Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Talking Point: Forum
Front Page 
World 
UK 
UK Politics 
Business 
Sci/Tech 
Health 
Education 
Entertainment 
Talking Point 
Forum 
In Depth 
AudioVideo 

Tuesday, 24 April, 2001, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
The author of Fast Food Nation quizzed

Fast food is a worldwide phenomenon. The golden arches of McDonald's are now more widely recognised than the Christian cross.

For taste and convenience fast food cannot be beaten - but at what price?

American author Eric Schlosser investigated the industry for his book "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal". The experience changed his views on fast food.

"My favourite meal used to be a cheeseburger with fries", he says. "But I don't eat ground beef any more and I don't take my kids to fast food restaurants."

Why? What is so bad about your average burger? What's wrong with fries, if they taste so good? What long-term effect is the industrialisation of food having on our health?

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

  56k  


Transcript:


Newshost:

First of all, what is the all-American meal doing to the world?


Eric Schlosser:

It is changing what people eat, it is changing how their food is produced and it is making a lot of people a lot bigger than they were before.


Angie, Riyadh, Saudia Arabia:

What made you investigate this issue?


Eric Schlosser:

It started as an assignment from the Rolling Stone magazine. I have eaten fast food all of my life and the assignment was to look behind the counter and see how this food is produced and the big system behind it. I didn't set out to do a big expose of the industry but the more I learned the more disturbing I found some of the information.


Newshost:

It is very disturbing reading your book. Presumably you have been turned off the fast-food industry completely?


Eric Schlosser:

I am not a vegetarian but I don't go to fast food restaurants anymore because I am angry at a lot of the business practices I have discovered there.


Newshost:

Now for people who haven't read the book, can you just sum up what you found?


Eric Schlosser:

The industry began innocently enough in the 1950s. It was started by all these individualists and mavericks but as it got bigger, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, it became a little more ominous. It has pioneered industrial agriculture in the US and really changing how livestock are raised and how our food is produced.

The industry has also had an enormous impact in the States on how our labour is organised or not organised and really pushing for a low-wage, high turnover, unskilled workforce that many other industries and many other companies are now imitating.


Newshost:

You say that 90% of what Americans spend on food goes on processed food so they have bought into this idea completely.


Eric Schlosser:

That is right. Fast-food is some of the most heavily processed food on the planet. When you go to a fast food kitchen you see that just about all the food that arrives there is already frozen, freeze-dried or powdered. Because they don't want to have skilled workers in the kitchen, the food is essentially being reheated or having water added to it to make it look like food that you would normally eat.


Robert del Valle, Royal Oak, USA:

The Surgeon General recently described the youth of America as being "the most obese generation in history". Do you concur and how much blame should be laid at the feet of America's fast food industry?


Eric Schlosser:

I do agree. It is absolutely tragic and it is going to have huge health implications for these kids. The obesity rate in the United States among children has doubled in the last 20 years and that is really as fast food consumption has increased.

If you look world wide, as the fast food consumption increases in other countries, so does the obesity rate among children. It is not the only cause of obesity, but it is definitely one of the causes. These companies heavily market their food to children and the food they are marketing to children is very high in fat, sugar and salt. In the United States we are seeing children aged 6 to 10 years-old having heart attacks because of obesity and an incredible rise in diabetes among children. So there is no question that there is a connection between this fast food and obesity among children.


Newshost:

Could you just remind us of the key target age range of children who are eating this fast food?


Eric Schlosser:

Openly these children are being targeted as early as the age of three. The "happy meals" are really directed at children aged 3 to 9 years-old. But there are children younger than that who are eating fast food. Certainly the soda manufacturers in the US are working very hard to get elementary school children aged 6 and 7 years old to be consuming soda.

What is so dangerous about this is that your eating habits are formed at a very, very early age and as you get older you can resist them and change your diet or you can give into them but in any event they are going to be there very deeply embedded. So this is a problem with toddlers in the States - market research has found that some toddlers can recognise brand logos before they can recognise their own names.


