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BMJ. 2007 May 5; 334(7600): 958.
PMCID: PMC1865452

Lies with everything

Reviewed by Janice Hopkins Tanne, medical journalist, New York

Fast Food Nation. UK release date: 4 May 2007.. US release date: 17 November 2006. . Rating: ****.

Janice Hopkins Tanne is horrified by a film about America's burger industry

You may never eat a hamburger again after seeing Fast Food Nation. You may even become a vegetarian.

This film, based on award winning journalist Eric Schlosser's eponymous bestseller (BMJ 2002;324:1461), is far more than an exposé of the fast food chains that have spread across the world, oozing like ketchup from their American birthplace and providing standardised hamburgers and fries (chips) to millions. It describes the fast food industry's influence on what we eat, on illegal immigration to the United States, on agriculture, on globalisation, on environmental impact, on dead-end and sometimes dangerous jobs, on real estate interests, and on how middle America thinks about work.

The film's subtitle is “You want lies with that?”—a pun on McDonald's “You want fries with that”—whereas Schlosser's book was subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.” His opening chapter described a man who most days delivered pizza to the well guarded North American Aerospace Command inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. Other chapters described the growth of the fast food industry.

The film is different and translates the complex history of the fast food industry into easily grasped fictional stories of the people involved. It begins with a group of young Mexicans illegally entering the United States with a dangerous journey through the Arizona desert. Some will die. Those who survive are transported to several cities for “off the books” work that nevertheless pays immensely more than they could earn at home. Some wind up in the imagined small city of Cody, Colorado.

In parallel, we see a marketing executive (played by Greg Kinnear), a nice family guy, who has been successful at his company by inventing and promoting “The Big One” hamburger for his fastfood chain, called Mickey's, and who is involved in the chemical processes used to improve the burger's smell and taste. However, like many middle Americans, he is worried about his job.

He hears from his boss that a watchdog group has found high levels of faecal coliform bacteria—E coli—in the frozen hamburger patties that Mickey's ships from Colorado to its many fast food outlets, where the patties are quickly cooked and packed into “The Big One” hamburgers. “There's shit in the meat,” barks his boss.

The marketing executive is sent to investigate the contamination problem at Cody, which supplies Mickey's meat. Thousands of cattle fill mile after mile of huge feedlots, where their manure and urine contaminate the land and water all around. Then they are sent to a plant, where they are slaughtered, butchered, turned into round, pink hamburger patties, frozen, and shipped out nationwide. The executive is taken on a tour through an apparently spotless, sanitary plant. “You didn't see the kill floor,” people tell him.

A man who sells cattle from ranchers to the meat-packing conglomerate—brilliantly played by Bruce Willis—discounts the problem of faecal contamination: “Meat is supposed to be cooked. Just cook it,” he says.

A rancher explains how real estate interests are trying to take over the land where he has raised cattle like his forefathers. They are building whole suburban communities on what was once ranchland.

The illegal Mexican immigrants find jobs at Cody's meat processing plant. The work is gruelling and dangerous and the hours are long. Sexual exploitation of women is common. Sometimes workers take drugs to take the edge off. Nevertheless, they are glad to have the jobs, which pay them more in an hour than they would make in a day in Mexico and enable them to send money home to their families. They are drawn into lower middle-class life: buying a used car, taking a girlfriend out for a meal at a fast food restaurant.

Some scenes are scary, showing workers using sharp knives and electric blades with no apparent safety devices. One scene is devastating.

In Cody we also see young high school students who work at dead-end jobs in Mickey's, including Amber (played by Ashley Johnson). She is becoming uneasy about Mickey's, wants to go to university, and is influenced by activists at a nearby college.

The teenagers she works with consider robbing the store. Customers are poor and pay in cash, not with credit cards, so the store receives several thousand dollars in cash every day. But there are surveillance cameras everywhere and Amber explains that her every sale is recorded, keystroke by keystroke, and she must also enter basic demographic information about customers—age, sex, ethnicity—for Mickey's marketing department. So instead Amber and her activist friends decide to make their protest by releasing the cattle from their pens.

Beyond the obvious fast food story, the film cleverly entwines many aspects of US life: its corporate culture, which the film says is corrupt; companies' need for illegal and poorly paid immigrant labour; workers who are only too happy to stay in terrible jobs for higher pay than they could get at home; and workers who are on drugs because their work is so demeaning, which puts them at risk of injury on the job.

Notes

Fast Food Nation

UK release date: 4 May 2007.

US release date: 17 November 2006.

Rating: ****


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