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American McHistory

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation Is About More Than Just Burgers and Fries

Smell of Steve Inc.

Eat Special Issue 2001

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American McHistory Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation Is About More Than Just Burgers and Fries | By Kathryn Eastburn

Eat 2001

By Kathryn Eastburn | Posted 2/28/2001

"In many respects, the fast-food industry embodies the best and the worst of American capitalism at the turn of the 21st century--its constant stream of new products and innovations; its widening gulf between rich and poor . . . No other industry offers, both literally and figuratively, so much insight into the nature of mass consumption." --Eric SchlosserFast Food Nation

When Eric Schlosser set out to write about the all-American meal on assignment for Rolling Stone, he expected to have some fun analyzing the most kitschy, ubiquitous business success story of our times. Fast food, after all, was burgers and fries, pimpled teenagers at the cash register, relentless good cheer, an escape from home, the ultimate convenience.

But the longer and deeper he dug into his subject, what the investigative journalist found was nothing less than a "revolutionary force in American life," an industry whose influence infiltrates every nook and cranny of contemporary society.

An enterprise that began in post-World War II Southern California in response to the rise of the automobile, fast food has become our leading export abroad, the primary influence on our collective dietary habits, the biggest employer of low-paid, unskilled workers in a boom economy, and the model for franchise and corporate chain businesses from The Gap to Auto Zone. The fast-food industry has helped shape America's landscape, buying habits, work ethic, and corporate mentality.

At its roots, Schlosser concluded, this industry serves up anything but a cheap, happy meal. In the resulting book, Fast Food Nation, he heralds the entrepreneurial genius of the industry's beginnings and scrutinizes its business and marketing practices. Seeking out the forces that drive and support the industry, he visited cattle ranches, industrial potato-processing plants, slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilities, even a factory on the New Jersey Turnpike where the familiar flavors of our favorite foods are manufactured in a test tube.


Illustration by SMELL OF STEVE INC.

Did You Know:

· This year, Americans will spend more than $110 billion on fast food, more than they'll spend on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music combined.

· Americans spend more on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars.

· Fast-food restaurants, usually staffed by teenagers, are now more likely to be robbed than gas stations, convenience stores, or banks.

· Children often recognize the McDonald's logo before they recognize their own name.

· Every day in the United States, roughly 200,000 people are sickened by food-borne pathogens (often in ground beef), 900 are hospitalized, and 14 die.

· For years, some of the most questionable ground beef in the United States was purchased by the Department of Agriculture--and then distributed to school cafeterias throughout the country. Some of the dirtiest ground beef is still being served in American schools.

· Today, with the fast-food chains' high demand for meat, injury rates in slaughterhouses are three times higher than those in typical American factories.

The book has quickly captured the imagination of the national media. Since its publication in mid-January, Fast Food Nation has been reviewed and featured everywhere from National Public Radio to Entertainment Weekly, from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times Sunday Book Review. A few critics accused the author of overreaching, of blaming all society's ills on fast food, but most agreed that Schlosser's unique blend of social commentary and solid investigative journalism raises issues that hover just beneath the daily consciousness of the average American, issues that drive and shape the culture, issues that should not be ignored.

Fast Food Nation contains plenty of dirty-kitchen, roaches-in-the-milk-shake-machine lore. But what's in the food is less important than the larger, more pervasive cultural and socioeconomic issues raised in the book. Noting the industry's relentless and far-flung marketing techniques, Schlosser says, "It's not just food they're selling." Utilizing advertising strategies aimed directly at children, the industry has infiltrated the nation's schools with lunchroom franchise and advertising schemes, and has so successfully imprinted trademarks on formative minds that McDonald's golden arches are now more globally recognizable than the Christian cross. In the 1990s, the fast-food and entertainment industries, led by Disney and McDonald's, joined forces in a multibillion-dollar alliance to sell movie-themed and trademarked toys in kids' meals. The results were phenomenal--reinvigorated profits for the corporations and a virtual reinvention of childhood for American kids.

And fast-food chains, Schlosser says, drive a huge food-industrial complex that dominates American agriculture. The industry's massive demand for beef and potatoes supports corporate production and directly undermines family farming and ranching.

In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser urges us to consider the real costs of the cheap, convenient, all-American meal--inhumane and dangerous working conditions in the highly industrialized plants where cattle are slaughtered and meat is processed, a devalued and untrained work force made up mostly of vulnerable youth, questionable and largely unregulated food safety, and a corporate mind-set that defies closely held American values. I interviewed the author recently by phone from his New York home.


Kathryn Eastburn: You have said that fast food embodies the best and worst of capitalism at the turn of the 21st century. What's best and what's worst?

