www.thedailybeast.com - March 12th, 2012
Ten years after his seminal book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser reflects on how little has changed in the production, safety, and consumption in America—but why he’s still hopeful.
More than a decade has passed since Fast Food Nation was published, and I’d love to report that the book is out of date, that the many problems it describes have been solved, and that the Golden Arches are now the symbol of a fallen empire, like the pyramids at Giza. Sadly, that is not the case. Every day about 65 million people eat at a McDonald’s restaurant somewhere in the world, more than ever before. The annual revenues of America’s fast-food industry, adjusted for inflation, have risen by about 20 percent since 2001. The number of fast-food ads aimed at American children has greatly increased as well. The typical preschooler now sees about three fast-food ads on television every day. The typical teenager sees about five. The endless barrage of ads, toys, contests, and marketing gimmicks has fueled not only fast-food sales, but also a wide range of diet-related illnesses. About two thirds of the adults in the United States are obese or overweight. The obesity rate among preschoolers has doubled in the past 30 years. The rate among children aged 6 to 11 has tripled. And by some odd coincidence, the annual cost of the nation’s obesity epidemic—about $168 billion, as calculated by researchers at Emory University—is the same as the amount of money Americans spent on fast food in 2011.
Throughout both terms of President George W. Bush’s administration, every effort to reform the nation’s food-safety system was blocked by the White House and by Republicans in Congress. During the summer of 2002, ground beef from the ConAgra slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colo., was linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. The outbreak killed one person and sickened at least 46.
ConAgra voluntarily recalled almost 19 million pounds of potentially contaminated meat, less than a month’s worth of production at Greeley. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General subsequently found that the plant had been shipping beef tainted with E. coli O157:H7 for nearly two years. The Greeley recall later seemed minuscule compared to that of the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. In 2008 Westland/Hallmark agreed to recall 143 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef after an undercover video showed downer cows being dragged by forklift into a slaughterhouse. More than one fourth of the recalled meat had been purchased to make tacos, chili, and hamburgers for federal school-lunch and nutrition programs. As of this writing, the USDA still lacks the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens, to set enforceable limits on those pathogens, and to demand the recall of contaminated meat.