On any given day, about a quarter of Americans scarf down burgers, fries, and sodas, the staples of the all-American fast food fix.
Residents of the United States spend more on fast food a year than they do movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and records combined. Americans shelled out more than $110 billion on burgers, fried chicken, and the like in 2000, compared with $6 billion in 1970.
That obsession with fast food is harming adults and children alike, said Eric Schlosser, a journalist who wrote
Fast Food Nation, subtitled The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.
The best seller, just out in paperback, contends that fast food has changed the way Americans eat, and is partly to blame for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and deaths from E-coli bacteria. Its author proposes that people essentially boycott fast food until restaurants start preparing healthier food.
"People should know what they're eating, and how it's made; they should spend their money at places that make food well," Schlosser told Good Morning America. "Nobody is forcing people to eat this stuff, and fast food places will change when customers demand changes."
Even if 2 percent to 3 percent of customers complained, it would make a big drop in sales, Schlossberg said. The fast food companies aren't out to harm us. But what is good for them in the short run, is not good for us in the long run.
When Fast Food Nation first came out, McDonald's gave this response:
"His [Schlosser's] opinion is outvoted 45 million to 1 every single day, because that's how many customers around the world choose to come to McDonald's for our menu of variety, value and quality," the statement said.
Healthy, Happy Meals?
U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a "call to action" in mid-December, saying some 300,000 deaths a year are related to obesity, and calling for the removal of fast-food from schools.
"Fast food is really moving into schools, which is horrible, because eating habits are formed when you're young, so if you get fat then, you've started a lifelong battle," Schlosser said.
Fast food isn't the only cause of obesity, but Schlosser says it is one of the factors that is making the United States the fattest country in the world, with huge costs in health care and mortality that go along with it. The typical can of soda contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar.
"Fast food places lure in the kids with toys and movie tie-ins," Schlosser said. "Parents have to be much more conscious of what their kids are eating. The first responsibility is for the parents, and then for the industry to alter their recipes. There's no reason they can't make a happy meal that's healthy."
He contends that unless the food is made healthy, fast-food chains should not be allowed to spend millions advertising fatty, unsafe food for children.
Factory Conditions Unsafe
Though he used to enjoy fast food hamburgers and fries as much as anyone, Schlosser said he doesn't go to fast food joints anymore, because of what he has learned about the ground meat especially.
One of the problems with fast food is that it has created a "centralized, industrialized food system, which is very vulnerable to spreading pathogens," he said. Each day in the United States, about 200,000 people are sickened by food borne pathogens (often found in ground beef). Of those who get sick, 900 are hospitalized, and 14 die annually.
Meat infected with E. coli and other pathogens are distributed far and wide because of industrialized production and inadequate government oversight, Schlosser said. Today's food-processing methods, where parts of many animals go into one burger, may only increase the odds of infection.
Schlosser cites a 1996 Agriculture Department study that found 78.6 percent of ground beef samples from processing plants around the country contained microbes that are spread primarily by fecal material.
Another problem is that fast foodchains tend to hire unskilled immigrant laborers who end up working in unsafe conditions, but do not know to ask for improvements. The high demand from fast-food companies for meat has led injury rates in slaughterhouses to be three times higher than those in typical factories, Schlosser said.
With his own kids, Schlosser takes his cue from Nancy Reagan's advice about drugs: "Just Say No." His children, who are 9 and 11, have stopped begging for fast food.