The Real Cost of a Hamburger

The hidden price of America’s love of fast-food.

A McDonald’s Big Mac costs about $3.50, but Raj Patel, author of the newly released The Value of Nothing (Macmillan, 2010), says society pays a much higher price. Tolls on the environment, on taxpayers and on public health give the burger a price tag that’s way out of our budget.


The Environment

Worldwide meat production is estimated to emit more greenhouse gases than do all forms of global transportation or industrial processes combined. Just producing the 550 million Big Macs sold each year in the U.S. creates 2.66 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. Offsetting these emissions could cost as much as $36.4 million.

Food Subsidies

Cattle are fattened on corn, the most highly subsidized crop in America. (From 1995 to 2006, federal corn subsidies totaled $56.2 billion.) Thanks to corn subsidies, the American beef industry saves, on average, $501 million a year.

Social Subsidies

Fast-food companies are keeping people employed, but the average full-time fast-food worker makes less than $17,000 a year—poverty-line wages that the government supplements at a cost of more than $1 billion a year in taxpayer-funded Medicaid, food stamps and direct payments.

Public Health

A Big Mac, at 540 calories, provides 30 percent of the average woman’s daily caloric needs and nearly 25 percent of the average man’s. It also contains 10 grams of saturated fat—that’s half the daily upper limit of saturated fat for most women and 40 percent for most men. Costs to treat diet-related diseases in the U.S. are estimated at up to $735 billion annually; excessive meat consumption figures largely in heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.

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