Newshost:

We have an obesity rate in the UK which is second only to the United States so the problem in the US is well and truly here as well.


Eric Schlosser:

When you look in Europe, the British eat more fast foods than any other nation in Europe and the obesity rate is about the highest in Europe - again it is not a simple cause and effect. If you look at obesity as a disease epidemic, there are a number of factors but fast food consumption, unfortunately, is one of them.


Pete Kelly, Oxford

What do you think are the worst or most harmful contaminants, natural or synthetic, which are getting into fast food? And what do you think are the worst abuses of animals in food production?


Eric Schlosser:

Probably the worst contaminant that is natural, is manure. When you look at outbreaks of E.coli it is because there is faecal contamination of the meat - and ground beef in particular because of how ground beef is being made in these huge meat grinders that put out almost one million pounds of ground beef a day. So that is the most concerning - the faecal material in the meat.

In terms of the livestock, the new intensive and industrial livestock rearing practices really are inhumane to the animals. The poultry are crammed into these chicken houses where they never see sunlight for their entire lives. They hatch in these chicken houses and they are only outdoors on their way to slaughter - so these practices are terribly inhumane.

But, as you get to the more advanced animals that are more sentient and that have a more complex personality - the way that cattle have been raised in the US, in these enormous feed-lots, in some ways that is the most inhumane. There are up to 100,000 cattle penned into these feed-lots and they are essentially living in their own filth and manure. So I think there needs to be a fundamental re-examination of these practices - and again I would say, I am not a vegetarian - and how animals are being treated in order to serve these fast food chains.


Newshost:

You talk in your book about terrible conditions in slaughterhouses and as you say you are talking about the United States. Is there a danger that some of the practices in the United States could find themselves happening over here in Europe?


Eric Schlosser:

Unquestionably and certainly in terms of how the livestock are being reared. The American system of intensive industrial agriculture has been brought over here both in how poultry are being raised and on the pig farms here - in Italy, they are bringing over feed-lots that are similar to American feed-lots.

One of the main points of the book, is that the price of this food on the menu does not reflect its real cost. So in America, what is happening is that the fast food chains and the meat packing companies are able to impose many of their costs on the rest of society that isn't reflected in the cheap food. Those costs include the high rate of food poisonings - about 76 million Americans get food poisoning every year. The injuries of the meat packing workers whose medical costs are then being picked up by the community and their welfare costs when they are injured and can't work anymore.

So this food is cheap in the most narrow measure but when you look at all the other costs - and we haven't even talked about some of the environmental implications of this industrial agriculture - the food really isn't as inexpensive as it seems.


Newshost:

You talk about E.coli and E.coli getting into the meat and the number of Americans who die from this everyday - you say 14 people die from E.coli every single day. Can you tell us a little more about how serious a problem this has become and how it is being dealt with?


Eric Schlosser:

In the States from the bad E.coli - there are a number of different strains of which E.coli 0157:H7 is the most prevalent - about 100,000 Americans are being infected with it every year. Not all of that is coming from fast food and not all of that is coming even from ground beef but ground beef has been found to be the leading carrier of this pathogen. It is a real problem that is tied to this form of industrial agriculture and as Europe adopts these practices these kinds of pathogens will become more prevalent in Europe.

It is not just E.coli - the way that ground beef is being produced today means that all other kinds of bugs can enter the system and be spread far and wide before people even realise that these outbreaks are occurring.


Newshost:

Now you say that you are not a vegetarian, having read your book, I found it very difficult to eat my supper last night!


Eric Schlosser:

I have been into the slaughterhouses, I have been into the feed-lots and the processing plants and it made me very angry at how the animals are being treated often and about how the system is being run - in terms of how the workers are being hurt and the quality of the some of the products being shipped. But at the same time I have friends who are farmers and who are quite ethical and who care very deeply about the land and about their animals. So whereas I am not a vegetarian, I really try to buy meat that has been produced by people who are doing things the right way. I think it is important that people spend their dollars, their pounds or whatever the currency is, supporting people who are behaving ethically.


