Heavy Diet of Falsehoods About Food

Published September 1, 2006

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

I said in Part 1 of this book review (Health Care News, August 2006) that Chew on This is a must-read for those with minds strong enough to resist the anti-business and anti-consumer choice messages the authors convey in this well-written, informative, and easy-to-read mix of fiction and nonfiction.

If a book is well-written and informative, it can be worth reading even if its authors are pushing a political or ideological agenda. The latest edition of the usually alarmist Worldwatch Institute’s The State of the World, for example, is actually quite good. (See my review in the April 2006 Environment & Climate News.) Good information can come from any source, and I have determined throughout life that there simply does not exist a single individual from whom I am unable to learn something.

Hence, I very much enjoyed this dreadful book. Why do I call it dreadful? Let me count the ways.

Animal Treatment Maligned

To begin with, I have little stomach for blood and guts. Schlosser and Wilson take us into slaughterhouses and all the worst-case farms and ranches, where they claim animals are horribly mistreated. As one who frequently tours farms across America, often with my wife, I can assure you this portrayal of animal abuse is grossly inaccurate. I have found the animals to be rather well-treated.

There are strong economic reasons for this. An animal under stress simply will not produce the maximum amount of eggs, milk, or lean meat.

The authors describe chickens gaining so much weight that their legs become bent and they live in constant pain and develop heart problems.

My wife, a very sensitive woman, has toured chicken houses with me and has become convinced that the chickens are happy, well-fed, and receive outstanding medical care. In fact, she commented that she wished our HMO was as efficient with our own health care.

It may be possible that the authors witnessed a poorly maintained farm. However, the essence of junk science is the art of using selective data to make your point. The poultry and egg industry has no difficulty refuting the authors’ nonsense with statistics that cover the vast majority of their industry.


The authors tell stories of ranchers in the Old West being driven out of business by monopolistic food companies. The food industry, like most other industries, has consolidated over time so that 80 percent of the product is produced by about 20 percent of the producers, but a niche generally remains for small operators.

But Schlosser and Wilson claim that as this process occurs in agriculture, most producers become so subservient to the large companies that they are little more than “serfs.” They claim, “A typical chicken farmer has been raising birds for fifteen years, owns three chicken houses, still remains deeply in debt, and after expenses earns about $12,000 a year.” If you really believe that, perhaps I can interest you in buying a bridge I own in Brooklyn.

Considerable research on consolidation in agriculture shows it has improved the income and status of farmers while benefitting consumers with less expensive, more bountiful, and higher-quality products.

Economist Ross Korves, for example, summarized his research on the pork industry by saying, “regardless of how producers raise and market hogs, hog production will remain a risky business. Production and marketing contracts are helping many small and mid-sized producers better manage risk while gaining access to the capital and markets they need to remain competitive. It’s a clear case of markets working well.”

Korves’ report, “Opportunities and Benefits from Pork Industry Organization,” was published by The Heartland Institute in 2004 and is available at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=15811.

Large integrating companies such as Swift, Tyson, Excel, and National Beef depend on contract farms and ranches for their supply, and most small farm operations are glad to have profitable contracts with these companies.

Political Agenda Obvious

In 1906, author Upton Sinclair wrote a scathing novel, The Jungle, about the meat-packing industry. Sinclair was an avowed socialist, and his book was an attempt to call attention to poor working conditions in meat-packing plants. Instead, it called most attention to the unhealthy handling of meat. As a result, the government stepped in and passed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of the same year.

Sinclair shows how writers can indeed improve social conditions through their efforts, but Chew on This does not intend to improve conditions. The authors’ goal is to eliminate modern agriculture and fast food entirely. They stand no chance of doing this, because their arguments are slanted and distorted.

One of the most egregious examples of fallacies in the book is its recounting of the famous case of contaminated food at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993, when 700 people took ill. The authors use this incident to portray the fast food industry as a major source of stomach illness.

They correctly quote many of the statistics regarding gastroenteritis in the United States, but they fail to acknowledge that 98 percent of that ailment emanates from our own kitchens. We defrost food incorrectly, leave it out too long after cooking, cook meat and put it back on the plates from which the raw meat came, and too often fail to utilize sanitary cleaning methods in our kitchens.

Instead, the authors claim conditions in meat-packing plants are the source of illness. That is completely false.

Obesity a Real Problem

The authors are at their best when they take on American obesity. They point out that young people “drive to the mall, sit on the couch and play video games and eat a lot of fast food.” They observe, “Less than 30 percent of high school students in the U.S. attend daily physical education classes and only 12 percent of students walk to school.” They correctly point out the psychological problems that plague overweight children and note the dramatic increase in diabetes.

While they get their facts correct here, the blame somehow always falls at the feet of our free-market economic system. The authors then imply that expanding the power of government over businesses and limiting the choices of consumers–a nanny state–would put an end to such excesses.

Just as the book turns your stomach in the slaughterhouses, it offers graphic descriptions of obese organs in an autopsy and explanations of gastric bypass surgery. In that regard, be sure anyone you know who is considering gastric bypass surgery reads about it in this book. There were 16,000 such procedures in 1993 and 150,000 in 2004. A large percentage of those who receive this treatment fail to lose weight permanently, and a small percentage die from it.

Schlosser and Wilson correctly observe that the citizens of few other countries are as heavy as Americans, but when exposed to our diet and lifestyle they do indeed gain weight. Most sensible people recognize their weight is a matter of personal responsibility. In the authors’ world, however, little personal responsibility would exist, and if their anti-business agenda were adopted, there would be just as little food.

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute. He is the author or editor of more than 400 magazine and journal articles and 12 books, including Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns (1992), McGraw-Hill’s Handbook on Environmental Science, Health and Technology (2000), and the six-volume Water Encyclopedia (Wiley Interscience, 2005).