Book review: Fast Food

Fast Food: The Good, The Bad & The Hungry

    by Andrew F. Smith, Reaktion Books, 2016, 224pp; paperback, £9-95.

In 2001, a detailed and shocking expose of the junk food business in the USA became a surprise bestseller. Within a few years of being published, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation sold over 1.5 million copies. It has been translated into 15 languages, and a cinema documentary (same title as the book) was released in 2006. However, despite the popularity and influence of Fast Food Nation nothing much has changed in the last 15 years. In fact, the growth and global impact of the junk food business has expanded into almost every corner of the planet. It is now estimated that there are one million fast food outlets across the world, and these locations include numerous hospitals in the UK and the USA. The American author of this new book states: “The single most influential culinary trend of our time is fast food. It has changed eating, and created a model that works everywhere.”

The history and extraordinary expansion of fast food across the planet is fascinating and appalling, but Smith states: “the main purpose of this book is to examine controversies related to the fast food industry”. And there is no shortage of controversies; the poor nutritional quality of all the burgers, nuggets and fries; the disastrous consequences for human health; the explicit and dedicated marketing to children; the massive environmental damage; the exploited workers; and the slaughter of billions of animals. There are numerous facts and figures, but Fast Food is much more than just a compilation of disturbing statistics. Despite the overwhelmingly depressing subject matter, the book is a really good read and it’s only in the penultimate chapter on ‘Labour’ that the catalogue of low pay and bad working conditions becomes slightly repetitive. Nonetheless, persistent anti-union activity and poor wages are a major reason for fast food’s financial success.

In school talks I’ve frequently quoted statistics from Fast Food Nation, including the claim that a single burger is a concoction of pieces of meat from over 100 different carcasses. That’s clearly out of date as Smith reveals: “Today, a fast food burger may contain meat from 1,000 cows that have been raised in five different countries.” This greatly increases the risk of nasty bacterial infections. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that contaminated meat causes “70% of all food borne illnesses in the USA”. Fast Food also highlights other dodgy practices including antibiotic-laced animal feed. About 70% of the total antibiotics now used in the USA are given to pigs, chickens and cattle. This is done routinely (in the absence of any disease) because the antibiotics act as a growth promoter. Other dubious cost cutting procedures can really hit the headlines, and ‘go viral’ via the internet. Officially referred to as LFTB (lean, finely textured beef) but better known as ‘pink slime’, ‘trimmings’ are liquefied to produce a cheap ingredient that can be added to hamburgers without infringing the claim that they are “100% beef”. By 2009, 70% of all ground beef in the USA contained ‘pink slime’. In April 2011 Jamie Oliver exposed ‘pink slime’ in an edition of his American TV series Food Revolution (he actually referred to it as “shit”, although the word was bleeped out). By January 2012 all the burger chains had quietly stopped using the product, but despite all the media uproar and extensive internet coverage fast food sales didn’t suffer.

The junk food/fast food industry comes across as an unstoppable global monster that gobbles up precious resources, creates environmental havoc and spreads unhealthy lifestyles. In 2014, 79% of all US restaurant sales occurred in fast food chains. In the UK 90% of parents take their kids to burger outlets. McDonalds UK alone serves more than 2 million customers daily. Regular UK consumers of fast food spend around 34% of their total food budget on fast food (including all types of takeaway). Even in France, supposedly a bastion of fine dining, it is reported that in 2013 fast food accounted for 54% of total restaurant sales. None of this could have happened without the complicity of the customers. The power and influence of marketing and advertising via the fast food industry is staggering, and highlights the uncomfortable fact that those who spend the most money will easily win the battle for hearts and minds. In 2010, US junk food chains spent $580 million in global marketing to children under 12, producing sales of 1.2 billion childrens’ meals in the US alone. Hardly surprising that 25% of the total vegetables consumed by American children are French fries (chips). A 2013 study concluded that 69% of fast food ads aimed at children mentioned toy give-aways. It’s a genuinely startling fact (within a book that contains many) that at 1.2 billion toys annually, McDonalds is the largest distributor of toys in the world.

Fast Food is highly recommended, a timely reminder of exactly what’s happening in this pernicious industry. The only drawback is that consumers of fast food are unlikely to read this excellent book.

Paul Freestone



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