These days, for the equivalent of pocket change (plus some from under the couch) you can get your hands on fast food burgers. An entire fast food menu might run you a little more, but there's no denying that fast food hamburgers are cheap.
But "cheap" isn't the right word to use for fast food burgers. As we face a public health crisis and an ever changing environment, it becomes more and more clear that cheap fast food is only cheap because the price doesn't reflect the real costs.
Looking at many of the externalized costs in the fast food burger industry, Bittman concludes that "the cheeseburger is simply a symbol of a food system gone awry. Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception."
Bittman estimates that Americans eat about 16 billion burgers per year, and of those burgers, most of them have externalized costs that come in at an additional 68 cents to $2.90 per burger. The major externalized costs of burgers are their carbon footprint and obesity. Each pound of burger meat accounts for roughly 25 pounds of CO2 emissions. And if you're eating a cheeseburger it's even more, since each pound of cheese is responsible for about 13.5 pounds of CO2 emissions.
The calculation of Bittman's real burger cost only includes the costs that are relatively easy to calculate - like carbon emissions - but there are others that are less so, like pollution from chemicals used to grow cattle feed.
If we were forced to pay these real costs, we might stop eating burgers, and fast food burger producers might even question whether or not they should make them in the first place.
"Last year, burger chains grossed about $70 billion in sales. So it’s not a stretch to say that the external costs of burgers may be as high as, or even outweigh, the “benefits” (if indeed there are any other than profits). If those externalities were borne by their producers rather than by consumers and society at large, the industry would be a highly unprofitable, even silly one. It would either cease to exist or be forced to raise its prices significantly," writes Bittman.
So, next time someone makes an argument for cheap fast food, just remind them that the real cost is not as cheap as the price.
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Image: Burger Austin