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Life & Death in a "Fast Food Nation"

by Jianxie, The Buddhist Channel, June 19, 2007

Dharma inspired movie review: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/fastfoodnation

Singapore -- Inspired by the international bestselling book by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, and of the Official Selection of the Cannes International Film Festival, New York Times called it “Devastating. Ferocious. An unusually funny and moving film.” “Fast Food Nation” (FFN) was named Best Feature of 2006 by the Humane Society to honour media presentations of animal protection issues, lauded “for an uncompromising look at the link between the abuse and exploitation of people and animals in a slaughterhouse.” FFN is about hopes and choices linked to what we eat and work for.

The trailer of the film goes - “Millions of families… millions of undocumented workers… millions of teenagers… millions of marketing dollars… go into one hamburger.” Its tagline asks “politely”, “Would you like lies with that?” FFN has an all-star activist-minded ensemble. It includes Greg Kinnear, Bruce Willis, Avril Lavigne, Patricia Arquette, Kris Kristofferson. Paul Dano and more. We know Lavigne is a vegetarian. Perhaps the others are also considering, or already are? Briefly, FFN highlights the problems of intensely industrialised meat, of how it affects lives in multiple ways.

In FFN, the fictional fast food company “Mickey's” is obviously inspired by “Mc _’s”. It sounds alike, and even looks alike, with similar corporate colours. (No prizes for filling in the blank with a right letter.) Then again, Mickey's stands for fast food chains in general which sells a lot of meat. The fast food phenomenon represents the quintessence of cold hard commercialised efficiency, which hides behind a warm welcoming smile – or in the case of the most famous chain, an accentuated painted grin on a patented clown.

While designed probably to attract legions of kids to its burgers, thank goodness some children, and even adults, have coulrophobia (phobia of clowns). But please don't be mistaken. While also a must-see in its own right in terms of dietary issues and bad faith in marketing, this is no “Super Size Me” (which happens to feature many diabolical caricatures of the world's most famous clown). FFN speaks of macro interconnected issues beyond diet too.

Greg Kinnear plays the Vice-President (Don Anderson) of Mickey's marketing department, who was put in charge of investigating a report that the company's burger (the “Big One” ) patties contain a “nasty secret ingredient” (as the DVD blurb put it). The deeper he looks into how this could be, the more he discovers of “the truth hard to swallow”. Okay. Not being impolite, but using the word used in the film, there is “shit” (fecal coliform) in it off the charts – cow manure. “There's shit in the meat.” He realises that burgers are made with lumps of meat from many cows ground and mixed.

Due to the greed for speed, the production lines on the kill floor of slaughterhouses have inadequate time to clear all the poop from the cow carcasses during gutting. Thus, the meat is inevitably processed with some of it – every day. This dark secret was never really publicised till the book FFN highlighted it. In the film, it is argued that if the burger is cooked well, the bacteria will be taken care of. But the question is, do customers expect to eat shit or cooked shit? And what happens if there is too much shit that is not cooked well enough? Are filthy burgers not a ticking time-bomb for spread of disease?

It is worth noting that slaughterhouses are usually situated far and away from most consumers, from whom the horrendous sight, sound and stench of animal murder is hidden. FFN does all consumers (and farmed animals) a great favour by bringing the experience up close, with crucial portions depicting a meat packing plant. Dubbed by Schlosser “the most dangerous job in the world”, we learn of how easily and often it is that meat-handlers lose their limbs to the merciless machines of the plant. As PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) put it, “No one should make a living killing.” (This is reminiscent of the Buddha's classification of any job related to the exploitation of animals being Wrong Livelihood.) While making a living killing, it is even possible to be killed. Unnerving indeed, whenever scenes of the plant are screened.

What is the karma of killing and cutting animal parts? The increased tendencies of having one's own bodily parts cut? At least, this seems so in the context of the plant. Victimising animals out of greed, humans become victims too. Probably one of the most valuable parts of FFN is its excursion of the “Kill Floor”, where workers are shown to don metal aprons, masks, helmets, boots and goggles for safety while innocent animals are totally defenceless. They are electrically prod, shot, hanged upside down, and have their throats slit when alive, with blood draining away. Their limbs are sawn off, their heads dehorned. They are skinned and ripped open. Every consumer should see how their meat is derived. Enough for Hollywood special effects for horror movies – this is reality – unknown even to most who swear by meat. This is no other dimensional hell – this is hell on Earth, perpetuated by meat-supporters, knowingly or not.

Of connected concern in FFN are the many illegal Mexican immigrants, who risk their lives to cross deserts to America for a better life, often to further risk their lives to work in the above-mentioned meat packing plants, where they are exploited, sometimes sexually, for cheap labour with inadequate welfare. Ghandi once said that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Even more obviously, its moral progress can be judged by the way its human immigrants are treated by other humans. Like the animals, they are seen as parts of a well-oiled nauseating money-making machine. FFN is a story with multi-layered issues of rights – social, animal and environmental. Even its “causal” conversations have messages. Consider a chat about new puppies at a pet shop – “… they just make those cages big enough to be legal but small enough so people will get the puppies outta there.” Domestication seems to present mixed blessings (and thus mixed curses) to animals – be they for pets or food. Domestication is often a self-contradicting hybrid of care and exploitation. To put things into perspective, would any human like being domesticated?

