Fast food: all-American meal or scary cuisine?

by Karla Kingsley | 5/14/02 5:00am

Accusations of unsafe and exploitative practices by the fast food industry contained in Eric Schlosser's book, "Fast Food Nation," were the subject of a fiery debate yesterday between its author, food-safety and business experts and industry representives.

In the book -- which has been compared to Upton Sinclar's "The Jungle" -- Schlosser presents research suggesting that the meatpacking and fast food industries exploit workers, provide unsafe food and market unhealthy products to children.

Members of the audience reacted audibly to statistics indicating that Americans spent $110 billion on fast food last year and that the typical American eats three hamburgers and four orders of fries each week.

According to Schlosser, however, more appalling is that obese children are dying from heart attacks.

The products that fast food companies "are heavily marketing to children are high fat, high sugar and high sodium," he said. Schlosser condemned the extent to which advertising is aimed at children, giving the examples of fast food in schools, partnerships with popular movies and TV commercials shown during children's programs.

New York University Professor Marion Nestle also commented on the marketing practices of the fast food industry, saying that food companies only look to sell and profit by creating consumer demand.

National Restaurant Association spokesperson Steven Grover disputed Nestle's claim, saying, "The driving force behind food is you right there. It is customers."

According to Grover, consumers control the choices on "quick service" menus. "People vote with their wallet," he said, adding that it was unfair to "put an evil face" on the food industry.

Panelists also addressed the issue of food poisoning. According to Schlosser's statistics, one in four Americans suffers from food poisoning each year. He cited practices in the beef industry that he said cause one in four cows to be infected with dangerous bacteria.

Schlosser described feedlots containing thousands of cattle standing in their own manure, suggesting that meat could easily get contaminated in the meatpacking plants.

Schlosser said that currently, the federal government does not have the authority to mandate a recall of contaminated food and called for this law to be change "Meatpacking has managed to escape government in ways other industries haven't," he said.

Grover objected, saying that the food industry's successes stem from scientific research and attention to safety. "It is hard tedious work," he stated. "We are using science, working with the industry to get a safer product."

Currently, contaminated meat can be made safe by sufficient cooking or irradiation. Both Nestle and Iowa State University Dean Catherine Woteki agreed that irradiation provided a useful option, but lacked public acceptance and did not provide the only answer.

Schlosser also raised complaints about worker safety and compensation in both the meatpacking and food service industries. He claimed that the meatpacking industry provided the most dangerous workplace for employees.

He met opposition from business professor John Shank, who said the forestry industry experiences a higher mortality rate.

Schlosser didn't skip a beat in replying that his definition of dangerous was not contingent on the number of deaths, but the number of work related injuries, and told Shank, "You read the book but maybe you should have read the notes in the back. The type is very small but ..." he trailed off.

Grover, when asked to respond to the statement that McDonalds was a bad place to work, emphatically disagreed. "The bottom line is that they are good, safe places to work," he said, referencing the worker training, and noting that the quick service restaurants provide jobs for people that would not otherwise be able to work.