Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal Chapter 9 Summary
by Eric Schlosser

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Chapter 9 Summary

What’s in the Meat

Almost 200,000 Americans get sick each day from food-borne diseases; of those, 900 are hospitalized and 14 die. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one quarter of all Americans suffer from food poisoning every year, and most go unreported or undiagnosed. The number of these illnesses is on the rise, and the effects are much more long lasting than the typical symptoms of diarrhea or intestinal discomfort. Although smaller, more local outbreaks still occur, the centralization of food production is largely responsible for most food contamination. Viruses such as E. coli have been identified, but many other food-borne pathogens have yet to be identified. A 1998 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that more than seventy-eight percent of all beef contains microbes that are spread through fecal material. Most consumer products are regulated closely enough that the federal government can demand a recall if necessary, but America’s meatpacking plants are so powerful that they only recall tainted products when it is in their own best interests to do so. Before World War II, pork was the most consumed meat in America; with the advent of drive-ins and McDonald’s, beef consumption (of hamburgers, in particular) surpassed pork.

Very young children and the elderly are the most likely to suffer serious consequences, including death, when infected with E. coli. The symptoms of this virus are horrific, and antibiotics have proven to be ineffective in treating it. While E. coli can be spread through swimming in a contaminated lake or crawling on a contaminated carpet, it is typically spread through the ingestion of undercooked beef. Once a person has been infected with the virus, he is a source of contagion for everyone around him. Cattle ingest the virus in various ways: through dirty (fecally contaminated) drinking water, through fecal material, or through their food supply, which often contains ground up poultry, pig, horse, and cattle parts. Waste products from poultry plants have been used as cattle feed as well; in 1994, three million pounds of chicken manure was fed to cattle.

In addition to the feedlots, the slaughterhouses also provide many opportunities to spread diseases like salmonella and E. coli. When cattle are eviscerated, their intestines are removed. If the cut is not precise or if the worker does not tie off the intestine properly, fecal material can come into direct contact with the rest of the animal—in addition to the contaminated knife, which can also spread such diseases.

The grinding facilities are one more place where food-borne pathogens can be spread. Hamburger is generally made from dairy cows that no longer produce milk. These cows are often the least healthy cattle to be slaughtered, and the grinding process ensures that even one infected cow can contaminate thousands of pounds of hamburger. One McDonald’s hamburger can contain meat from dozens, possibly even hundreds, of cows.

Because it is so powerful, the meatpacking industry has been able to ward off most substantial government regulation since the early 1900s. After a deadly and widespread outbreak of E. coli from Jack in the Box hamburgers in 1993, regulatory procedures were somewhat strengthened; however, the industry placed the blame on those who prepared the meat, claiming they were responsible for not cooking the hamburgers to the proper internal temperatures. Since then, Jack in the Box has required its managers to attend food safety courses and has worked hard on its public relations regarding the improved quality of its product. Hamburger grinding plants that are consistently adhering to federal guidelines and self-monitoring would like to implement a grading system for all such plants; however, the industry as a whole opposes any such system, and they have found allies in the Republican party, which advocated government deregulation under the leadership of Newt Gingrich. In July 1997, Hudson foods...

(The entire section is 1,120 words.)