Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
by Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Several years ago, when I was a graduate student teaching assistant at the University of Michigan, a student in my class said that he had been arrested for spray-painting "Corporate Deathburger" on a McDonald’s restaurant. I remember thinking what a bold act that was, without entirely understanding the reasons behind it. It was not until this year, thanks to Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, that my questions about the fast food empire were answered.
Schlosser began researching fast food in 1997, when his editor at Rolling Stone assigned him to write an article on the topic. At first, Schlosser thought he would craft a light, upbeat piece, but soon realized there was more to the story—much more. The deeper he looked, the more disturbing the picture became. Unable to turn away from his investigation, Schlosser spent the next three years digging up dirt about the fast food industry. He toured fast food restaurants, slaughterhouses, ranches, potato farms, and flavor-producing factories. He talked with teen-age fast-food workers, undocumented meat-packing workers, advertising executives, and union organizers. Then he went overseas to witness the McDonaldization of the world.
The result of Schlosser’s efforts is a thorough reportage of the effects of the fast food industry on restaurant workers, the meatpacking industry, food safety standards, labor unions, education, our waistlines and nutritional habits, advertising to children, corporate imperialism, and franchising, and how this has contributed to the loss of independent farmers and ranchers, the changing face of small towns, urban (and suburban) sprawl, the homogenization of Main Streets everywhere, and more.
Schlosser claims that after writing Fast Food Nation, he eliminated fast food and ground beef from his and his children’s diet. In his book, he recommends that you do the same—both as a prescription for improved health and as a means of forcing concessions from the fast food industry. "Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food," writes Schlosser. "The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it. The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit....The real power of the American consumer has not yet been unleashed. The heads of Burger King, KFC, and McDonald’s should feel outnumbered. There are three of them and almost three hundred million of you. A good boycott, a refusal to buy, can speak much louder than words."
Schlosser manages to present his sober work in a style that is both shocking and entertaining; amid the vats of french-fry grease and pools of slaughterhouse blood he places nuggets of humor and absurdity that will make you chuckle and keep you turning the pages.
Some startling statistics
Schlosser draws the reader into his book with some statistics that quantify the primacy of fast food in our nation. For instance, he points out that Americans spend more than $110 billion a year on fast food—that’s more than is spent on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. By another standard, we spend more of our hard-earned dollars on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music—combined. On average, we eat three burgers and four orders of fries—two-thirds of which come from fast food restaurants—every week. And ninety percent of American youths consume at least one Happy Meal every month.
The fast food industry provides about 90 percent of new jobs in the United States; one out of every eight workers in the United States has been employed at a McDonald’s at one time or another. Fast food has become so ingrained in our lives and culture that Ronald McDonald, known to 96 percent of American kids, ranks second only behind Santa Claus as the most recognizable fictional character. And, astoundingly, more Americans are familiar with the golden arches than with the Christian cross.
Today there are some 28,700 McDonald’s restaurants in 120 countries (roughly half are overseas), and about 2,000 additional ones open every year. Of the five new McDonald’s restaurants that open every day, four are outside the United States.
on vulnerable consumers
Fast food companies are reliant on a particular class of consumer for maintaining their healthy profit margins: kids. The industry employs children’s divisions of major ad agencies to conduct market research and develop advertising campaigns with the intent of fostering "brand loyalty" in children as young as two. Schlosser explains the goal of marketers: "to get the kids to nag their parents and nag them well." He presents the advertising industry’s list of nagging categories—related to a concept called "pester power"—ranging from the pleading nag ("please mom") to the sugar-coated nags ("you’re the best dad in the world") to the demonstrative nag, which involves temper tantrums in stores.
Schlosser also discusses the advertisers’ favorite medium: television. American children, Schlosser reports, watch TV an average of twenty-one hours per week—that comes out to one-and-a-half months per year. (You may be repulsed to know that about one-fourth of American kids aged two to five have a television in their bedroom.) With all that TV-watching, the average child in the United States absorbs more than 30,000 commercials a year. According to studies by the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies, young children have trouble differentiating between commercials and regular programming and tend to believe everything they hear in advertisements. All the better for Happy Meal sales—and the sales of burgers and fries consumed by parents that get pestered into that trip to the fast food restaurant.
