People’s love-hate relationship with fast food holds a special place in our catalog of food fears. We love fast food, but we’re afraid of germs and food contamination. We’re afraid of getting fat, so we stop eating for pleasure.
In addition, people flock to a type of group mentality when it comes to media. Wendy’s reportedly lost $2.5 million in the Bay Area following the now infamous story of a severed finger in their chili. The story quickly became fodder for late-night television jokes, playing into a long-running national narrative about the dangers lurking within fast food. Now, even after the accuser’s imprisonment and Wendy’s distribution of free Frosties to win back customers, there are always going to be lingering feelings of disgust associated with that company.
Janet Chrzn, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that many of our negative perceptions about fast food are largely class based. Fast food in America has come to be associated with the lower classes and minorities, she says.
Leon Rappoport, professor emeritus of psychology at Kansas State University and the author of How We Eat: Appetite, Culture and the Psychology of Food, says fast food fears are rooted in our mistrust of food service workers – socially “marginal” groups that include teenagers, recent immigrants and the poor.
“Should we trust our health to very low paid marginal workers, who for all we know may be pissed off or alienated enough to not bother about hand washing and other food safety practices?” he asks rhetorically.
Although rare, unappetizing foreign bodies do turn up in fast food. A $17.5 million lawsuit stemming from a 9-year-old girl who bit down on a rat head between the buns of her Big Mac is winding through Canadian courts. A few weeks after the Wendy’s incident, a man sued the owner of an Arby’s restaurant in Ohio, claiming he found a 3/4-inch slice of human skin in his chicken sandwich. And last month a North Carolina man found a severed finger in his frozen custard. In addition to these recent cases, fast food contamination from E. coli, listeria and salmonella and other bacteria is well known.
As omnivores, humans are compelled to eat a number of different foods. But an omnivorous diet is fraught with danger. Some foods are dangerous. From a biological point of view, it just makes sense to be cautious of what we eat.