You already know that you’re eating high-saturated fats, sodium and sugar-filled foods at your favourite fast food restaurants. You know that, eaten regularly, these foods will make you obese, diabetic and lethargic. These foods will give you high cholesterol, a low-libido and make you depressed in an antioxidant, foliate, omega-3 deficient kind of way, not to mention the low self-worth kind of way. This is what you know.
What you might not know are the unexpected dangers to your health that fast food poses through meat processing machinations, governmental apathy, or unsanitary kitchen practices. This exposé, tracking your food from the meat packing industry to the glossy McDonald’s tabletop, should make you think twice before eating fast food.
The influence of the traditional family-owned farm is waning, according to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Instead, most meat comes from factories owned by multinational corporations. These factories hold hundreds of animals in extremely crowded conditions; the animals are then slaughtered, processed and packaged by way of a Fordian conveyor belt line. “Now our food is coming from enormous assembly lines where the animals and the workers are being abused,” says Schlosser in the documentary Food, Inc. “And the food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us.”
Cows, evolutionarily, are meant to feed on grass. Instead, they are fed corn in these factories, because it’s cheaper and easier to provide. This high corn diet results in E. coli in the cows, and because the cows spend the majority of their time wading in a pool of their own dung, any disease a single cow carries gets passed around to the whole group. In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser describes how some factories feed dead pigs, horses and chicken manure to cattle.
The E. coli stays in the intestines of cows as they’re slaughtered and can show up in the ground meat of a hamburger patty. A single burger patty can have traces of thousands of cattle, increasing the likelihood of infection. And because most North American meat is made by only a handful of companies, the chance of eating infected meat is ubiquitous. Canada usually sees a few thousand cases of E. coli O157:H7 each year, while the US sees about 73,000. The virus can cause severe abdominal cramps, nausea or bloody diarrhea, requiring hospitalization; it can even kill you.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration), responsible for food safety in the US, has seen massive budget cuts in the last year, and reports of it being underfunded over the past two decades are widespread. In 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections; in 2006, they conducted 9,164. With Canada importing over a hundred thousand tonnes of beef from the US each year, there is some cause to be worried.
The meat farmed, processed and shipped to your home town must pass through a fast food restaurant to get to you. Almost all fast food restaurants are franchises: small local businesses that agree to use the franchisor’s name and products in exchange for a cut of the profits.These businesses have to pass some standard of quality, but how the place is run is ultimately up to the local management. The safety standards between businesses can vary widely.
Check out this story, posted online in a forum discussing fast food horror stories, from an employee of a fast food pizza place:
Our ovens, and I assume every other store in this chain, are conveyor belt ovens. They don’t have anything to catch the pizzas if the person at the cut table forgets that there are pizzas in or gets too busy. So every so often you get to hear the wondrous sound of a pizza splating[sic] on to tile. What should happen after that is it goes in the trash, what really happens in most cases is the cut person scrapes, scoops, peels the pie of the floor, then goes over to the make line with it, replaces a majority of the toppings re-cheeses the worst bits cuts it boxes it, then tells the drivers to delay the delivery to the heat lamps can melt the cheese. If you ever get a pizza and the cheese looks a little red, you have yourself a floor pizza.
The ceiling tile pizza occurs with less frequency but when it happens it is amusing to watch. We have a huge spatula/floor scrape to take the pizzas off the belt. The thing is, this thing makes an amazing catapult. Things get really slow in the store, people will start to goof off. Things get a little out of hand and then splat! there’s a pizza on the ceiling.
Or this, from another commenter:
I was working on a Saturday once, and decided to go to McDonald’s for lunch. Since I was working for Orkin Pest Control, I went into the bathroom first to wash my hands, and there was another guy standing at the sink washing his hands. In the middle stall was some guy in there “bringing in the sheeves”! He was moaning and groaning, afterwards you heard “splashdown”! He flushes the toilet, opens the stall and leaves the bathroom without washing his hand. Problem? He’s wearing a McDonald’s uniform! The other guy yells out, “What the f*ck?!” So I tell him to hold on and see where he goes. We followed him outside and he rings the buzzer to be let back on the food line, he immediately starts handling the buns without gloves. That’s when we told the manager. The people in line started cancelling their orders, and the manager offered us meals on the house, but we declined.
Countless other fast food horror stories exist. In 2010, MSNBC’s Dateline did a national survey of fast food restaurants, counting the number of “critical violations” (which could be anything from employees not washing their hands to undercooked meat to rodent droppings) that they could find. Taco Bell had the least, with 91 critical violations per 100 restaurants. Burger King had the most, with 241. Other popular restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s, fell somewhere in the middle.
The bottom line is that a little caution can’t hurt when visiting your favourite fast food restaurant. Have a little peek at the kitchens. Make sure your servers are wearing proper sanitary equipment. Report any violations you see to the manager. You paid for it, you deserve a safe meal.
Better yet, Food, Inc. suggests buying your food directly from farmer’s markets, avoiding the corporate factory farm shenanigans entirely. A face-to-face relationship with your meat producer fosters accountability and trustworthiness. A farmer’s market can offer cooked food that’s even better tasting than the stuff you get from McDonald’s, and a greater peace of mind to go with it.