(hold the unions, please)
Fast Food Nation devotes many pages to the people behind the counters, describing the demographics of fast food workers, the working conditions in the restaurants, the rate of turnover and pay, and the ways in which the industry is able to get away with shabby employment practices. Fast food workers, of whom there are 3.5 million, comprise the nation’s largest group of minimum wage earners. The only group of employees in the United States who consistently earn a lower hourly wage are migrant workers. Most fast-food workers are employed for fewer than forty hours per week, and thus are ineligible for benefits. And, on average, they last three-to-four months on the job before quitting or being fired.
Schlosser reports that about two-thirds of fast food workers are age nineteen or younger. "Teenagers open the fast food outlets in the morning, close them at night, and keep them going at all hours in between," he writes. "...Instead of relying upon a small, stable, well-paid and well-trained workforce, the fast food industry seeks out part-time, unskilled workers who are willing to accept low pay and no benefits. Teenagers have been the perfect candidates for these jobs, not only because they are less expensive to hire than adults, but also because their youthful inexperience makes them easier to control."
Fast food executives keep their costs down in two ways: they repel increases in the minimum wage with the help of their friends (bought and paid for by campaign contributions) on Capitol Hill, and they fight unions. The fast food industry has been largely successful on both fronts.
At present, there is not a single McDonald’s restaurant with a unionized workforce. In part, workers are kept union-free through a company-wide practice of "stroking"—that is, encouraging workers to do their best and making them feel as if they are part of a team (cost-free perks, if you will). Managers employ a paternalism that makes workers feel as if the boss really cares about them. In rare cases when it looks as if a union is gaining favor among employees, McDonald’s sends in "flying squads" of experienced managers and corporate executives to hold "rap sessions" to smooth over the feelings of dissatisfied employees.
There are always harsher measures if the nice ones fail. In the 1970s, when McDonald’s experienced a wave of unionizing attempts, employees at several Bay-area restaurants were forced to take lie detector tests. If they were found to sympathize with the union, they were fired (that practice was eventually discontinued on orders of the San Francisco labor commissioner).
Among the several union-squashing stories that Schlosser recounts is one that is particularly Orwellian. It concerns a store in a Montreal suburb in which workers signed union cards in 1997. McDonald’s first fought back by stalling the union certification process through legal maneuvers. One year after the initial drive, with the majority of workers still prepared to sign union cards and the final certification hearing just one week away, McDonald’s closed the restaurant—even though it had been making money at that location for seventeen years.
In another outrageous case, McDonald’s shut down a restaurant in Lansing in the early 1970s during a successful organizing drive. It built a new restaurant down the block shortly thereafter, with the clear message that union supporters need not apply.
Producing the beef
In the classic muckraking tradition, Schlosser traces the origins of ground beef from the cow to the patty on the griddle. He documents the loss of independent ranchers, looks at the cattle-raising practices at huge corporate feedlots, and gives a gut-wrenching description of a tour through a modern slaughterhouse. "Today the top four meatpacking firms—ConAgra, IBP, Excel, and National Beef—slaughter about 84 percent of the nation’s cattle," reads Fast Food Nation. "Market concentration in the beef industry is now at the highest level since record-keeping began in the early twentieth century." The image of cattle dotting the grassland of spacious ranches, Schlosser informs us, is being replaced by that of cattle being fed slop in feedlots.
Along with changes in cattle-rearing have come changes in cattle-slaughtering. The legendary slaughterhouses of Chicago are mostly closed down now, having been relocated to rural enclaves closer to the feedlots. Similarly, meatpacking has been converted from a highly skilled and well-paid union job to a non-union, benefit-free, low paying occupation, and one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.
Many of today’s meat-packers are impoverished and unskilled, and at least one-quarter of those in Iowa and Nebraska are undocumented immigrants (many speak no English). Modern slaughterhouse workers make around 9 dollars an hour and typically last just three months on the job; some are migrant workers who only work in slaughterhouses during the non-growing season. Domineering management structure and/or the threat of deportation keeps them not only from unionizing, but also from reporting work-related injuries.