Newshost:

So you are making a clear distinction between those slaughterhouses and those processes for fast food and slaughterhouses used for other types of meat?


Eric Schlosser:

Yes. A lot of the meat that is in the big supermarkets is being produced through the same system. So you really have to look at where your meat is coming from.

The main point of the book is not to preach at anyone - some people could read the book and become vegetarian or some people could read it and continue eating fast food but it is really important to know where your food is coming from and how it is being produced and to support the people who are doing things the right way.


Julie Narey, Leeds, UK

I know kids don't generally like salads or other healthy foods, but fast food places don't help in encouraging them to like it. What's the problem in providing other, healthier options (alongside the fries and burgers), such as jacket potatoes and salads?


Eric Schlosser:

One of the problems is the fast food places have created a problem for themselves in a sense that they have spent decades now and billions and billions of dollars producing certain food preferences. By targeting children at a very early age by selling them hamburgers and fries and fried chicken, it is very hard overnight to change the food preferences that they have done such a good job at creating.

Having said that, right now they are really competing with one another by offering larger and larger portions of this food and that is very harmful. If a grown-adult wants to get a triple cheeseburger and super-sized fries that is one thing but I am really alarmed by the way that these companies are now offering larger and larger portions in their children's meals and that has all kinds of potential health consequences. Given the food technology that we have today, there is no reason that they couldn't be serving much healthier food especially in their children's meals. I have small kids and I know that the toy that comes with the meal is often more important than what the food actually is. They can be selling food for children that doesn't derive as many of its calories from fat as the current menu items do.


Newshost:

There are a number of details in your book that people would find quite worrying - for example, chicken nuggets are not what they seem, you say that they contain beef extract.


Eric Schlosser:

It is not just that they contain beef extracts but that they have more fat per ounce than hamburgers. Many parents will get the chicken nuggets because it is chicken and because they think it is healthier when it is actually higher in fat. It would not require an enormous expenditure of research to produce a chicken dish that just doesn't have as much fat as this fried chicken and I think children would eat it and it simply doesn't have to have as much fat as these dishes do.


Jim Campbell, Ireland:

I have heard that a common practice among many fast food outlets is to include a type of glucose in ground beef that actually stimulates hunger. So even after eating a Big Mac and large fries the consumer can sometimes still feel hungry (and purchase more food) despite having eaten a substantial amount of food. Is this true or just another "urban myth"?


Eric Schlosser:

I think it may be an urban myth. When you at the major fast food chains, their beef is pure beef and my concern is where those cattle have been and how they have been raised and slaughtered rather than any additive in the beef.

The fact is that human beings instinctively crave fat, sugar and salt and these companies are deliberately calibrating these ingredients so that you will crave them and after you eat them that you will want them even more.


Newshost:

You talk quite extensively in your book about additives and artificial flavours. A lot of what we eat tastes of these artificial flavours which come out of a bottle as you outlined in your book.


Eric Schlosser:

I mentioned earlier about how fast food is some of the most heavily processed food on the planet. When you process food - when you freeze it or freeze-dry or powder it - you destroy much of its flavour. Flavour is a very fragile thing, it is almost like the smell of a rose - flavour is primarily smell - so the volatile chemicals are destroyed in the processing of these foods. In the US and throughout the world, there is a flavour industry that creates chemical additives that when you chew the food or when you drink it, it releases these smells that make you think that you are eating the food that you are eating - powerful aromas are released. There is not necessarily anything dangerous about it but to me it was fascinating to explore and it is also symbolic of how different this food is from what you think it is and how it is really much more like a manufactured commodity than it is something you would make in your kitchen.


