Monday, 26 January 2009

Eric Schlosser's Chew On This runs to 199 pages, with about 50 pages of notes. It is illustrated with photos. Its chapters are short and pithy, usually containing information about a single instance of the many undesirable outcomes deriving from the ascendancy of junk food made by McDonald's and dozens of other, mainly American, fast food corporations.

It makes you wonder what business journalists get up to on a daily basis. It makes you wonder if it is true that corporate press releases drafted by public relations operatives and recycled by journalists are monopolising the pages of our broadsheets. Because this kind of material - meticulously annotated and extensively researched - should be what we read when we open the paper in the morning, evening or night.

At the end of the book, Schlosser exhorts consumers - you and me - to eschew the cheap, high-calorie option offered by fast food outlets in favour of home- or quality-prepared, low-calorie and healthy alternatives. Food is important to us, as he illustrates in the book. It's not just Eskimo villages that suffer. Young boys booking in for stomach stapling surgery are not only minimising their quality of life for the rest of their lives. They're also putting themselves at risk of premature death.

A stomach stapling patient needs to take vitamin supplements for the rest of his or her life. Failure to do so causes hair to fall out - a sign of encroaching maulnutrition. This is just one of the many stories Schlosser uses to illustrate a general decline in the standard of living deriving from the consumption of cheap, fast food.

The book is easy to consume, however. It's not particularly challenging and the illustrations do not go as far as, perhaps, all of us would like. But in the same way that Morgan Spurlock illustrated the evils of McDonald's by eating nothing else for months, Schlosser's 2006 non-fiction book brings a little closer a whole slew of unappetising facts.

Because it's not just our bodies that suffer. A single, hilarious example relates to the closing of a Canadian McDonald's following the success of two low-paid employees there in recruiting members for a worker's union. Having failed to bully the staff into refusing to become involved, the company simply shut down the operation - heading off, it would seem, a spread of unionisation through outlets elsewhere in Canada and, heaven forbid, the United States as well.

This kind of corporate chicanery is what business journalists should be writing about. But whenever I open a newspaper, the first thing I do is to throw away the business section. Why? It's hard to read and incredibly dull. I just cannot relate to the journalism it includes. So I toss it in the garbage. Fast journalism. Junk journalism.

Schlosser also shows how farming has stopped benefitting the people who put the most time into the production process: the farmers. The amount of money a beef farmer supplying McDonald's receives from his beef has dropped by about 25 per cent in half as many years.

Staff employed in chicken processing plants torture the beasts, which many not even be dead before they're dropped into a vat of boiling water. Knife cuts are endemic at meat processing plants because - due to the large diversity in the size of the beasts - machine processing is not possible. Different sized cows and steers means that all cutting must be done by hand.

Not only are there health reasons to stop buying and eating fast food, but there are ethical reasons, many of them relating to the economics of fast food production. All the processing is conducted in industrial sized plants. There is no craft - apart from with meat workers - and the way the system works has led, over the years, to lower pay and worse conditions for workers employed in the factories and on the farms that supply them.

Schlosser ends with a plea for us to take responsibility: don't buy the stuff. Will anyone listen?

A recent government advertising campaign designed to make adults aware of the risks involved in overweight has spread throughout Australia. In it, a man walks down a straight path, morphing every few seconds at moments designed to indicate passing years. The campaign seems to be effective. It made me buy a bathroom scale and talk to my pharmacist. It also made me realise that home cooked is better in so many ways.

I can go to McDonald's and buy a meal for about 10 dollars. But it won't last. The high sugar content and the large amount of fat ensure that the burger is assimilated by my body very rapidly. I also don't feel very well a few hours after ingestion.

Alternatively, I can go out and spend, say, 15 dollars on ingredients (fish, for example). I bring it all home and spend about 30 minutes preparing the food for consumption. At the end, I have a large, delicious meal. The next day I can finish the leftovers off for lunch or breakfast.

All round, it's a much better alternative. Over time, I can improve on the skill. I can even use it to entertain a friend, or a group of friends, by cooking a meal and serving it in my own home. I take a bite out of my pumpkin tempura and I can taste the pumpkin. Same for the potato tempura. Same for the onion.

It gives me pleasure, and I feel virtuous. It gives me control over my life and makes me feel good, which is a strong endorsement for any activity in this busy world. All it costs is $15 to $20 and 30 to 45 minutes' time.

It's a win-win situation.

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