Slow down and think about fast food

BY ELIZABETH COHEN
Press & Sun-Bulletin

There are so many ingredients in the strawberry flavoring of a fast-food milkshake that a list of them would be taller than the cup it comes in. You will never see that list, but author Eric Schlosser recited them during his talk Tuesday at Broome Community College. It took almost a minute to read and included some surprising and unpronounceable ingredients -- one was a substance he said is used to clean oil rigs.

How Big is McDonald's?

These statistics were offered up by Eric Schlosser [author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal] at his address Tuesday at Broome Community College:

  • In 1968 there were about 1,000 McDonald's in the United States; today there are more than 30,000 worldwide.

  • McDonald's is the largest purchaser of potatoes in the United States.

  • McDonald's is the largest purchaser of beef and pork in the United States.

  • McDonald's is the second-largest purchaser of chicken in the United States.

  • Today, McDonald's is the largest private employer in Brazil.

  • One out of every five toddlers eats french fries every day.
"It's really weird," Schlosser said of the myriad substances all mixed together to imitate the simple taste of strawberry. "It's like something a mad scientist would come up with."

That was but one stomach-curdling detail in the talk given by the author of Fast Food Nation, who was brought in as the guest speaker and anchor for the daylong event, which focused on the politics of food. Other activities during the day included a screening of the film The Future of Food and panels on food addictions, vegan eating and diabetes. There also was a discussion by BCC professors Helen and Francis Battisti on ways to eat healthy when balancing a busy schedule. Schlosser, the keynote speaker, addressed what he considers the most pressing and critical issue of our time: our food.

"In one hamburger patty there is meat from over a thousand different cattle," Schlosser said, underscoring the dangers of fast food practices. "One steer infected with a nasty disease can reach many; it increases the odds you'll encounter some of it."

Schlosser's talk posed these questions: If we are what we eat than what does it say about us that we consume the frightening array of unpronounceable chemicals and additives that we do? What does it say about us that the food we eat is produced in inhumane circumstances by a colossal agribusiness industry?

A man of slight build who delivered his oration in a steady and straightforward style, Schlosser addressed these topics, captivating the audience of students, faculty and community members who filled the school's Baldwin Gymnasium.

"I've come to believe that food and the food industry is the most important subject out there," Schlosser said. He admitted he had never had much of an interest in food before a magazine assignment to "look behind the counter" of fast-food businesses. But as he researched the subject, he began to believe that the food industry is the basis of our entire culture and economy today.

"Without food there is no civilization; without it there is no other industry; it is only because we had agricultural surpluses that we were able as a species to develop science, literature, all the things we like so much. It is all because you don't have to fight for survival."

The book, published in 2001, has topped best-seller lists and earned Schlosser a reputation as one of the most important popular culture scribes of our time. In his talk, Schlosser discussed not only the enormous and powerful fast food industry -- but also the frightening array of food additives, the entire new "flavor" replicating industry, the way that fast-food production affects economics and labor relations, the obesity epidemic and the effect of advertising on children.

"We don't buy other important things on impulse -- cars, homes, laptops -- but the vast majority of Americans never think about their food," Schlosser said. "But food is probably the most important purchase you make every day -- it enters your body, it becomes a part of you."

For Raine Ford, 23, one BCC student who drove in from Owego for the talk, Schlosser's book was eye-opening. "We read it for English 220, it gives a broad perspective about what goes on behind the curtains of fast food," said the senior who works as a paramedic. "Some things you'd rather not see."

Ford, a self-described "animal person," said the most distressing part of Schlosser's talk and book was about the treatment of animals by the food industry.

"Chickens are literally grown by the thousands and stuffed into tiny areas; it is very saddening."

Ultimately, Schlosser said, he does not intend "to tell people how to eat" but rather to educate people about their food. "If you don't educate yourself you will always be at the mercy of the people who have the knowledge."