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Fast Food Nation: Business Analysis


The Code of Federal Regulations defines natural flavors and flavorings as follows: “The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional” (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Web site). The Vegetarian Resource Group notes, “Natural flavors can be pretty much anything approved for use in food.” As a result, unless a company specifically lists the source of its natural ingredients on the label, the consumer is left without a clue. A few, primarily smaller, companies list sources, but the vast majority do not. Most consumers probably do not realize the types of hidden ingredients that may be in their food.

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In Fast Food Nation, a 2001 best-seller that describes the impact of the fast-food industry on life in the United States, Eric Schlosser noted that a number of fast-food products obtain their flavors from unexpected sources. For example, the Grilled Chicken Sandwich sold at Wendy’s contains beef extracts, and the BK Broiler Chicken Breast Patty sold at Burger King has “natural smoke flavor.” Schlosser says that Red Arrow Products Company “manufactures natural smoke flavor by charring sawdust and capturing the aroma chemicals released into the air. Then the firm turns this smoke into liquid with a solvent” (Schlosser: 128).

Foods may also contain insects, molds, and rodent filth. How many of these hidden ingredients might be in a typical meal? The Web site of the American-Asian Kashrus Services notes the following examples: “coffee beans: up to 10% can be insect infected; tomato juice: up to 10 fly eggs per 100 grams; cereal: up to 9 milligrams of rodent excreta and 50 insect fragments per 50 grams.”

The FDA contends that “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects” (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Web site). The FDA does set limits, and it is against the law for manufacturers to exceed these. The limits are listed in a report more than 30 pages long entitled The Food Defect Action Levels that may be found on the Web site of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA maintains that manufacturers do not simply attempt to remain slightly below the permissible level. “The defect levels do not represent an average of the defects that occur in any of the products the averages are actually much lower. The levels represent limits at which FDA will regard the food product ‘adulterated’ and subject to enforcement action” (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Web site).

By becoming a diligent reader of food labels, one may try to avoid foods with natural flavorings, especially those in which the natural flavorings are not identified. While this is difficult and time-consuming, it may work with products purchased at a store, but vigilant label reading is of little assistance with restaurant or take-out foods. It is of no help with processed foods that may contain FDA-permissible amounts of insects, mold, and rodent filth.

Would organic foods be less likely to be tainted? As is noted in the chapter on organic foods, the term organic relates to the way in which the food is grown and produced, not the method in which it is processed. Like other foods, natural flavorings would be listed as an ingredient of processed organic foods. As long as they remain within FDA limits, they may have the same contaminants.

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As a result of concerns about hidden ingredients, a number of Jewish and non-Jewish people are eating more kosher products. According to Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, who maintains the Web site Kosher Quest, many people believe that “kosher certification is their best guarantee that the product and its ingredients are being watched carefully…. In the U.S. alone, there appear to be at least five million people who buy products based on their being kosher” (KosherQuest Web site). There are no hidden ingredients in kosher foods. All ingredients are clearly labeled. The American-Asian Kashrus Services Web site notes that “close to 100,000 products and ingredients in the U.S. today are certified Kosher.” That means that “millions of Americans from all religions and walks of life are looking to kosher certified foods as the only real guarantee as to the true nature of what they are eating.”

More people are also reducing their intake of processed foods. A newly washed fresh tomato is exactly that—a tomato. However, the FDA allows canned tomatoes to have no more than 10 or more drosophila fly eggs per 500 grams or 5 or more drosophila fly eggs and 1 or more maggots per 500 grams or 2 or more maggots per 500 grams (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Web site). Fresh fruit may also contain some insects. An August 2000 article in the Christian Science Monitor noted that 500 grams of berries may have 4 larvae or 10 whole insects (Huntington: Page 18).

Although some people will only be shocked to learn what might be in their food, other people who have food allergies and intolerances may have significant negative reactions to the food they eat because of these unnamed ingredients. Even small amounts of certain foods hidden in other foods may make them ill. A reaction from a food allergy may actually kill someone. Allergic reactions are not uncommon occurrences. Seven million Americans are believed to have food allergies.