Newshost:

You talk about artificial flavour and natural flavour and anyone buying a product who saw natural flavour might believe it was natural.


Eric Schlosser:

People prefer to see natural flavour on the label as opposed to artificial flavour. But once I investigated it further, the distinction seemed rather arbitrary. These flavours are all being manufactured in big speciality chemical plants. In the United States many of them are off the New Jersey Turnpike which is an industrial area you would not associate with the foods that you eat. It really has to do with the process by which these chemicals are derived rather than the fact that they are coming from these green fields - they are coming from the same factories.


Newshost:

You say that the same factories will be producing the flavours for fast food as produce the smell for furniture polish or perfume.


Eric Schlosser:

The same factory that I visited produced the flavour for fast food, of some very well known health foods, pet foods and the flavour of your toothpaste. The basic chemistry is the same for all of them. They could make the pages of my book taste delicious simply by adding these flavour chemicals. Essentially, there are these chemical additives that can make these foods taste like whatever they want them to taste like. They carefully calibrate these flavours and they are very carefully studying them to see how many people like them, how much they like them and what will get the biggest response from their customers.


Newshost:

So we are really eating flavours out of a bottle - but should we be worried about it?


Eric Schlosser:

In the grand list of things to be afraid of, these chemical additives are not necessarily dangerous to your health. What I think people should be concerned about is how much food has changed in a very brief period of time without anybody realising it. So that this food looks the same but the whole system that produced it is fundamentally different. The flavour additives are important again as a symbol of this highly industrialised food system. The much more worrying aspects would be the food-borne illness or the way in which agriculture has been changed so that ranchers and farmers are really being driven off the land and that is all part of the system. The flavour part is just fascinating and slightly unsettling but not dangerous.


Peggy Wong, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:

How bad/good is McDonalds kind of fast food compared to conventional take-away like fish & chips, full English breakfast and even Indian and Chinese takeaway?


Eric Schlosser:

If you are having a very large serving of fish and chips it is probably not that different from having a large serving of hamburger and fries.

In the United States, one thing the fast food chains have really been responsible for is increasing the portion sizes of the food. Because they have driven the price of commodities so low, the burgers and fries are huge now because it only costs them a few more pennies for the food. It is not just what you are eating and what is the fat level but how much of it are you eating. The obesity epidemic in the US is extraordinary and there are huge costs and a lot of it is caused by the size of the portions.


Sophie, London, UK:

Do you believe that the UK's current foot-and-mouth crisis is due to commercial methods of farming?


Eric Schlosser:

Foot-and-mouth disease has been around for generations so you can't simply blame this foot-and-mouth outbreak on new intensive industrialised agriculture. But if you look at how quickly it has spread and you look at the extent of this outbreak, there is no question in my mind that the new industrialised system that relies on centralised slaughtering facilities and in the UK this involves the transport of animals over long distances - this facilitated the spread of the disease. The Mad Cow epidemic also is very closely linked to industrialised agriculture.

In the United States we were doing the same practices for years and so we were very fortunate that it didn't happen in the United States. I am afraid that there will be more outbreaks of pathogens that we have never even heard of because of this system. Hopefully what will come from this foot-and-mouth outbreak and BSE in the UK is a fundamental re-examination of this system and its potential for causing harm on a large scale.


Newshost:

Do you think anything will change?


Eric Schlosser:

I do, I really do. I may be overly optimistic but if the sight of funeral pyres of tens of thousands of animals isn't going to force a re-examination of how produce our food - what will? I think in the UK and across Europe it has opened people's eyes to how their food is being produced and some of the implications. I think changes will come.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
BBC RADIO NEWS
BBC ONE TV NEWS
WORLD NEWS SUMMARY
PROGRAMMES GUIDE
See also:

13 Dec 00 | Health
Men stick to junk food and beer
05 Dec 00 | Health
NHS 'faces 16bn obesity bill'
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Links to more Forum stories