The next time you bite into a fast food burger, keep this in mind: There’s a distinct possibility there may be fecal matter in the meat.

That’s not all: The taste and aroma of french fries come from New Jersey chemical plants, where there’s virtually no distinction between “natural” and “artificial” flavors. One hamburger patty contains meat from up to hundreds of different cows. And, before they’re slaughtered, cows and chickens are regularly fed their own kind. It’s a very efficient system, where nothing goes to waste–including the waste.

Still hungry?

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a remarkable book that for months now has been on The New York Times bestseller list–initially in hardback and now in paperback–is gaining widespread attention, and for good reason. It’s an entertaining read that will literally make your jaw drop. Schlosser views American history through the lens of the burgeoning fast food industry, and manages to do so without being dry, preachy or self-righteous. His book isn’t a vegetarian screed, but rather a fascinating and disturbing look at the many ways the fast food industry has negatively impacted our culture and environment.

One of the most eye-opening sections of the book focuses on feedlots and slaughterhouses. Often likened to a contemporary rendition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Fast Food Nation shows that not much has improved since Sinclair’s book was published nearly a century ago. Highly unsanitary and unsafe, slaughterhouses are a breeding ground for fatal injuries and contamination.

But the federal government won’t be making any sweeping changes anytime soon, thanks to powerful meat industry lobbyists in partnership with many a government official. Consider the response to the threat of mad cow disease–in 1997 the FDA imposed new feed restrictions, wherein the following could no longer be fed to cattle: dead sheep, goats, cattle, deer, mink, elk, dogs and cats. However, the following are still allowed: “dead horses, pigs, and poultry; cattle blood, gelatin, and tallow; and plate waste collected from restaurants, regardless of what kind of meat those leftovers contained.”

When asked in a recent interview with this paper why grass- and seed-eating animals are being fed to other animals, Schlosser explained that slaughterhouse wastes are a cheap source of protein for animal feeds. “As a result, today in the United States, cattle are being fed cattle blood, poultry are being fed poultry, and hogs are being fed hogs,” he said. “As the mad cow outbreak has shown, what seems cheap–feeding cattle to cattle–often turns out to be very expensive.”

According to Schlosser’s book, before the cattle are herded into slaughterhouses, they’re injected with steroids, crammed into feedlots, and fed enormous amounts of grain to fatten them up. They get very little exercise and stand in pools of manure, where E. coli can live for up to 90 days. Anywhere from 1 percent (in the winter) to 50 percent (in the summer) of the cattle carry E. coli in their guts. One cow with E. coli can contaminate 32,000 pounds of ground beef, which is distributed from corporate meat packers to fast food restaurants nationwide.

The waste from the cattle, about 50 pounds per steer per day, is dumped into pits or “lagoons” instead of being sent to a treatment plant. Waste is also mixed in with the grain. A USDA study in 1996, cited by Schlosser, found that “78.6 percent of the ground beef contained microbes that are spread primarily by fecal material.”

To give readers an idea of the staggering proportion of waste that is produced, Schlosser offers this comparison: At two feedlots in Greeley, Colo., more excrement is produced “than in the cities of Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and St. Louis–combined.” One resident in Lexington, Neb., described three odors that constantly permeate the environment: “burning hair and blood, that greasy smell, and the odor of rotten eggs.” The smell from these wastewater lagoons can cause serious health problems, including permanent damage to the nervous system.

Despite rising rates of work force injuries, health and safety laws have been significantly reduced. To make matters worse, the federal government is restricted from preventing the sale or recall of contaminated meat, thanks to the meat industry lobbyists. According to Schlosser, if contaminated meat is pulled from the market, there is no legal obligation to inform health officials or the public. But if the toy that accompanies your meal poses a threat to children, you can be sure you’ll hear about it.

Schlosser said that he’s received an overwhelming response to Fast Food Nation, but has not heard a peep from the federal government. “I’ve been contacted by ranchers, farmers, union organizers, food safety experts, obesity experts, and state government officials. But I haven’t heard a single word from anyone at the USDA, the FDA, or OSHA. I don’t expect to see any meaningful changes coming from the federal government. It will come from ordinary citizens–and from state government.”

If a new fast food restaurant is opening as you read this review, then know that another will open two hours from now, and another will open two hours after that. There are already more than 17,000 McDonald’s alone, in 120 foreign countries, and restaurants are planning on greatly expanding their franchises around the globe. As the industry continues to expand, ranchland is continually lost to development, and family farms give way to corporate farms.

“As the leading fast food chains expand overseas, they don’t just open new restaurants. They bring along their food production and distribution systems, their labor policies, their marketing tactics, and their promotion of unhealthy eating habits,” Schlosser said. “The world needs to resist these things. Agriculture needs to be increasingly de-industrialized, not handed over to a small number of corporations. The spread of the fast food industry is the spread of a system favoring centralized, bureaucratic control and low wages. The world deserves something much better than that.” EndBlock