning about the American fast-food industry, and his travels took him from corporate boardrooms and local restaurants to industrial farms and slaughterhouses. He also worked for some time as an employee in a fast-food restaurant to get an inside look at the life of food service. His articles on various findings were published in several magazines and journals, and he has also assembled his data into what has become an international bestseller.

In this very detailed and well-documented book, Schlosser examines virtually every aspect of the fast-food industry, from the assembly-line system of farming, slaughtering, processing and cooking foods, to the right-wing political affiliations of its founders. He looks at how fast-food advertisements are targeting our children to become "surrogate salesmen," by the now commonplace tactic of linking fast food with fun and games. Other chapters examine the appalling working conditions of fast-food employees, at every point from slaughterhouses to restaurants; he makes a fascinating connection between fast food and crime, citing law-enforcement statistics showing that half of all fast-food workers steal money from their employers.

Another revealing chapter looks at the misleading "success stories" of the fast-food franchising business; he describes the hair-raising operations of beef slaughterhouses, providing a clear analysis of the links between the processing techniques of the beef industry and CJD, "mad cow disease." Schlosser also includes studies linking the "all-American meal" to obesity and other health problems, noting that those who eat like Americans become like Americans in health and attitudes, proving again that "you are what you eat."

In a very revealing chapter, "Why the Fries Taste Good," Schlosser examines a little-known aspect of the fast-food industry, namely "flavor design." Because of the intense processing of fast food, there is little actual flavor left in it for the human palate to enjoy. By the time a consumer gets his burger and fries, they have been denatured of practically all their nutrients and taste by industrial methods of production and cooking. The lack of nutrients can be overlooked by fun-loving consumers, but lack of taste is unbearable. The solution is to manufacture taste, so all fast foods are infused with a witch’s brew of chemically induced aromas and flavors. Although the flavor-design industry is very secretive, Schlosser was allowed some access to plants in New Jersey, after he signed an agreement that he would not reveal the names of clients that purchase flavors manufactured at the places he visited.

Schlosser examines the two main categories of designed flavors: "artificial flavor" and "natural flavor." Basically, artificial flavors are synthesized from chemicals; natural flavors are extracted and distilled, with chemicals, from natural substances. The industry began making up for fast food’s lost flavors by using artificial flavors, which in the "better life through science" fad of the 1950s were promoted as better than natural flavors. But when consumers began to be more health-conscious in the 1970s, the industry found that the term "artificial" was a hindrance to sales and profits, so "natural flavor" was developed. But the distinctions between "artificial flavor" and "natural flavor" are spurious and misleading, more legal than real.

Artificial flavors are made from combinations of dozens of chemicals, some so strong that a single drop can flavor an Olympic-size swimming pool. Every high school student knows that mixing chemicals in a school lab can create many sorts of smelly substances, but the flavor industry has developed a science of aromas and flavors. To synthesize the flavor of strawberries, for example, designers combine over forty different chemicals. Virtually any flavor or aroma can be synthesized in this way; often artificial flavors are indistinguishable from real flavors. Or, perhaps more accurately, consumers can no longer tell the difference between real flavors and their imitations.

But the main contribution that Schlosser makes is in his study of the natural flavor category. Natural flavors are only natural in that they are obtained from some organic, rather than chemical, substance. But the flavor or aroma created in this way is not necessarily that of what it is named for. For example, the flavor-design industry creates "natural almond flavor" by using volatile chemicals to extract flavor oils from peach and other fruit pits, not from almonds, which are more expensive than pits. And, although "natural" is supposed to be healthier than "artificial," Schlosser found that in some cases the chemical processes used to extract "natural flavors" can actually create a flavor compound that is quite toxic.

Whatever the origins of the designed aromas and flavors, fast food could not survive without them. For example, in the early years of the fast-food industry, french fries were cooked in beef tallow, giving them their distinctive flavor but also soaking them with saturated fat. Cooking fries in vegetable oil makes them less fatty; as consumers demanded less fat in their fast food, the industry responded by cooking fries in vegetable oil and then adding designer beef flavor.

Perhaps the most startling and disturbing chapter of this wide-ranging study is the one on the meat-packing industry. Since Upton Sinclair’s expose of the industry in the early 20th century, which led to various legislations curtailing its more nefarious practices, the meat industry has come under intermittent scrutiny, despite its political power. Schlosser looks at the meat industry from two angles: by listening to the stories of slaughterhouse workers and by paying attention to what actually goes into the meats consumed in fast-food restaurants.

He found that slaughterhouse workers are mainly illiterate immigrants or poor Americans, who are paid substandard wages and who work in extremely dangerous conditions. While beef slaughterhouses in other parts of the world may process fifty cows an hour, in beef-addicted America the largest slaughterhouses process cows at speeds of up to four hundred an hour, and it is common for workers to suffer catastrophic injuries, often losing body parts.

More worrisome for consumers is the actual content of industrially processed meats. In recent years "mad cow disease" has drawn attention to a practice of the beef industry, which is also used by other meat industries. To fatten farm animals before slaughtering, they are fed growth hormones, and to provide extra protein for faster growth they are fed a mixture of grain and offal. In other words, the industry feeds its cows, pigs, sheep and chickens the remains of dead animals: not only other food animals, but also the remains of dogs and cats. Diseased proteins that cause "mad cow disease" are transmitted throughout a factory farm by this industrial feeding tactic.

But that is not the only problem with industrial meats. The fast-paced gutting of an animal causes its innards to be splattered about, and a certain amount of guts and faeces always ends up in the meat. In fact, there have been serious outbreaks of bacterial infections among consumers who have eaten fast food with a high faeces content. Most food laws actually allow a certain amount of faeces in meat, but the real amount, because of the fast slaughtering process, is often much higher, so the industry is promoting food-irradiation to kill off bacteria. But, as one of Schlosser’s informants says, "I don’t want to be served irradiated shit along with my meat." Perhaps the worst thing of all is that, while increasing awareness of such issues in America and Europe has forced the industry to raise its standards at home, it continues to ship infected meat-products to the rest of the world, where there are fewer regulations.

In chapter after chapter Schlosser unpacks the fast-food industry, and the picture that emerges is sickening. It is hard to believe that anyone who reads such a book will ever again go near any sort of fast-food restaurant. It is particularly appalling to imagine that, even though fast food is a contrivance of the weird West, it is popular in the rest of the world. Schlosser hopes that his book will contribute to global awareness of the dangers of fast food, and that future historians "will consider the American fast food industry a relic of the twentieth century – a set of attitudes, systems, and beliefs that emerged from postwar southern California, that embodied its limitless faith in technology, that quickly spread across the globe, flourished briefly, and then receded, once its true costs became clear and its thinking became obsolete."

Using consumer power to send political messages is certainly an important development in global politics, and it is no wonder that America wants to spread its own brand of democracy in the world at precisely the time that state politics are becoming impotent in the face of global corporate power. In the absence of power through state politics, the option of consumer activism remains open, and the recent protests against America’s military adventures testify to the appeal of this form of politics.

But books like this suggest that there are many reasons to exert political will against American power, only one of which is to send a message largely unrelated to the product being sold. Fast Food Nation shows that the "all-American meal" is not only unhealthy, but that it installs a complete corporate regime wherever it goes, including industrial methods of farming and insidious tactics of advertising. The boycotts and protests against the fast-food industry should rightly continue while waiting for the next American military adventure, not just on grounds of state politics and anti-war protest, but also for real and important cultural and health reasons.

This book should be essential reading for activists and consumers, and for anyone who is concerned about defying American hegemony while promoting wholesome living.

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