Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know about Fast Food
by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson
Houghton Mifflin, May 2006
270 pages, $16.00 cloth, ISBN 0618710310
Available on Amazon.com
This book is a must-read for all those who really care about our food supply, really care about our nation’s economic system, and wish to see how a book can attempt to destroy them both. It is very well written and often extremely interesting … while at the same time being a near total distortion of the truth. It is intended to create an anti-capitalist mindset among America’s youth while leading them to accept reduced individual freedom leading to a socialist political and economic system.
But enough of the compliments.
This is the first of a two-part review. In this installment, I focus on the mean, underhanded capitalist food industry that is purposely attempting to poison us. Next month I will explain how Schlosser and Wilson attempt to undermine the world’s leading agricultural nation and bring famine back to the masses.
In the 1930s Adolf Hitler recognized that if he could indoctrinate Germany’s youth in support of his antihuman Nazi movement, the children would ultimately control their more level-headed, mature parents, thus restraining the adults’ efforts to learn the truth about what Hitler was doing.
It would appear the authors are making the same effort in their drive to socialize America by feeding its children a book of distortions and untruths about the world’s greatest food supplier and agricultural economy.
America is the envy of the world for its rock-bottom food costs–less than 10 percent of the family budget. Only two other countries have food costs below 20 percent: Finland,16 percent; France, 18 percent. At the same time, our food supply is the safest in the world, leading to a healthy and long-lived population. Indeed, our greatest food-related health threats involve voluntarily overeating to the point of increasing the risk of diabetes and a host of other diseases.
Schlosser and Wilson attempt to convince their young readers that our farms are mere factories run by distant corporations. In reality, 99 percent of our farms are family owned–90 percent by individual families, 6 percent by family partnerships, and 3 percent by family corporations–all living on the farm. Only 1 percent of U.S. farms are owned by off-farm corporations, and those off-farm corporations produce only 6 percent of our national output, leaving 94 percent of all our food still produced by the family farm.
The factory farm myth comes about because we tend to raise our cows, chickens, and pigs in large numbers for economic efficiency and better animal health–which is necessary to economically productive farming.
The authors create equal distortion in their portrayal of the food we eat. It starts with the book’s cover–a milkshake with a biohazard label on it, a hamburger made to look like a monster, and sick French fries.
The subtitle of the book is, “Everything you don’t want to know about fast food.” But in fact most of what the authors tell us is about creative innovation, interesting history, and engineering.
How they spin this positive story to alter the minds of young people is unconscionable.
Fast Food History
The authors trace the history of the hamburger from Charles Nagreen in Seymour, Wisconsin in 1885 to Walt Anderson in Wichita, Kansas in 1925; to Richard McDonald in Pasadena, California in 1937; to Ray Kroc in 1954; and to Dave Thomas and Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio in the late 1960s. (Dave’s daughter Wendy, for whom his restaurants are named, was in my daughter Tracy’s elementary school class. At the time, I felt sorry for her, as I was sure her dad would go bankrupt trying to compete with McDonald’s.)
The authors also tell the story of Harlan Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and how Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s copied Walt Disney’s ideas on synergy in marketing by emphasizing toys and happy meals and eventually creating Ronald McDonald and the Colonel.
What is most egregious about this book is how the authors decry the way the food industry beguiles children with non-stop advertising and promotions to ultimately overeat their poison. McDonald’s and Burger King build thousands of playgrounds, they say, to “bring in children, who bring in parents, who bring in money.” Well, yes, that is the free-market way of capitalism.
Perhaps some restraint should be placed on ads aimed at children, but in fact Schlosser and Wilson are total hypocrites in that the primary purpose of this book, inscribed between the lines, is not really to warn children about food, but to dismantle capitalism before their eyes, without the children actually realizing what they are being taught.
