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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarian Reading

Vegetarian Books

Each issue the VIP birds will endeavor to soar to the highest literary peak to peck out the most unique, informative, and accomplished book that contributes to vegetarian enlightenment. In this issue we review a book that makes readers conscious of the impact their food choices have on personal health and the well-being of the planet.

Fast Food Nation:

The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

By Eric Schlosser

Houghton Mifflin, 2001


At the beginning of the 20th Century Upton Sinclair's The Jungle shocked the American public with its description of the unsafe conditions in the Chicago packinghouses. Although it was a work of fiction, the book published in 1906 vividly described cattle being hammered to death, slaughtered, and butchered by skilled workers.

Sinclair emphasized the intolerable working conditions with workers receiving cuts, back and shoulder injuries, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and even amputations. In one section the author describes a man tumbling into a vat and being ground up and turned into lard. President Theodore Roosevelt read the book and ordered an investigation that reported that, indeed, the conditions in the packinghouses were as described in The Jungle.

The book described a number of practices that occurred routinely in the meat packing plants. Rats were shoveled into meat carts. Diseased animals were routinely slaughtered. Chemicals like borax and glycerine were used to disguise the smell of spoiled meat. Canned meats were mislabeled. Workers urinated and defecated on the floors of the plants.

Fast Food Nation When Roosevelt led the battle for legislation to require mandatory inspection of meat, accurate labeling of canned meat, and a regulatory system that would require the meat packers to pay the costs, he was strongly opposed and attacked by the industry that tried to convince the public nothing was wrong. The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 was a watered down version of the President's requests.

In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser states that conditions have not improved much in the last 100 years. The same industry still denies there are problems in the meat supply. The companies do not take any responsibility for food poisoning or worker safety and fair wages. They vigorously oppose federal regulation that might require microbial testing as an element of meat inspection because inspection might reduce their profits. Schlosser cites numerous instances where the government has cut back on spending in regulation and has appointed people who are more sympathetic to the meat industry than to public health concerns.

Although the book relates the problems in meatpacking facilities, a considerable portion of the volume is devoted to the fast food industry. As the author points out, the fast food industry is dependent on the meat industry for billions of hamburgers. His principal purpose in writing the book is his "belief that people should know what lies behind the shiny, happy surface of every fast food transaction."

In this volume that took two years to research, Schlosser traces the history of chains like Carl's and McDonald's and shows their vast influence on American culture and eventually foreign cultures around the world. He details how this industry has grown by targeting advertising and promotions toward children. Even schools have been lured into this fast food web by money to allow the fast foods on school campuses.

McDonald's receives the greatest attention because it has become a dominant factor in the industry and in our culture. The company is the "nation's largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes - and the second largest purchaser of chicken." Quite surprising to read is that one in eight workers in the United States was employed by McDonald's at one time.

Company restaurants totaled 28,000 around the world and 2000 new ones opening each year. McDonald's is the largest owner of retail property in the world and receives more income from rent than food. It is the largest distributor of toys in the country and operates more playgrounds than any other private concern. Kids seem to know Ronald McDonald almost as well as they know Santa Claus.

In order to operate this vast network, the company along with other chains must hold labor costs down. Fast food chains have resisted unionization because this will increase costs. They have even resorted to closing a location where unions have tried to organize workers and then opening another non-union facility in the same neighborhood.

The chains have also turned to chemical companies for flavor enhancers to make the products taste good. Most processed food would have little flavor because the processing destroys the flavor. The natural and artificial flavors must be added to please the public palate. Schlosser gives an example of one artificial flavor that has over 50 ingredients, mostly chemicals.

He points out there is little difference between natural and artificial flavors. Both sometimes contain the same chemicals that are produced in different ways. The natural flavor is not necessarily healthier than the artificial one. Vegetarians, to their dismay, also discovered that natural flavors could mean beef flavor that was utilized in processing French fries.

The most disturbing section of the book discusses foodborne pathogens found in meat: E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfingens. Any of them could cause food poisoning resulting in hospitalization or death.

"The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on," he writes. "Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat."

He describes incidents like the Jack-in-the Box fiasco in 1993 when over 700 people were made ill, over 200 hospitalized, and four died after eating hamburgers tainted with E coli 0157:H7. In the eight years since then he reports a half-million more cases, most of them children. Thousands have been hospitalized and hundreds have died.

Learning from the experience that almost put Jack-in-the Box out of business, the company has taken steps to ensure the safety of their meat. It is both shocking and disappointing that fast food industry standards for meat are higher today than those of the USDA for the school lunch program. Children in the schools are receiving meat that would not be acceptable at Jack-in-the Box or McDonald's.

Many vegetarians are aware of the McLibel case in England where McDonald's sued London Greenpeace activists for their leaflets describing McGarbage, McMurder, and McProfits. The case is in its eleventh year and has proved embarrassing to the company because it has revealed the embarrassing labor, food safety, and advertising practices of the company.

Fast Food Nation may turn out to be one of this century's most important books. The author clearly shows in this well-researched and documented work that the meat industry and the fast food chains have a total disregard for animals, workers, and the public. Sadly, the public has not been infomed and aroused enough to demand reforms. The meat purveyors have managed to buy many friends in a government that allows them to continue their unsanitary and unsafe practices.

Although Schlosser is going over similar grounds that were previously covered in John Robbins' Diet for a New America and Howard Lyman's Mad Cowboy, he is bringing this information to a segment of the public that may not have read these other works. In addition, he focuses on fast food franchises, efforts to obtain cheap labor, government subsidies to the meat industry, standardization of products in the fast food industry, and effects of the fast food industry on communities across America and around the world.

The greatest surprise was hearing Schlosser on a radio talk show promoting his book. He was asked if the information he uncovered prompted him to become a vegetarian. Although he was disturbed by what he saw, it was not enough to make him give up meat. Hopefully, his readers will be so disturbed by his findings, they could not follow his example.

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