Fast Food Nation

 

by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

 

(This column was first published in the November 15, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

 

There are many features of our franchised fast food restaurants that I find attractive. They are relatively clean, the food is inexpensive, you know what you are served in Buffalo will be the same as what you are served in San Diego (but not necessarily in Paris), you are served quickly and -- best of all -- they have clean restrooms. (My ratio of visits for restroom use only to dining is about 2:1.)

 

But serious problems lurk behind the scenes and Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal has done a fine job in researching and presenting them. His muckraking book makes for cautionary reading. In the tradition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (but as non-fiction) he pulls no punches. This book deserves close reading by legislators as well as the rest of us.

 

Schlosser has us consider McDonald's as the cynosure of franchises: "The McDonald's Corporation has become a powerful symbol of America's service economy, which is now responsible for 90 percent of the country's new jobs. In 1968, McDonald's operated about one thousand restaurants. Today it has about twenty-eight thousand restaurants worldwide and opens almost two thousand new ones each year. An estimated one out of every eight workers in the United States has at some point been employed by McDonald's. The company annually hires about one million people, more than any other American organization, public or private. McDonald's is the nation's largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes — and the second largest purchaser of chicken. The McDonald's Corporation is the largest owner of retail property in the world. Indeed, the company earns the majority of its profits not from selling food but from collecting rent. McDonald's spends more money on advertising and marketing than any other brand. As a result it has replaced Coca-Cola as the world's most famous brand. McDonald's operates more playgrounds than any other private entity in the United States. It is one of the nation's largest distributors of toys. A survey of American schoolchildren found that 96 percent could identify Ronald McDonald. The only fictional character with a higher degree of recognition was Santa Claus. The impact of McDonald's on the way we live today is hard to overstate. The Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross."

 

This surely represents standard and well-rewarded American entrepreneurial behavior and Schlosser credits the originators with working hard, developing new ideas and committing their lives to them.

 

So what's wrong?

 

A great deal. Here is a brief view through quotations from the book of some of the problems that Schlosser investigates thoroughly:

 

(1) Worker rewards are severely limited: "The industrialization of the restaurant kitchen has enabled the fast food chains to rely upon a low-paid and unskilled workforce. While a handful of workers manage to rise up the corporate ladder, the vast majority lack full-time employment, receive no benefits, learn few skills, exercise little control over their workplace, quit after a few months, and float from job to job. The restaurant industry is now America's largest private employer, and it pays some of the lowest wages. During the economic boom of the 1990s, when many American workers enjoyed their first pay raises in a generation, the real value of wages in the restaurant industry continued to fall. The roughly 3.5 million fast food workers are by far the largest group of minimum wage earners in the United States. The only Americans who consistently earn a lower hourly wage are migrant farm workers."

 

Balance this against earnings at the other end of the scale: " While the real value of the wages paid to restaurant workers has declined for the past three decades, the earnings of restaurant company executives have risen considerably. According to a 1997 survey in Nation's Restaurant News, the average corporate executive bonus was $131,000, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year. Increasing the federal minimum wage by a dollar would add about two cents to the cost of a fast food hamburger."

 

And in the related meat packing industry, an executive tell us, "'We found very little correlation between turnover and profitability.... For instance, insurance, as you know, is very costly. Insurance is not available to new employees until they've worked there for a period of a year or, in some cases, six months. Vacations don't accrue until the second year. There are some economies, frankly, that result from hiring new employees.'

 

"Far from being a liability, a high turnover rate in the meatpacking industry — as in the fast food industry — also helps maintain a workforce that is harder to unionize and much easier to control."

 

To place all this in perspective, Schlosser tells us that a dollar wage increase for restaurant employees would mean a rise in burger cost of only two cents.

 

(2) And what about employee benefits for these low paid workers: "Today it can take years for an injured worker to receive workers' comp benefits. During that time, he or she must pay medical bills and find a source of income. Many rely on public assistance. The ability of meatpacking firms to delay payment discourages many injured workers from ever filing workers' comp claims. It leads others to accept a reduced sum of money as part of a negotiated settlement in order to cover medical bills. The system now leaves countless unskilled and uneducated manual workers poorly compensated for injuries that will forever hamper their ability to earn a living. The few who win in court and receive full benefits are hardly set for life. Under Colorado's new law, the payment for losing an arm is $36,000. An amputated finger gets you anywhere from $2,200 to $4,500, depending on which one is lost. And 'serious permanent disfigurement about the head, face, or parts of the body normally exposed to public view' entitles you to a maximum of $2,000."

 

(3) Instead of benefiting farmers the new economics punish them: "The fast food chains now stand atop a huge food-industrial complex that has gained control of American agriculture. During the 1980s, large multinationals — such as Cargill, ConAgra, and IBP [Iowa Beef Packers] — were allowed to dominate one commodity market after another. Farmers and cattle ranchers are losing their independence, essentially becoming hired hands for the agribusiness giants or being forced off the land. Family farms are now being replaced by gigantic corporate farms with absentee owners. Rural communities are losing their middle class and becoming socially stratified, divided between a small, wealthy elite and large numbers of the working poor. Small towns that seemingly belong in a Norman Rockwell painting are being turned into rural ghettos. The hardy, independent farmers whom Thomas Jefferson considered the bedrock of American democracy are a truly vanishing breed. The United States now has more prison inmates than full-time farmers....