Injuries, according to Schlosser’s findings, are all too common. With carcasses whizzing by at speeds of 300 to 400 per hour (100 per hour is the norm in Scandinavia and the old Chicago plants did 50 per hour) and workers with long, sharp knives hacking away at beef just inches from one another, it’s hard to imagine that safety was high on the priority list of operation designers. In addition to lacerations, carpal tunnel syndrome and other forms of nerve damage plague meatpacking workers at a rate thirty-five times the national average in industry.
For most slaughterhouse workers, there is no compensation for injuries—especially maladies like nerve damage that are difficult to prove. Even for major and obvious injuries, such as the loss of a limb, a worker must be able to navigate the system and file endless appeals to receive compensation. And when the injured worker wins a settlement, he or she cannot expect much. In Colorado, for instance, the loss of an arm entitles a worker to $36,000. A fee of $2,000 is paid to the worker who suffers "serious permanent disfigurement about the head, face, or parts of the body normally exposed to public view." The going rate for a finger is $2,200 to $4,500.
The Jungle revisited One of the most disturbing, yet strangely fascinating, parts of the book is Schlosser’s slaughterhouse tour, which he takes clandestinely with a discontented worker on the night shift. Schlosser’s findings resonate with the same grotesqueness that was present in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 eye-opener The Jungle. Schlosser dons a hard hat and observes: "Sides of beef suspended from an overhead trolley swing toward a group of men. Each worker has a large knife in one hand and a steel hook in the other. They grab the meat with their hooks and attack it fiercely with their knives. ... A worker with a power saw slices cattle into halves as though they were two-by-fours, and then the halves swing by me into the cooler. ... Dozens of cattle, stripped of their skins, dangle on chains from hind legs. ... Carcasses swing so fast along the rail that you have to keep an eye on them constantly, dodge them, watch your step, or one will slam you and throw you onto the bloody concrete floor. ...
"I see: a man reach inside cattle and pull out their kidneys with his bare hands, then drop the kidneys down a metal chute, over and over again, as each animal passes by him; ... Whizzards peeling meat off decapitated heads. ... We wade through blood that’s ankle deep and pours down drains into huge vats below us...
"For eight and a half hours, a worker called a ‘sticker’ does nothing but stand in a river of blood, being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten seconds or so, severing its carotid artery. ...We walk up a slippery metal stairway and reach a small platform, where the production line begins. A man turns and smiles at me. He wears safety goggles and a hardhat. His face is splattered with gray matter and blood. He is the ‘knocker,’ the man who welcomes catttle to the building. ...he shoots [the cattle] in the head with a captive bolt stunner—a compressed-air gun attached to the ceiling by a long hose—which fires a steel bolt that knocks the cattle unconscious...."
Anyone for a tofu burger?
For many consumers, the most worrisome aspect of Fast Food Nation will be the findings pertaining to food safety. Schlosser reports that food poisoning a generation ago—such as that caused by a bad batch of potato salad at a church picnic—just affected people in limited geographic areas; but today, because of the centralization of food processing, contaminated food poisons people throughout the nation, and even beyond our borders. According to governmental and health-care agencies, about one-quarter of Americans experience food poisoning each year. On a daily basis, 200,000 people in the United States are sickened by contaminated food; 900 of them are hospitalized and fourteen die.
One cause of particularly virulent cases of food poisoning is the E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium, which can cause kidney failure, strokes, destruction of vital organs, and death. According to Schlosser, the wide dispersal of E. coli 0157:H7 in the nation’s meat supply can be traced to "the rise of huge feedlots, slaughterhouses, and hamburger grinders." "American meat production," he continues, "has never before been so centralized: thirteen large packinghouses now slaughter most of the beef consumed in the United States. The meat-packing system that arose to supply the nation’s fast food chains...to provide massive amounts of uniform ground beef so that all of McDonald’s hamburgers would taste the same—has proved to be an extremely efficient system for spreading disease." Schlosser lists as the primary causes of meat contamination: "the feed being given to cattle, the overcrowding at feedlots, the poor sanitation at slaughterhouses, excessive line speeds, poorly trained workers, [and] the lack of stringent government oversight."
