This is one in a series of articles. For more on this subject visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Is Our Food Killing Us? Diet, Nutrition, and Health in 21st Century America.
Okay, here's a loaded question: Is it immoral to sell somebody something that you believe will harm them, but that they want and have the means to pay for? Heroin, for instance. Or a KFC Double-Down. What if you've heard that it's harmful, but don't really believe it? What if the buyer swears up and down that he or she realizes the dangers inherent in the consumption of whatever it is and wants it anyway?
Back in 1930, when Harland Sanders opened his first fried chicken shack in south-central Kentucky (or in 1940, when Richard and Maurice McDonald founded their Southern California hamburger stand, later turned into a worldwide megacorporation by Ray Kroc; or in 1950, when William Rosenberg launched his Dunkin' Donuts shop outside Boston), the idea that purveying inexpensive and, by some standards at least, good honest food to the general populace might be morally suspect would have seemed ridiculous.
Today, however, as we are bombarded with anti-fast-food propaganda (just because it's propaganda doesn't mean it's wrong) and as we learn more and more about supposedly healthy eating habits, some critics are indeed proposing that not only is fast food bad for us, it also transgresses some basic laws of human decency.
Whatever the motives of the founders of the famous chains may have been, these critics suggest fast food today is cynically formulated, dishonestly presented garbage, aimed at taking money from, and providing a false sense of gustatory satisfaction to, a wide segment of society — disproportionately the poor and uneducated. It is, the theory goes, taking advantage of the impecunious, the homeless, the harried. Surely this isn't right.
Of course, if selling bad food were immoral, half the restaurants in America (at a conservative estimate), even some very famous and expensive ones, would be guilty of immorality at least some of the time. Quality is subjective, and while plenty of studies have demonstrated that fast food may be deleterious to one's health, none but the most puritanical have suggested that one must never, ever, ever bite into a deep-fried chicken leg or pop a handful of those supposedly delicious McDonald's fries into one's maw. And if selling somebody, say, one fast-food burger or chalupa a year doesn't call down the judgment of the gods, then why would selling them 20 or 50 or 365? Those who buy and eat this kind of food on a regular basis are almost certainly harming themselves, especially in the long term, but I fail to see where morality comes in.
On the other hand, other aspects of the fast food business arguably are immoral. Misrepresenting the food to be sold, for instance, as comparisons of advertising imagery with photos of actual items have shown. Marketing nutrition-poor food items directly to children through the use of animated characters and giveaways of toys often associated with hit movies or TV shows. Hiring the otherwise unhireable at sub-par wages. These things seem a lot more questionable in a moral sense than handing over a BBQ Bacon Whopper in return for a few bucks.
Then there's the whole matter of where fast food comes from. Are the animals slaughtered to produce our burgers, nuggets, and tacos raised and dispatched humanely? (Chipotle has made a commitment to do so in the taco and burrito area.) How many natural resources were expended to grow, harvest, pack, and ship the lettuce on your sandwich? Is the corn that's turned into soft-drink syrup, tortillas, and chips genetically modified? Is that "Filet o' Fish" cut from non-endangered fish? Never mind whether fast food is moral or not — is it sustainable? Is the immense buying power of the biggest chains used to encourage sound practices of animal husbandry and agriculture, or does it ride roughshod over the environment?
These are all valid concerns, ones that we should at least consider when making our food choices. But if we find our local burger/chicken/taco/pizza place lacking in any of these areas, are we obliged to eschew them? Or, more, to denounce them publically, to picket them, to post damning comments online? Or would that be making too big a deal out of things we may not be able to control? Those are questions each of us must answer for him- or herself. If we believe we have identified immoral practices in the fast food world, we may well wish to take action, even if it's just a personal boycott of the most grievous offenders. On the other hand, maybe we should direct our moral outrage elsewhere. Washington, D.C. alone offers many tempting targets.
Colman Andrews is The Daily Meal's editorial director. Follow him on Twitter @colmanandrews.