The authors tell the “sad” story of Martinsburg, West Virginia, a once-sleepy little town with few restaurants, few motels, but many farms. Now it has dozens of fast food and other chain restaurants, many motels, lots of jobs, and fewer acres of farms. This is a sad story, perhaps, if you lived on the main drag, but it’s quite good for those who live anywhere else in town.
Similarly, the authors complain about the working conditions of employees toiling at minimum-wage fast food restaurant jobs, but they admit attempts to unionize those employees failed. The authors begrudgingly admit companies benefit when they create good working conditions for employees, but then they worry over the pressures teenagers face when they work too many hours while going to school.
The authors clearly have a problem with the freedom offered U.S. citizens by our political system and feel government control over all aspects of life would be superior. That was also the idea of those who held the controls behind the Iron Curtain.
Making the French Fry
The authors tell the story of J.R. Simplot, who with only an eighth grade education invented the French fry and went on to found a major food and nutrient supply company. Now 96 years of age, he is still involved with that firm. I have met Mr. Simplot, a very fine man … but somehow the authors want readers to see him as a nefarious power in the fast food business.
No one has ever explained the French fry processor machines better than the authors do, but they evidently want us to see the process as inhuman. Here’s how they describe the process; you be the judge:
“Conveyor belts take the wet, clean potatoes into a machine that blasts them with steam for twelve seconds, boils the water under their skins and explodes the skins off. Then the potatoes are pumped into a tank and shot through a Lamb Water Gun knife. They emerge as shoestring fries. Four video cameras scrutinize them from different angles looking for flaws.
“When a French fry with a dark spot is detected, an optical sorting machine shoots a single burst of compressed air that knocks the bad fry off the production line. The fry drops onto a separate conveyor belt, which carries it to a machine with tiny automated knives that precisely remove the dark spot. And then the fry is returned to the main production line.”
Scary and inhuman? It delights me that I am unlikely to eat a bad fry.
The authors explain that “the canning, freezing, and dehydration techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavor which is then replaced by powerful chemicals with long names produced by a company named International Flavors and Fragrances.” The authors consider it underhanded that food companies want to supply tastes and smells favored by consumers of their foods.
The authors name 47 chemicals contained in strawberry flavoring, making them sound very scary, but the fact is there are 2,000 chemicals that can be isolated in a simple cup of coffee, and only the caffeine may have an impact on health.
The authors spend more than 20 pages vilifying those who want food to taste good and smell nice. One wonders, as the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland might put it, how much “curiouser and curiouser” this diatribe can become. Will the authors attack the clothing industry next for creating attractive clothes, or the housing industry for building beautiful buildings?
More Baseless Attacks
Next, the authors plant the thought that there are bugs in red-colored food because the cochineal beetle shell is used to make some dyes. In fact, that dye has been used for hundreds of years without incident. With their kind of logic, one could likely scare the entire population into starvation, but they are kind enough to go after only the children.
The book attacks decisions of school boards to allow food companies to operate within public schools–at considerable savings to those schools–and it likewise decries the placement of soft drink machines on school grounds. Clearly, nutritional mistakes are made by many school districts, and they should be scolded–but not demonized.
Finally, it is important to point out the dubious notion that “fast food” is an accurate or in any way meaningful label for an actual class of foods. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, has written that the notion that “fast food” is addictive and causes illness and death “is ludicrous. Food supports life and contributes to obesity only when it is overused–that is, when we consume more calories (regardless of source) than are expended in exercise.”
Whelan goes on to observe, “You will become overweight whether your excess calories come from beer, butter beans, or burgers. True, many fast food establishments serve up some gargantuan portions that can, in one sitting, get you close to the desirable calorie finish line for the entire day. But ultimately, consumers must be responsible for what and how much they consume.”
Safer, Cleaner than Ever
The bottom line is that the food supply has never been cleaner or safer than it is in the United States today. Cancer rates are declining, and life expectancy continues to increase. Farmers and food producers understand that the safety of America’s food supply is their number one priority.
And that will be the subject of part two of this book review, next month.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.