Eric Schlosser: Best is the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit of the industry founders. The origins of the industry, its early growth in California in response to a new automobile-driven economy, is fascinating. All these mavericks with no credentials, high-school dropouts who couldn't get a loan, came up with brilliant schemes and ideas and grew one of the nation's most powerful industries. But like many American stories, once a success like this one reaches a certain size and critical mass, once it achieves a corporate mentality and a ruling bureaucracy, it turns ugly.

The worst part of the fast-food industry is the mentality of the corporation, fixated so much on quarterly profit reports that it no longer asks what's best for its workers. There is now in place a deliberate labor strategy that exploits unskilled, uneducated workers, paying low wages and paying little attention to job security, worker safety, or training. The fast-food industry really brought that to our service economy and perfected it.

KE: How did you become interested in the subject?

ES: I had done a piece for the Atlantic Monthly in the mid-'90s on the strawberry industry in California ("In the Strawberry Fields," November 1995). At that time there was a lot of bad feeling about illegal immigrants. I had spent a lot of time with immigrant farm workers, picking strawberries, trying to look at where the food we eat actually comes from. Will Dana of Rolling Stone had the idea that I should take a look at the fast-food industry in the same way. The book started as an assignment from Rolling Stone, and I expected it to be kind of a fun look at the industry. Instead, I saw that there were all kinds of ways that fast food and the fast-food industry were literally responsible for lots of changes in America. The book, then, became more a history of America in the last 25 years, seen through this one industry.

KE: How did industry executives respond to you during your research for the book?

ES: Some of them were very helpful. Jack in the Box [executives] invited me to see their hamburger-patty plant. McDonald's executives would never talk to me during the whole course of researching the book--they would not answer my telephone calls, e-mails, or faxes. They have a company archivist whose job is to do nothing but collect the history of McDonald's, but they did not offer me access.

KE: In the book, there's a "top secret" memo from McDonald's executives describing in great detail an advertising campaign aimed at "minivan parents" and children. [The memo proposed an ad campaign that would make customers perceive McDonald's as their "trusted friend." Unspoken, the memo says, would be the message to parents that taking their kids to McDonald's is "an easy way to feel like a good parent."] How did you get that?

ES: That was one of the moments when my reporting really took a turn. McDonald's refused to speak to me, then one day someone gave me these memos. . . . I found the attitude in those memos was so disturbing, so cynical.

KE: You have a lot to say about the fast-food industry and the rise of the franchise/chain system with its "emphasis on uniformity, simplicity, and the ability to replicate an identical environment anywhere." Can you talk a little about that?

ES: "Uniformity" and "conformity" are the two key words. Look at [McDonald's Corp. founder] Ray Kroc's quote at the beginning of the book: "We will not tolerate nonconformists." It's a chilling quote. The organization cannot trust the individual. That, in many ways, still is the McDonald's corporate culture. Uniformity and conformity are crucial to the rise of the industry, and it is remarkable how they have achieved that.

When I visited McDonald's in Dachau [Germany], it could have been Idaho. I could have been in Colorado. And if you closed your eyes and tasted that hamburger, you could have been anywhere on the planet in a McDonald's. The food was exactly the same.

KE: How does that guiding principle relate to late-20th-century American history?

ES: McDonald's most significant growth occurred in the early '70s when the minimum wage declined. [From 1948 to 1969, the company built 1,000 restaurants; now there are 13,000 in the United States.] I would argue that you needed a certain social, political climate to embrace this kind of uniformity, conformity, the reassurance that you know exactly what you're gonna get, how it will taste. . . . This appealed to people at that time, following the social upheaval of the late '60s.

Going from 1,000 to 13,000 in this period tells you a lot. And once every retail business under the sun realized how this worked, they went gung-ho. The basic idea is replicating an identical environment every time. Only a certain mentality and collective consciousness will accept that. And it's no accident that the industry's highest rate of growth occurred during a period when the real value of the U.S. minimum wage declined by about 40 percent.

KE: In the book, you talk about the ways the federal government has subsidized the fast-food industry with Small Business Administration loans to build franchises, agricultural subsidies for big business, etc. [In '96, the federal government loaned $1 billion to new franchises, most to fast food.] Doesn't this contradict the free-market, anti-government-intervention ethic that drives so much of this industry and its offshoots?

ES: Yes, those two things just so profoundly contradict one another. . . . If you're going to embrace government funding, then you should embrace the public responsibility of the corporation. If you're going to accept public aid for the development of industry, then you should accept the responsibility of providing health care for those workers who drive the economy. . . . Looking at the fast-food industry as an example is just a very good way of looking at this contradiction of what you say politically and what you actually do economically.

