Every day, about one-quarter of American adults eat at fast-food restaurants. Cheap, tasty, and convenient, fast food is loaded with saturated fat and calories, and it's low in fiber and nutrients. Thanks in large part to fast food, half of America's adults and one-quarter of its children are obese, double the rate of a generation ago. Even some popular chicken nuggets, which many consumers consider a healthier alternative, are flavored with beef extract and contain twice as much fat, ounce for ounce, as a ham burger.
Besides the long-term health risks of a high-fat, high-calorie diet, fast-food chains have indirectly changed the way cattle are fed, slaughtered, and processed, making meatpacking the most dangerous job in America and increasing the risk of large-scale food poisoning. In his new book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser describes fast food's hidden dangers.
A Lifetime of Fast Food
Although most of the health problems related to fast food aren't felt until middle age -- obesity and diabetes are at an all-time high --- the damage starts before children enter kindergarten. Hoping to shape eating habits, fast-food chains market heavily to children. About 96% of American school-aged children recognize Ronald McDonald, second only to Santa Claus. Almost every American child eats at a McDonald's® at least once a month.
Fast food runs on cheap labor, usually supplied by teenagers. Child labor laws that restrict work schedules are often ignored at fast-food chains. Although part-time employment can teach teenagers responsibility, teenage boys who work long hours are more likely to abuse drugs and get into trouhle. They also risk getting hurt: Each year about 20,000 teenagers suffer work-related injuries, about twice the adult rate.
Meatpacking Factories: Injuries and Food Poisoning
To keep meat prices low, most slaughterhouses have moved out of big cities and into small towns. Instead of hiring skilled, unionized workers, meatpacking plants frequently recruit recent immigrants who are willing to work hard for low pay on assembly lines that turn living cattle into frozen hamburger at record speed. To keep up the pace, plant workers often abuse methamphetamine. Meatpacking has become the most hazardous occupation in the US, with three times the injury rate of factory work. Each year, at least one-third of all meatpackers are injured on the job.
Concentrating cattle into large feedlots and herding them through processing assembly lines operated by poorly trained employees increase the risk of large-scale food poisoning. Manure gets mixed with meat, contaminating it with salmonella and Escherichia coli 0157:H7. Schlosser reports a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) study that found 78.6% of ground beef contained microbes spread primarily by fecal material. Because of current processing methods, each contaminated carcass is distributed to a large number of people. The typical frozen hamburger that is used in fast-food restaurants contains meat from dozens or hundreds of cattle, multiplying the risk of food poisoning.
E. coli 0157:H7 is one of the worst forms of food poisoning. Usually spread through undercooked hamburgers, it's difficult to treat. Although antibiotics kill the bacteria, they release a toxin that produces dreadful complications. About 4% of people infected with E. coli 0157:H7 develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, and about 5% of children who develop the syndrome die. E. coli 0157:H7 has become the leading cause of renal failure among American kids.
Meat also can become poisoned as it's processed into hot dogs or bologna. The US Food and Drug Administration and the USDA recently warned that children under six and pregnant women should avoid hot dogs and sandwich meats unless they're thoroughly cooked, due to the risk of Listeria monocytogenes infection. Once mixed into food, L. monocytogenes continues to multiply, despite refrigeration. Usually, it causes mild flu-like symptoms, but it can turn deadly in young children. Pregnant women are 20 times more susceptible to infection, which may lead to miscarriage or stillbirth. Each year, L. monocytogenes causes 2,500 serious illnesses and 500 deaths. As food processing is concentrated among fewer and fewer facilities, large-scale contamination becomes more likely. Last year, for example, agricultural giant Cargill recalled almost 17 million pounds of processed poultry products due to the risk of L. monocytogenes.
Jeffrey Zurlinden, RN, MS, is a Nursing Spectrum contributing writer.
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