Updated: Mar 20
Not long ago, a 6th grade student was reading a book
in class whenever he had the opportunity (or could steal one!).
Periodically, he would bring the book over to my desk and ask me to read a passage. He was reading an expose about the fast food industry, and my interest was piqued. I told him I'd like to read the book, too, and he said he'd give it to me when he was finished.
A few days later, as he handed me the book, he declared, "I'm never eating fast food again!" Now I was really intrigued. I sat down that weekend to read, and truly could not put the book down, all the while feeling the disgust and loathing for this industry building inside me.
Initially, as I read, I was fascinated by the history of fast food in America, from its humble beginnings of 15-year-old Hamburger Charlie trying to find a way to sell his meatballs at the fair without needing to provide utensils and a plate with them. (He squashed them between two slices of bread so that people could walk and eat.) Unfortunately for Charlie, his idea did not immediately take off in other venues, because it was discovered that murderers were using hamburger as a way to hide poison to feed to their victims. From this less-than-promising beginning eventually rose the hamburger fast-food industry that was, as you might have guessed, begun by the McDonald brothers in California in the 1930's.
A lover of history, I read and read, late into the night, discovering every little nuance to the advent of restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, and KFC. Then, my disgust meter began to rise, along with my indignation. I discovered why fast food is so addicting, a sentence I had heard for years but had rarely put any merit in, figuring that, of course it's addicting. Eating is addicting, if you consider that we feel we must do it at regular intervals in order to live. But then, I realized the difference between addiction and merely eating, and that the fast food industry regularly injects flavorings that are designed to appeal to the part of the brain that says "Must Have More". These flavorings are manufactured in New Jersey, using techniques that McDonald's and other restaurant chains have spent billions perfecting. This fueled my indignation. But what fueled my disgust was something else.
I had read The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, in high school, but had long since set aside the appalling reality of the meat-slaughtering industry in the early 1900's. This book brought that back in sinister seriosity. (Yes, I like coining words,)
We know that the cattle slaughterhouses leave much to be desired in how they humanely address the notion of leading cattle to their deaths, but I hadn't even considered how chicken slaughterhouses might work. (It's horrendous, by the way.) Or the act of raising the chickens to an adult-enough age to even be slaughtered. (It's about 18 days right now.)
My daughter had given me some information about the prevalence of growth hormones in the food-growing industry, but I hadn't thought much about the significance of that until I read in this book about the hormone given to chickens that makes their breasts grow at a dangerous and ridiculous rate, ensuring that each bird will produce a huge amount of meat for processing. Many birds drop dead of a heart attack due to the fat that clogs their arteries. Such birds are prey to cannibalism in the chicken houses, as the chickens are crammed so tightly together that many cannot reach the food trays that are provided in their indoor, airless environment.
All this does not even address the lack of fair-trade practices involved in raising these birds, most of which happens in the rural south, where trade unions are largely impotent, if they exist at all.
Finally, the concept of what all this fast food does to the American public, particularly teenagers and children, is appalling. Obesity is not just on the rise in this demographic, it has overtaken it with a vengeance that leaves its victims wondering why their world is a nightmare cycle of eating something that makes them feel good and then hating themselves for it afterward, only to be back in line for more tomorrow. As a teacher, I address the idea of unsavory persuasion tactics in the world of advertising. I can see that redoubling my efforts would not be out of place here.
If you'd like to know what's really going on in our food industry (and it is apparent that the practices do not stop at the door of the fast food restaurant), Chew on This is a must-read. Prepare to be revolted.