Health NW column: Fast Food Nation

Health NW column: Fast Food Nation

"Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" by Eric Schlosser has been a best seller since it was published over a year ago. It is a well-researched history of the fast food industry, full of details about where food comes from and how it is processed before it ends up on your tray. It delves into fast food marketing and labor practices, and examines how fast food has influenced American culture. Fascinatingly gruesome in its description of cattle feedlots and the meat packing industry, it has probably turned quite a few readers into vegetarians.

I'm glad "Fast Food Nation" is a best seller. It is an important book that gives us facts so we can make more informed choices about the food we eat.

We live in a time when there is a remarkable degree of disconnection between us and our food. Three or four generations ago, our ancestors most likely grew, raised, hunted or fished for some of their own food, and bought or traded for the rest from others who lived nearby. Now, it's easy for us to eat for weeks without ever consuming anything grown locally. Look in your own kitchen and you might find coffee from Indonesia, orange juice from Florida, tuna caught off the coast of Japan, cheese from Wisconsin, bananas from Honduras, pasta from Italy and more.

We in the northwest are fortunate to have a bountiful selection of food grown and raised close by: fruits and vegetables from the Willamette Valley, grain and beef from Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington, and salmon from the Columbia and its tributaries are a few examples. We also have the right climate to raise fruits and vegetables in our own back yards. We can gather berries, hunt and fish.

The sad truth is that a fast food meal is often cheaper and easier than a home-cooked meal made from locally grown food. However, the low cost of fast food does not make up for the true costs to society: These high-calorie, high-fat, high-cholesterol meals significantly contribute to obesity and high cholesterol in Americans. With these come an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer. These health problems often require expensive medical interventions, which inevitably put a strain on our health care systems and drive up health insurance premiums for all.

A more immediate threat to our health because of fast food comes from potential contamination of hamburgers and other meat with disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli 0157:H7. Schlosser describes vast feedlots where cattle are crowded together, wading in their own wastes. They are fed not only grain but the rendered remains of pigs, horses and poultry. Conditions in slaughterhouses contribute to the contamination of meat, since one infected cow on the production line can contaminate all the meat that follows it. One hamburger usually contains meat from dozens of cattle.

The fast food industry has found that this is the cheapest way to raise and process cattle to make hamburgers. It certainly isn't the most humane way to treat cows. It isn't the most natural way, since cattle should be allowed to wander in open spaces and graze on grass. It isn't the most healthy way for cattle to live.

The fast food industry is not particularly concerned about human health either. They are not trying to provide nutritious, natural food for Americans. Their goal is not to create a highly trained workforce and pay their employees a living wage. The fast food industry's bottom line is profit, but unfortunately that profit comes with costs to society as a whole.

I encourage everyone, especially high school students and parents of young children, to read this book. Whether or not you are a frequent fast food eater, this book will help you make more informed decisions about the food you choose for yourself and your family.

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