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The Not-So-Happy Meal: What’s Really in Fast Food?

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From the processing plants where cow manure gets ground into meat to the chemistry labs that create fast food flavors such as a “smoky, grilled taste,” the story behind every perfectly round patty hamburger and golden fry is something the fast food industry would prefer you not know. 


A slew of books and movies over the last decade have revealed the gnarly business of fast food, and it’s anything but enticing. 


Not Just Food
Any recount of fast food horrors would be remiss without a collection of sordid restaurant tales. Bugs, rodents, and unsanitary working conditions are the common pitfalls of making mass-produced food. These war stories shouldn’t be surprising, yet they are. Here’s a sprinkling gathered from former fast food workers and news reports: 


  • At a Long John Silver, an employee stirred a bucket of cole slaw with his whole arm immersed so deep that his armpit hair mingled with the shredded cabbage.
  • TV news cameras filmed dozens of rats scurrying around a Taco Bell/KFC in New York City.
  • Former fast food workers say that it’s common to blend cockroaches and other bugs into dairy deserts.
  • Inspectors found dead rodents decomposing in a rattrap at a Wendy’s in Texas.
  • A customer was served a cup dripping in blood at Hardee’s in Florida.
  • A patron, taking a bite into a taco at a Chicago Taco Bell, bit into chewing gum. 


Even though people are vaguely aware of these violations, Americans continue to consume vast quantities of fast food. Why? Convenience and price are good reasons, but that doesn’t really explain why we eat so much of it. After all, a street vendor could be selling steamed fresh broccoli and spinach for a penny and do less business than a McDonald’s does. The obvious reason is that fat, salt, and starches appeal to our palates. But there’s more going on than good grease. Excellent frying techniques can’t explain the allure of McDonald’s fries. In fact, fast food flavor has little to do with the innate qualities of the food—it’s all in the additives. 


Engineered Flavors
The fast food industry has worked hard to engineer foods that will appeal to our every sense with manufactured flavorings, color, and what’s called mouthfeel—the texture, weight, and consistency. In his book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser describes how companies—often the same ones that make perfumes—mix the chemicals that give our processed food their flavors. Schlosser lists nearly one hundred chemicals that make up the standard strawberry flavor in a milkshake. The flavoring for proprietors is kept secret. For decades, McDonald’s used beef tallow to cook its fries. When the public started to worry about saturated fat, the company switched to vegetable oil, but it continues to use animal products to achieve the same flavor. McDonalds has refused to disclose what other ingredients they use. The FDA doesn’t require food companies to list the ingredients in additives, as long as they are Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS).


Fake Food
For his documentary Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock puts several McDonald’s entrees, including a Big Mac and fries, into separate glass containers to find out how they will decompose. He does the same thing with a burger and fries from a local non-chain restaurant. After two weeks, the burger and fries from the mom-and-pop restaurant are covered in mold and oozing as expected, but the Big Mac and fries look eerily pristine. Five weeks in, the regular burger and fries are unidentifiable, the Big Mac is molding, but the McDonald’s fries still look perfect. Two months later, nearly everything is black with mold except the fries, which appear as fresh and perky as the day they were bought, as if they were made of plastic. The experiment, which appears as extra footage on the DVD, begs the question: “How long do they last in your stomach?” 


Microscopic Threats
The high levels of harmful pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella in hamburger meat are one of the most startling finds in Fast Food Nation. In a 1996 study, the FDA found that nearly 79 percent of ground beef has microbes that are primarily spread through fecal matter. As Schlosser puts it: “There’s shit in the meat.” 


The first known fast food E. coli outbreak in the early 1980s sickened dozens of patrons at a McDonald’s restaurant in Oregon, but the public was never informed. Contaminated meat at a Jack in the Box in 1993 had far more serious consequences, killing four people and hospitalizing some 200 people. Since then, thousands of people have been hospitalized and hundreds have died. 


The problem of cattle spreading bacteria to humans is partly due to the conditions that cattle are raised. They live in close quarters where contagious infections multiply and they eat foods that make them unhealthy. Cows’ digestive systems are meant for grass but instead, cattle are often raised on corn and high-protein feeds made from rendered animals. Mad Cow Disease prompted a ban on feeding cattle dead cow remains, but the FDA still permits horse, poultry, and pig remains, as well as cow blood in cattle feed. The pathogens are also spread at slaughterhouses. If a worker carelessly removes the digestive systems from a cow carcass, manure and dirt can spill onto the meat. The workers are often poorly trained and under extreme time pressures, making mistakes more likely. Grinding the meat spreads the contamination from the meat of one cow to hundreds. 


Even armed with all this disturbing knowledge, you may choose to close your eyes and dig into a Happy Meal. And you wouldn’t be alone. Americans are still spending large percentages of their food budgets on fast food. That means a lot of fries, burgers, and bugs.

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