Ground beef samples tested by the USDA in 1996 showed high levels (from 11.7 to 53.3 percent) of various pathogens that can sicken people. Schlosser explains that pathogens in meat come from contact with fecal matter (or, as he writes, "there is shit in the meat"), which occurs during processing. With the speedy rate of production at slaughterhouses, the incidence of manure splashing onto carcasses or the contents of intestines (which are supposed to be tied off before the animal is gutted) spilling into meat vats is far greater than most of us would care to consider.
Schlosser lambastes not only the unsanitary practices at meat processing facilities for the spread of contamination, but also the lack of government regulation of the beef industry. The government’s hands-off stance, states Schlosser, has been carefully cultivated by meat and restaurant industries and is safeguarded by powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill. Most of the strongest allies of the meatpacking and restaurant industries’ are far-right-wingers like Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, and Orrin Hatch. The loyalty of those lawmakers is bought and paid for with massive campaign contributions. Schlosser is quick to point out the irony of a system that empowers the U.S. government to demand the nationwide recall of defective sneakers, but not of contaminated ground beef.
The industry responds
One measure by which to judge the power of an exposé is by the response from the party being exposed. The feedback regarding Fast Food Nation by meat-industry and restaurant executives, limited though it is, has been primarily rhetorical and smacking of sour grapes. This reviewer has not found a single challenge made to the factual accuracy of Fast Food Nation. (Schlosser worked with a fact-checker for seven months before the release of the book to make sure that every assertion was documented; his book concludes with fifty-five pages of footnotes.)
An Internet search turned up responses to Schlosser’s book from McDonald’s, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the American Meat Institute, and the National Restaurant Association. The McDonald’s response, presented by company spokesman Walt Riker, was published in The New York Times on March 21, 2001, as follows: "His [Schlosser’s] opinion is outvoted 45 million to 1 every single day, because that’s how many customers around the world choose to come to McDonald’s for our menu of variety, value and quality."
The following retort from the National Council of Chain Restaurants was offered by its president, Terrie Dort, in a Newsday article of April 24, 2001: "It is unfortunate that Mr. Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation, categorizes the entire fast-food industry in such a negative light. The restaurant companies that comprise the industry provide employment to hundreds of thousands of workers across the country and offer consumers a wide variety in menu options and prices. We take exception to the characterization in this book."
The American Meat Institute, an organization representing the meatpacking industry, also had something to say about Fast Food Nation. Vice president of public affairs Janet Riley, who admitted to not having read the entire book, claimed (in the Newsday article cited above) that Schlosser had "vilified the industry in a way that is very unfair." She accused Schlosser of "trying to paint a picture of 1906 in order to scare people." "Unfortunately," concluded Riley, "fear and graphic stories sell. There is no doubt in our minds that our food today is safer than it’s ever been."
A fourth rebuke to Fast Food Nation can be seen on the web site of the National Restaurant Association (www.restaurant.org). In a statement titled "The Truth About Fast Food Nation," the NRA claims: "Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser is one individual’s biased attempt to convince the American consumer to stop eating food from restaurants they enjoy frequenting. In addition to acting like the ‘food police,’ and trying to coerce the American consumer to never eat fast food again, the author recklessly disparages an industry that has contributed tremendously to our nation by providing millions of consumers the option of choosing a range of high-quality food items that they love, providing tremendous job and career opportunities and boosting the national economy."
What’s it all mean?
Schlosser, himself, is apparently not dispirited by what his investigation revealed. He takes heart in the assumption that conditions will improve when the public demands change. "I’m optimistic," Schlosser told the Newsday reporter. "There is enormous potential for change from the fast-food companies pressuring the meat suppliers and from consumers who can pressure the fast-food companies."
This weathered skeptic is less upbeat: Personally, I don’t believe that such an entrenched system will yield an inch without the sustained and disciplined efforts of a well-organized grassroots movement for workers’ rights and food safety.
Schlosser recently announced that his next book will be on prisons. It doesn’t look like he’s going to return to writing fluff pieces anytime soon.
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