The struggle to make moral issues heard and heeded is not easy – not when the enemy is great greed. For instance, Lavigne in the show speaks of “Crimes Against Nature” (also a book), on how logging and timber companies chop down trees in the National Forest, ironically saying it's a “healthy forest” program… while coal companies run clean air plans. Her friend remarks, “They are extremely well organised so we need to be too… Cos there's no way you can make sense of it all on your own. The lies are too big. They [marketers] are too ingenious. They‘re too interconnected with one another. [We need better kinds of interconnection as we are all truly existentially interconnected!] And they know, if the lies are repeated over and over and over again… people are probably gonna have to believe it, and we do.” Fast food marketers are so skilled that amidst aggressive branding, there is constant study of consumer demographics to optimise profits. Even smells of burgers are meticulously engineered with chemicals. Ironically, raw meat by itself never smells appetising. In the mean time, fast food joint workers are shown to be underpaid and disgruntled. A burger guy spits on a burger, and uses a patty dropped on the floor. Chatting on the thousands of dollars each fast food outlet makes per day, they even contemplate robbery in jest.

Indeed are the machinations of greed taking over the meat industry, where more cattle-rearing is taking up more land, rendering it barren, using much water and resources. Imagine hundreds of thousands of cattle in feedlots, with each cow putting out 50 pounds of manure and urine every day. This “creates more waste in a day than all the people in Denver combined. And the waste is not going to some high-tech treatment plant. It’s being pumped into lagoons which are just great big ponds of piss and shit, which leak into Peyton Creek, which eventually ends up in the river…” “Cattle crammed together living in their own manure, eating genetically engineered crap dumped into concrete troughs. It's like prison camps for cows.” Since FFN was made, the truth is already official – meat-rearing and eating (as mutually supportive gears of supply and demand) are major causes of global warming…

From Time Magazine – ‘Which is responsible for more global warming: your BMW or your Big Mac? Believe it or not, it’s the burger. The international meat industry generates roughly 18% of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions - even more than transportation - according to a report last year from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of that comes from the nitrous oxide in manure and the methane that is, as the New York Times delicately put it, “the natural result of bovine digestion.” Methane has a warming effect that is 23 times as great as that of carbon, while nitrous oxide is 296 times as great. There are 1.5 billion cattle and buffalo on the planet, along with 1.7 billion sheep and goats. Their populations are rising fast, especially in the developing world. Global meat production is expected to double between 2001 and 2050. Given the amount of energy consumed raising, shipping and selling livestock, a 16-oz.T-bone is like a Hummer on a plate. If you switch to vegetarianism, you can shrink your carbon footprint by up to 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to research by the University of Chicago. Trading a standard car for a hybrid cuts only about one ton - and isn't as tasty.'

As the young activists in FFN realise, “action speaks louder than words”. We need to go beyond letter-writing to expect others to change. We ourselves need to change too - we need to practise what we preach. In fact, that is one of the most effective ways to preach what we believe. We need to do the best we can to spread the word and pressure for what must be done or undone. As a character exclaims, he is “tired of seeing nice guys sitting around talking and complaining while the bad guys get to do whatever the f*ck they want.” Ironically, so-called “eco-terrorists” who have never harmed another human being are considered by American government to be more a threat to national security than militia types. The youngsters come up with a plan to free cows from their lots, so as to remind people that cows are not supposed to be penned up and treated the way they are. The idea was to let them run and wander free, even if they cause traffic jams – as they return back to the prairie where they “belong”.

Okay, that form of animal liberation is a little extreme – though it does create much attention. As mentioned, domestication is also a curse. Where can the many freed animals go to? Is there enough land elsewhere? Will they be able to fend for themselves in the “wild” without causing trouble for other animals and humans? The cows bound for doom in FFN seem to prefer the comfort zone of where there is readily given food – they don't go far from the fences, much to the activists' disappointment. Consumers too are in their comfort zones - where they prefer to turn a blind eye to the atrocities animals go through to become their food. The most effective way to liberate “meat” animals still is to liberate them from our dining tables. The amassing of individual boycott is a significant mass-boycott. When the buying reduces, the breeding and killing reduces. The power of the masses has always been the power of individuals.

Ethan Hawke in FFN has an impassioned chat with his niece Amber (played by Ashley Johnson), related to activism – “The ones who have followed their passion – even if they weren't technically successful, when they were looking back at their lives, they had fewer regrets. They felt that their life had been more fulfilling… If enough people start thinking about something, trying to actually do something, you can change things for the better… Don't just hope. You can't just sit back and hope. You have to do something.”

Even changing our diet changes many things for the better. Amber realises the significance of her choices and could no longer bear to work at a Mickey's outlet, despite temptation of a pending promotion. It was a matter of morals over money. On the other hand, for Don the marketing guy, it was a matter of money over morals. Despite realising the ugly truth of the shit in the meat and having a struggle over it, he manages to go against his conscience to carry on his marketing work. Everyone working in the fast food industry in one way or another should see FFN – be they of Amber's simple cashier position to Don's high-flying one. The unethical aspects of the industry are probably run by those blind to their conscience or those who do not realise their blindness.

The world's largest fast food chain alone (which is also the most heavily publicly criticised) has more than 30,000 outlets, serving more than 45 million consumers a day in about 120 countries. Alas! It's not just a case of “Fast Food Nation” being America - it is “Fast Food International” (FFI). As the endnotes of FFN say, “We live in a Fast Food Nation. Get involved at http://www.participate.net.” Yes, wherever you live is probably already a FFN or fast becoming one. With globalisation going on, we need global awareness of the harms of an FFI. Share the movie's DVD, share its reviews.

As the tagline of Participate.net goes, “Movies have the power to inspire. You have the power to act! Participate.” There is a new book by the same author (and Charles Wilson) on the subject too – “Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food”. The DVD of FFN also comes with special features, including the famous Meatrix cartoons – http://www.meatrix.com. Remember – what you eat affects your health, animal welfare, society and the environment. For indisputably good reasons to go vegetarian, see http://viva.org.uk/goingveggie/index.html. For extended reasons to go vegan, see http://viva.org.uk/goingvegan/index.html.



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