KE: One of the big businesses you scrutinize particularly harshly is the meat-packing industry, most of whose profits and business come from supplying the fast-food industry. Can you talk a little about what you witnessed there?

ES: More difficult for me personally than seeing the slaughter of cattle and the incredible carnage in those factories was seeing these workers, how they live. Meat packing, until the late '70s, was one of the highest paying industrial jobs in the United States. Then the Reagan and Bush administrations allowed the industry to bust unions, to hire strikebreakers, to hire illegal immigrants for these jobs, even to transport them here from Mexico in company buses. Now meat packing is one of the lowest paying industrial jobs, as well as the most dangerous.

It is unbelievable to me that in America, in 2001, people work under these dangerous, dehumanizing conditions. Take, for instance, Kenny Dobbins, the worker up in Greeley [Colo.] I talk about in the book. This is a great guy who has been repeatedly injured and permanently disabled giving his life to this company. Lesser men would be dead already. He's 45 years old. He has no pension after 16 years of hard labor. Monfort [the meat-packing company Dobbins worked for] challenged his worker's-comp claim and, three years later, paid him a lump-sum settlement of $35,000. That money is all gone. He's a proud man. His health insurance was just cut off. I have been writing the company to see if they can't intervene and continue his insurance, but I don't know what is going to happen. It's simply mind-blowing that people are treated this way.

KE: In the book you say, "Congress should ban advertising that preys upon children. It should stop subsidizing dead-end jobs. It should pass tougher food-safety laws, it should protect American workers from serious harm. It should fight against dangerous concentrations of economic power." Is any of this likely to happen?

ES: Ideally, this kind of consumer protection would come from Congress, from government. That's why they should be there--to do these kinds of things for us. But if you look at the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, you will find a close link with meat packers and with the restaurant industry. George W. Bush is new in office, and who knows, he could pull a Teddy Roosevelt and take on these vested interests. I think that's highly unlikely.

KE: What can be done?

ES: We all need to be aware of the social costs of industrial agriculture. The burden needs to be imposed on the firms practicing it. Short of that kind of regulation and government protection--forcing the industrial meat packers to take care of their workers, ensuring a safe food supply--this kind of industrial agriculture might collapse under its own weight if they don't change their practices.

Our accepted form of cattle production and processing doesn't treat the animals we eventually eat as sentient beings but as production tools. Things may have to change because of the built-in contradiction in how those industries are treating the animal-to-food cycle. Look at how England got mad-cow disease, and look at how the European consumer reacted. Mad-cow disease is a terrible thing in Europe, but maybe good things will come from it. Right now, in Germany, the government's policy supports a complete deindustrialization of agriculture. But just as it shouldn't take an outbreak of E. coli to get enforced testing of meat in place in the United States, it shouldn't take a mad-cow disease outbreak to change how we raise cattle.

I lived in England for three years in the 1980s, so I can't give blood in the United States. That's a good thing, a reasonable safety measure. But . . . in Greeley, cattle are being fed cattle blood, tallow, the ground-up remains of pigs and horses, all because those are cheap protein supplements, just a little cheaper than soybeans. That practice is now banned in Europe. We know that back in 1987 scientists said there should be a total ban against feeding cattle products to cattle. Maybe we'll never have mad-cow disease, but if we do we can't say we didn't know better.

The bottom line is we cannot afford to leave our health in the hands of corporate agriculture and industry who operate on a strict standard of low costs, high profitability, and growth at any cost. Really, the book is in many ways about not trusting these businesses or, unfortunately, the government to be looking out for you.

KE: What can individual consumers do to demand change?

ES: The purchasing power of consumers is vast. The vulnerability of the market is also vast. McDonald's stock is down. They have enormous power over their suppliers. Consumers should hold McDonald's responsible for the behavior of their suppliers. Tell them you won't buy their products until they demand reasonable reform.

Last year, [McDonald's] took a big step when they decided not to buy any genetically engineered potatoes. This had a huge impact on Monsanto's [genetically engineered] potato market. McDonald's did it because of huge protests in Europe, where their market continues to expand. They probably did some market research and concluded that people here would [also protest] if they were sold genetically engineered foods.

Recently, McDonald's has issued very strict rules for how livestock are to be ethically raised and slaughtered. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has commended them for it. I'd like to see them take steps to assure the ethical treatment of humans in these plants as well.

KE: Do you really see hope for change?

ES: I'm genuinely optimistic. The act of writing this book is an act of optimism. There's nothing inevitable about the way things are or how they will be in the future. n

Kathryn Eastburn is the editor of the alternative newsweekly the Colorado Springs Independent, in which this piece originally appeared.

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