Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, hold the burger: Stomach-churning truths about fast food

Credit: Nick Laham/Allsport
Ever since McDonald's opened its doors in California in the 1950s, Americans have had a seemingly limitless appetite for fast food.

In some parts of the United States, you can't walk more than 10 paces without coming across a restaurant selling burgers or fried chicken in little Styrofoam boxes. On any given day, surveys have shown, about a quarter of the population eats in a fast food establishment.

But now, there are signs that the extended American love affair with fast food is on the wane.

While British livestock farmers lurch from one crisis to the next, it is over in America that consumers are beginning to turn their backs on cheap meat. And it hasn't taken anything as dramatic as an outbreak of foot and mouth disease to threaten the great American convenience meal.

Eric Schlosser's new book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Houghton Mifflin), a surprise bestseller, has made Americans take a good look at their eating habits.

On Amazon.com, the online bookshop has been flooded with comments from readers declaring that they will never set foot in a burger restaurant again. Some reviewers were so disgusted by the chapter on slaughterhouses that they were unable to finish the book, never mind their dinner.

"God strike me dead before I consume another fast-food product, be it pizza, hamburgers or chicken," wrote one USA Today journalist.

Schlosser, 41, did not set out to write an expose of the fast food industry. "I had eaten fast food all my life. I loved it. The book started out as a magazine article taking a kitsch look at America, but the more I found out about this industry, the angrier I got," he says.

America is in a constant state of anxiety about the prospect of mad cow disease arriving from Britain. And yet, Schlosser points out, lobbying efforts by animal feed manufacturers have ensured that it is still legal to feed the blood of poultry and cattle to cows in America the very practices that are thought to have contributed to the spread of the disease in Europe.

He claims that a single fast food hamburger can contain meat from dozens of different cows, who spend their last days in feedlots full of pools of manure.

Bad hygiene practices in many abattoirs have led to a sharp rise in the spread of the e-coli bacteria, and every day 200,000 Americans are taken ill with food poisoning.

Conditions are so poor in some slaughterhouses that American burgers, which are also exported to Europe, often contain traces of feces, says the author.

Standards of hygiene are also shocking in some of the restaurants. Schlosser found that most workers he interviewed refused to eat anything at their establishment unless they had made it themselves.

Such revelations are finally forcing American consumers to turn away from the beloved burger.

"When you eat fast food there is always this moment, about 20 minutes later, when you feel as if there is something different about this food," says Schlosser. "It's an after-taste, a sense that the food doesn't sit well. I think people were already intuitively concerned about it, and my book addresses their worries."

Schlosser has found himself playing a key role in challenging the way most Americans eat, but he is not on a crusade against the big corporations. Nor is he a vegetarian, and this has helped his book appeal to a mainstream audience.

"Many people are reading it who aren't involved in the food activist community," says Simon Harris of the Organic Consumers' Association.

Fast Food Nation, which is soon to be published in the UK, has also tapped into current fears about obesity. While the number of fast food restaurants doubled in Britain between 1984 and 1993, so did the rate of obesity.

The condition is particularly common among American children the target of persistent ad campaigns by fast food chains.

"I don't eat fast food any more and I don't take my kids to fast food restaurants," Schlosser says.

"I have an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old. It's unfortunate for them that I wrote this book because they miss the food, but at the same time they understand my reasoning."

Work off that double cheeseburger and fries, register for an event online.

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