Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bad food

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2004)
A proposition: the big fast food companies serve no good purpose whatsoever – their influence on society is entirely, unremittingly malign. During the 50 years or so since the rise of McDonald’s, the industry, in conjunction with its paid political hacks, has been more responsible than any other for bastardizing democratic values; for disrupting communities through unremitting, if not crazed emphasis on cost control, profit maximization and product standardization. The industry markets itself shamelessly to children, a sleepless pusher selling a brazen image of itself as some kind of non-stop fun festival. Except at the corporate executive level, everyone in the chain of supply and influence gets screwed, turned either into a minimum wage prisoner or else into a deadened borderline addict.

No one claims the food is good for you – McDonald’s itself cited its well-known health risks in defending itself against a product liability suit. Sure, it tastes pretty good up to a point, although surely not to the point that for so many people, it should so completely crowd out the alternatives. You want to think that if fast food freaks could only step outside themselves for a second, and look hard at the banality of their daily or three-times-weekly trudge to their banal overlit troughs – surely that’s all it would take to break it. But that’s easy for me to say. People only have so much in the way of mental and financial resources, and the chains prey on weakness. Worse, they set out to create it.
No good purpose

Sound pretty angry don’t I. Mark that down to my reading (during the hours spent whiling away a week on jury duty) Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, fast on the heels of Paul Hawken’s The Ecology ofCommerce. I’m not sure you could put together a more depressing pair of page turners: both books are completely convincing, completely rational, and leave no doubt that we’re on the road to hell. But you’ll note that I’m continuing with my life regardless, albeit with a bit more unformed sense that I ought to be doing something. As the recent documentary The Corporation recounts, one American CEO experienced an epiphany after reading the Hawken book, awoke to a sense of himself as an amoral plunderer, and set out to remake his company (an effort that continues). But few of us possess such a direct axis of influence; lacking an appropriate arena for our anger, we’re likely to let it soften into depression. I say this with no pleasure at myself.

Morgan Spurlock’s new documentary Super Size Me, which could almost be a movie version of Schlosser’s book (but isn’t) is getting lots of deserved attention for its take on McDonald’s, and at least amounts to doing something. Spurlock came up with a solid gimmick: for thirty days, he would eat there and nowhere else, trying everything on the menu at least once and accepting the Super Size option whenever offered. At the start a team of doctors checks him out, all of who testify to his excellent physical shape. Initially the diet makes him physically sick (one of the film’s centrepieces is its gross-out vomit scene); once he gets past that, he’s plagued by shifting feelings of malaise. The doctors are stunned at the speed of his physical decline; by the end of the month he’s gained 25 pounds, has looming liver problems, and he’s scoring worse than before on virtually every measure. Not least of all, as pointed out by his girlfriend Alex (a vegan chef), in the area of sexual functioning.
Super Size Me

Spurlock’s primary focus, obviously, is on health issues (the movie’s dominant visual image, other than the McDonald’s symbol, is the big fat American ass). He acknowledges that the experiment is exaggerated, but the basic point seems incontrovertible: the food is bad. He’s an amiable presence with a deadpan sense of humour; distinctly less hectoring than a Michael Moore. The film, interspersed with peppy graphics and an overall jaunty technique, touches on the other links in the McDonald’s chain of horror, but only briefly. Spurlock doesn’t talk to any politicians, and although in the end he’s planning a Moore-style visit to corporate headquarters, when they stall him he seems to back down.
Schlosser’s book describes the genesis of McDonald’s as an outgrowth of the can-do entrepreneurial spirit that flourished in America after WW2. The combination of new roads, new technology, mass media and an upwardly mobile public opened the door to a new spin on a low-grade food source. What could be wrong with that? McDonald’s corporate image-building, and the effort it puts behind political manna such as tax cuts and corporate subsidiaries, still return to that same ideal of industry and imagination, as though the company were still taking baby steps. But it’s a big lie. The company’s just about bled America dry. Hence the importance of global expansion, and exporting the whole pernicious agenda. It was recently reported that after just one generation of McDonald’s, Japanese men in their 30’s have the worst obesity statistics ever recorded there.
Sorrow over anger

Currently, McDonalds seems to be on the retreat, not least of all because of the film itself. The company denies Spurlock’s film had anything to do with its recent elimination of the Super Size option, but no one believes it. But this is an incremental climb-down at best, and the current fad for supposedly “healthy” food, channeled through the wretchedly weak-minded Atkins craze, doesn’t exactly seem like a revolution. In particular, buying a “healthy” meal at a fast food joint isn’t much of a step in the right direction.

Actually, even though she’s his girlfriend, Alex the vegan chef seems a bit marginal to the overall direction of Super Size Me – there’s a certain ironic distance to the depiction of the organic meal she serves on the eve of the experiment, and of the “detox” program she works out for him when it’s over. But that’s fair enough. Spurlock isn’t an idealist – he’s a pretty ordinary guy, and his film’s all the more convincing because of it. In the end, it has a “more in sorrow than in anger” kind of feeling. Having made his point, you get the impression his subsequent movies will be about something else entirely. I don’t blame him. But here’s the lousy thing. However depressing Schlosser’s book and Spurlock’s movie may be, the effect of reading The Ecology of Commerce is even worse.

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