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There's more than “meats” the eye behind “happy” meals

By: Beth Fiteni

Every day, thousands of animals are slaughtered to create cheap, fast-food meals. And somebody has to prepare them. Thankfully, not us. The question the new film Fast Food Nation, based on the best selling book of the same title by Eric Schlosser, wants us to answer is — if we know animals must die and that people, somewhere, have to kill them on a large scale, cut up their bodies, and risk their own in jury, why don't we care? Is it really human nature to just say, out of sight, out of mind?

However, to make its point, the film doesn't just present facts and figures. Three stories blend to illustrate how the scenario unfolds, showing how many parties are victims of the fast food world. One story begins with a small group of Mexicans illegally crossing the border into the U.S. for a “better” life. They are brought to a Colorado town where several of them begin work at a meat processing plant that makes the beef patties for a “Mickey's” fast-food chain. We see two of them, who only speak Spanish, watching a safety training video in English.

Since any movie must include a sex scene, even this one, it shows how one young woman begins sleeping with the domineering, abusive manager who gets her into drugs. Meanwhile another member of the group is badly injured on moving equipment and the company (through a translator) tells his wife that the accident must have been his fault. How can she fight the corporation?

We are also introduced to the friendly salesgirl at a local Mickey's, Amber, who works hard and is blissfully unaware of what goes on behind the scenes to create the burgers she sells, and we watch the development of her awareness and eventual activism through the course of the film. Even Avril Lavigne adds her famous face in a cameo appearance as a fellow activist.

Simultaneously, there is the corporate high-up, Don, who created Mickey's best selling burger, the “Big One.” He is sent out to investigate the plant because testing is showing high levels of fecal coliform bacteria in the meat. A local rancher tells him it's from the carcasses being processed too quickly so workers can't do a “clean” job of evisceration. He knows it is unacceptable in terms of public health but is sternly told by the plant owner, played by Bruce Willis, that as long as the meat is cooked it's fine, and that if he whistelblows unnecessary scandal will ensue that could harm the company.

While some unpleasant scenes run throughout, and the film doesn't skimp on vulgarity, the final scenes of the killing floor, filmed in a real meat processing plant, caused one person in my theatre to run out of the room. But again the question the film brings out — isn't it a horror that everyone should see before they choose to support the fast food industry?

One strange thing about the film is that the collection of parallel stories are of fictional characters, while telling a story of reality. It was a judgment call of the film makers to go this route, and one might argue it might have been more effective if done as a documentary. However, this way the “human” element, which adds color to the facts, can be told in a way that truly brings forth an emotional reaction, mostly of disgust.

It wasn't the best acting I've ever seen, and the character roles were a bit type-cast and dialog forced. But anyone choosing to attend this sort of film must have somewhat expected to be getting a message, albeit an unpleasant one.

The message being, that though many, many factors combine to create the ugly scenario of fast food production, which has negative impacts that reverberate through the animal and human world alike, we as consumers do have the power to change it through the power of our wallet.

Our choices matter on a grand scale, and certainly to our own personal health. Despite what characters like Ronald McDonald may tell us, the fecal coliform contamination issue raised in the film isn't just fiction, and neither are the health issues associated with consuming fast food (though not the focus of this film). The massive system that pollutes our environment with large quantities of manure runoff, often exploits workers, and impacts our children's health, runs on our money, and if we don't provide it, things will change.

Film is rated R for sexual content, graphic images, and strong language. Appropriate for 18 and over.

Beth Fiteni, MSEL is the Issues Program Director for the Neighborhood Network, a Long Island-based environmental organization, and is also an advisor to Healthy Planet, a grassroots organization that promotes a healthy diet to help protect our health and the environment.


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