 

"Paul Patterson, an extension professor of agricultural economics at the University of Idaho, describes the current market for potatoes as an 'oligopsony' — a market in which a small number of buyers exert power over a large number of sellers. The giant processing companies do their best to drive down the prices offered to potato farmers. The increased productivity of Idaho farmers has lowered prices even further, shifting more of the profits to the processors and the fast food chains. Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast food restaurant, perhaps 2 cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes."

 

(4) The power of the industry that provides the restaurants with their hamburger has influenced health protection legislation: "During the 1980s, as the risks of widespread contamination increased, the meatpacking industry blocked the use of microbial testing in the federal meat inspection program. A panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences warned in 1985 that the nation's meat inspection program was hopelessly outdated, still relying on visual and olfactory clues to find disease while dangerous pathogens slipped past undetected. Three years later, another National Academy of Sciences panel warned that the nation's public health infrastructure was in serious disarray, limiting its ability to track or prevent the spread of newly emerging pathogens. Without additional funding for public health measures, outbreaks and epidemics of new diseases were virtually inevitable. 'Who knows what crisis will be next?' said the chairman of the panel.

 

"Nevertheless, the Reagan and Bush administrations cut spending on public health measures and staffed the U.S. Department of Agriculture with officials far more interested in government deregulation than in food safety. The USDA became largely indistinguishable from the industries it was meant to police. President Reagan's first secretary of agriculture was in the hog business. His second was the president of the American Meat Institute (formerly known as the American Meat Packers Association). And his choice to run the USDA's Food Marketing and Inspection Service was a vice president of the National Cattleman's Association. President Bush later appointed the president of the National Cattleman's Association to the job."

 

As a result: "Despite the fact that IBP and Morrell had just a year earlier been caught falsifying safety records and keeping two sets of injury logs, the meatpacking industry was given the authority to inspect its own meat. SIS-C was launched in 1988 as a pilot program at five major slaughterhouses that supplied about one-fifth of the beef consumed in the United States. The USDA hoped that within a decade the new system would extend nationwide and that the number of federal meat inspectors would be cut by half."

 

This has a carry-over effect into our homes: "Anyone who brings raw ground beef into his or her kitchen today must regard it as a potential biohazard, one that may carry an extremely dangerous microbe, infectious at an extremely low dose. The current high levels of ground beef contamination, combined with the even higher levels of poultry contamination, have led to some bizarre findings. A series of tests conducted by Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, discovered far more fecal bacteria in the average American kitchen sink than on the average American toilet seat. According to Gerba, 'You'd be better off eating a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in your sink.'"

 

Even proposed radiation treatment has its downside: "Steven Bjerklie, the former editor of Meat & Poultry, opposes irradiation.... He thinks it will reduce pressure on the meatpacking industry to make fundamental and necessary changes in their production methods, allowing unsanitary practices to continue. 'I don't want to be served irradiated feces along with my meat,' Bjerkiie says."

 

(5) There is the associated pressure on our schools. "The proponents of advertising in the schools argue that it is necessary to prevent further cutbacks; opponents contend that schoolchildren are becoming a captive audience for marketers, compelled by law to attend school and then forced to look at ads as a means of paying for their own education. America's schools now loom as a potential gold mine for companies in search of young customers. 'Discover your own river of revenue at the schoolhouse gates,' urged a brochure at the 1997 Kids Power Marketing Conference. 'Whether it's first-graders learning to read or teenagers shopping for their first car, we can guarantee an introduction of your product and your company to these students in the traditional setting of the classroom.'"

 

(6) The fast food restaurants have encouraged a great increase in soft drink sales: "'Liquid Candy,' a 1999 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, describes who is not benefiting from the beverage industry's latest marketing efforts: the nation's children. In 1978, the typical teenage boy in the United States drank about seven ounces of soda every day; today he drinks nearly three times that amount, deriving 9 percent of his daily caloric intake from soft drinks. Soda consumption among teenaged girls has doubled within the same period, reaching an average of twelve ounces a day. A significant number of teenage boys are now drinking five or more cans of soda every day. Each can contains the equivalent of about ten teaspoons of sugar. Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Dr Pepper also contain caffeine. These sodas provide empty calories and have replaced far more nutritious beverages in the American diet. Excessive soda consumption in childhood can lead to calcium deficiencies and a greater likelihood of bone fractures. Twenty years ago, teenage boys in the United States drank twice as much milk as soda; now they drink twice as much soda as milk. Soft-drink consumption has also become commonplace among American toddlers. About one-fifth of the nation's one- and two-year-olds now drink soda. 'In one of the most despicable marketing gambits,' Michael Jacobson, the author of 'Liquid Candy' reports, 'Pepsi, Dr Pepper and Seven-Up encourage feeding soft drinks to babies by licensing their logos to a major maker of baby bottles, Munchkin Bottling, Inc.' A 1997 study published in the Journal of Dentistry for Children found that many infants were indeed being fed soda in those bottles."

 

What is Schlosser's answer to these and other problems. He tells us: " Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food. 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 usefulness of the market, its effectiveness as a tool, cuts both ways. The real power of the American consumer has not yet been unleashed. The heads of Burger King, KFC, and McDonald's should feel daunted; they're 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. Sometimes the most irresistible force is the most mundane.

 

"Pull open the glass door, feel the rush of cool air, walk inside, get in line, and look around you, look at the kids working in the kitchen, at the customers in their seats, at the ads for the latest toys, study the backlit color photographs above the counter, think about where the food came from, about how and where it was made, about what is set in motion by every single fast food purchase, the ripple effect near and far, think about it. Then place your order. Or turn and walk out the door. It's not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way."

 

I found Schlosser's warnings compelling. In my own case, I propose to raise that ratio I mentioned earlier to 10:1.