Those who are allergic have no choice but to avoid the allergen. They should begin by reading ingredient labels. If there is no ingredient label, allergic people may attempt to contact the manufacturer. Unless an allergic person is able to determine that all the ingredients are safe, the food should not be consumed.

That is sometimes easier to say than to do. Hoping to study the situation, in October 1998, the Food and Drug Administration formed a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. They decided to begin a two-year investigation of the eight foods that cause 90% of the severe life-threatening reactions: peanuts, eggs, milk and milk products, wheat, tree nuts, soy, fish, and shellfish. “Although this Partnership looked at control of all food allergens, the Partnership focused on peanut and egg allergens. Ice cream, bakery and candy manufacturers were selected for coverage. Selection was made randomly of small, medium, and large establishments” (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Web site). In total, 85 companies were examined.

According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, “Fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society, ” and public schools are no exception. 61 Today, American children receive approximately one third of their total vegetable servings from potato chips or french fries. Schlosser goes on to report that, “In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2001, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. ”

Despite the many advances, there is a growing awareness that some ingredients are still not listed on food labels. A number of national organizations and countless Internet sites can provide information. Most fast-food restaurants post lists of all the ingredients in their products. Whenever possible, these include the “hidden ones.” These lists may also be obtained on the Internet. Certainly, in the better restaurants, when a customer notifies a member of the waitstaff of a food allergy or intolerance, the server will quickly provide information or check with the chef. Chefs and the members of their staff are becoming increasingly aware of the problem and adjusting their meals to suit the needs of their customers.

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While it is no longer necessary for people with food allergies and intolerances to avoid eating away from home, they must, nevertheless, always be cautious. They should veer in the direction of eating plain foods with fewer ingredients. They should ask for food that has been kept separate and prepared in a carefully washed pan. They should support and patronize restaurants and stores that cater to their needs. Above all, they should continue to speak out, raise public awareness, and write letters to their congressional representatives asking for stricter food standards. If legislators believe that there is a strong constituency for these issues, they will respond with new laws and increased resources.

The most powerful critiques of consumer culture emerged in a series of serious yet accessible books published between 1999 and 2001. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, the political scientist Robert D. Putnam offered an immensely influential analysis of the decline of “social capital” since the late 1960s which had resulted in people bowling (or praying, working, volunteering, politicking) alone rather than in groups. The causes were many, but prominent among them was the way new media, particularly for members of a younger generation, had privatized people’s lives, eroding social networks and reciprocity. With Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess, the economist Robert H. Frank echoed both Thorstein Veblen and John Kenneth Galbraith as he explored how the “virus” of extravagant spending infected the society.

In Do Americans Shop Too Much?—a book endorsed by Ehrenreich and Galbraith and with a foreword by Ralph Nader—Juliet Schor answered the question in the affirmative. The current “shopping mania, ” she argued, “provokes considerable dis-ease. ” She described a “new consumerism, ” driven by the fact that the workplace and the mass media had replaced the neighborhood as the source of people’s sense of what the good life involved. The trickle-down power of upscale dreams strained budgets and threatened family life, caused people to work longer, made authentic leisure harder to achieve, and undermined commitments to public well-being. In his best-selling Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Dream, the journalist Eric Schlosser analyzed the adverse impact of the consumption of fast foods on working conditions, health, farming, demography, and the environment. These authors went beyond analysis and description to offer policy recommendations.


They put forth progressive versions of a politics of consumption that, sensitive to issues of equity and the environment, would restore balance to the nation’s engagement with affluence and to the relationship between the local environment and the worlds beyond. Although Frank and especially Schor were at times moralistic in deploying the social disease model, more typically these books emerged from the passions of committed social democrats worried at century’s end about the costs of excess. Together these books offered powerful condemnations less of the personal anxieties of affluence than of its social costs. The dust jacket copy of Putnam’s book applies just as well to the others: “like defining works of the past that have endured, ” such as David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, it “identified a central crisis at the heart of our society.

Works Cited

Huntington, Sharon. “You’re Already Eating Insects.” Christian Science Monitor, 2000: Page 18.

Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Schlosser, E. Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World, London: Allen Lane. (2001).

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal New York: Perennial. 2002.

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