Wednesday, 17 September 2008
Sorry for the less than appetizing title, but I'm curious how many people know the answer to this question. Consider this your first test in food ignorance.
For those of you who have seen Fast Food Nation or read Chew on This, you can already answer this question. The rest of you, will have to read on.
As promised, this post begins answering the question, "So what's so bad about a Big Mac anyhow?" I started slandering this sandwich last time but thought some of you may want more details.
The answers are endless, so it seems, but let's focus on the few that most of us really care about. Today I'll talk about the overall health problems, as well as, let's call them sanitation problems limited to just the beef. Tomorrow, I'll discuss the other ingredients and some politics regarding fast food in general. The following day I'll do an overview of the chicken McNugget, and then we'll stop picking on McDonald's for awhile and cover some other important issues.
1. The National Health Problem factor: Big Macs, like everything else sold at fast food chains across America contribute to our poor health. This is pretty obvious. But to what extent? If you eat there once a week, once a month or once in awhile is it really going to have an impact on your health? My opinion, is anything in ultra low quantities won't have any serious long term effects. Let's say for example you normally eat a healthy diet of whole grains, veggies and fruits and really limit your meat and dairy intake. Then one day you go to McDonald's and splurge on a Big Mac meal. I would say that's okay. But let's assume you eat fast food regularly, meaning at least twice a week. That's when the Big Macs start turning you into a Big Mac, which is exactly what McDonald's wants. But more on that later. Back to the topic of health. Big Macs are high in calories, 540 per sandwich, high in fat and saturated fat (over half the recommended daily allowance), high in sodium and cholesterol and despite all the health warnings that exist, still include trans fat in the beef. They also contain high fructose corn syrup like most of the items you'll find on McDonald's menu. The only two ingredients in a Big Mac that aren't harmful for you are the pickles and onions. The sauce would've made the list had it not been for the 11 or so ingredients in it that aren't even food, i.e. sodium benzoate, a chemical preservative. But trust me, a little sodium benzoate won't hurt you and should be the least of your worries when chowing down on a Big Mac.
2. The beef: Although, technically Big Mac patties are 100% beef, this statement may not be completely true. Unless you consider fecal bacteria, beef. Yes, you guessed it folks! There is poop in ground beef and therefore in your hamburger. In every single burger? Highly doubtful. But in some? Most definitely! Proper cooking will kill the bacteria like E. coli, but small traces of poop and other lovely specimens from the cow's gut, can and do end up in America's supply of ground beef. How is this possible?
Well, let's start at the beginning. (I'll give you the short version, and write a longer entry on cows later.) The cows are born, taken away from their mothers at a young age, forced to live in crowded unsanitary feedlots and fed lots of "food" that's bad for them. Since cows are ruminants, meaning the only food they can digest properly is grass, they should be allowed access to some nice green pastures. But aren't. Instead, to speed up growth and to cut back on feed costs, these cows are fed genetically modified corn, soy, chicken feathers, animal byproducts, and who really knows what else. Then they poop, creating about 50 pounds of waste every single day. That's each cow! That means one feedlot can create more waste than an entire metropolitan city. Well, as you can imagine, feedlots aren't exactly the cleanest places in the world. Or the healthiest. Because they're on poor diets, stressed, and seriously lacking in exercise and clean air, these animals are just bound to get a host of diseases, like our forementioned friend E. coli. They can of course pass these germs on to you when you later consume these animals via a nice juicy Big Mac. Anyways, once the animals have reached adequate size, they are taken by the thousands to slaughtering facilities. They're killed, essentially shot in the head, and then quickly dismembered. One guy slits the throat draining the blood, another one cuts off the feet, another guy removes the head, until eventually the cow reaches the de-gutting table where some poor man or woman has the job of removing the insides. Stomach, intestines, kidneys etc..."The digestive system is still pulled out of cattle by hand. If the job is not performed carefully, the contents of the stomach and instestines may spill everywhere." What could cause this? Simple. Since slaughterhouses are pretty much the worst place to work, the kill floor is not exactly a smooth operation. There's pressure for the line to move faster than human workers can keep up with. Under exhausting and inhumane conditions, workers are forced to work so quickly they cannot do their jobs properly. "A single worker at a gut table may have to pull the guts out of sixty cattle every hour." Also knives are supposed to be cleaned regularly, but who has time when they're struggling to keep up with the production line.
But the biggest sanitation problem lies in the mass production of this meat, especially when it's ground up to make hamburgers. "The risk of widespread contamination grows when the meat is turned into ground beef...enormous slaughterhouses and grinders dominate the production of ground beef. A modern plant can produce almost a million pounds of hamburger meat a day. A single animal infected with E. coli O157:H7 can contaminate 32,000 pounds of that ground meat." That's why, "Children who eat ground beef must make sure that it has been completely cooked... There shouldn't be a single particle of meat that still looks pink... Cooking the meat thoroughly kills germs like E. coli O157:H7. But it doesn't change a rather unappetizing fact. There are all sorts of complicated scientific explanations for how germs are spread in feedlots, how germs are spread in slaughterhouses, how germs are spread in hamburger plants. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: there is poop in the meat." Think it's disgusting? I do. But worse than that, it poses a risk to your health. Getting E. coli O157:H7 can kill you.
Think the government should step in? I do too! Write your congressman or woman a strongly worded letter, because as of today the government can't even fine companies that knowingly sell bad meat. The government can't order a meat packing plant to remove contaminated potentially lethal ground beef from fast food kitchens and supermarkets. There simply aren't any laws in place, like those that exist for toys that can be recalled for having small parts that children can choke on. The meat industry, unlike the toy industry, pays the government so that it can duck under health regulations, like poop in hamburgers. Don't you just love politics!
Other than the poop or possible contamination of the beef, there's a couple of other things to factor in. The beef often comes from cows that are treated inhumanely their whole lives and spend months or years suffering until they're finally slaughtered. McDonald's gets a lot of their meat from old dairy cows, who are killed when their milk supply starts dwindling. Those dairy cows are often given hormones to increase milk production. Once at the slaughterhouses, the killing process is actually pretty humane. McDonald's requires a 95% success rate when it comes to the quick and painless killing of the cows, meaning the cows need to be killed properly at least 95% of the time. To me that number is fair, after all these cows are still animals who can move and the killers are humans who can make errors. But it's uncommon, so you can feel good knowing your beef came from cows who were likely killed humanely. But the treatment of cows while they're alive still raises a moral concern. As does the way slaughterhouse employees are treated. The animal's diet renders a health concern for them and for those of us who eat beef. The meat is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as, Omega 6 fatty acids. But if the poop, the morals, and the health concerns really don't matter to you, then go ahead and keep eating those Big Macs. My vote in this matter is to support the environment, the animals, the workers, and my health instead of the beef industry, slaughterhouses, fast food corporations and appaling government policies. When it comes to Big Macs, I simply put my fork down and walk away. I recommend that you all at least cut back on the amount of ground beef you eat, at least as a matter of health. But industry-wide change will also require voting in the traditional sense, with your pen that is. So write to your Congress representative because they're the ones who get laws passed around here. The only thing they want more than money from the big corporations is your vote for re-election. They're interested in what they can do for you in exchange for that vote; after all, they want to keep their jobs too!
ALL QUOTES in this entry were directly taken from Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson's book, Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food, which I highly recommend reading.
More on the Big Mac next time...