Schlosser traces the life story of another figure, one of the most famous and richest men in the state of Idaho—J. R. Simplot, whose potato empire would go on to change the ways potatoes were consumed in the US. Simplot was born in Iowa in 1909, and as a young man worked for a landlord named Lindsay Maggart, and the two of them, in 1928, purchased what was then a new invention, an “electric potato sorter” capable of sifting through vast numbers of potatoes at one time, arranging them by size, and ensuring more even and efficient slicing and packaging of potatoes. Simplot and Maggart purchased the machine together, and when they decided to part ways in business, they were unable to purchase another expensive sorter, so that each could have one. Thus, they decided to have a coin flip for the electric sorter—which Simplot won, a first instance of good luck that was to follow him throughout his career.
The coin flip for the electric potato sorter is an important moment in Schlosser’s book—both for Simplot’s narrative, and for its larger symbolic value. For, of course, Simplot probably would not have gone on to build his potato empire without the sorter. And, more importantly, the very fact of the coin flip makes literal the function of luck in Schlosser’s broader tale of human success and failure. Yes, Schlosser implies, Simplot has worked hard and has made the most of the opportunities that came his way. But even more so, Simplot has been the beneficiary of circumstances that continually break in his favor—he is, in short, also a lucky man.
The J. R. Simplot Company went on to also develop, just before the Second World War, a “method for drying potatoes,” and these dehydrated potatoes became essential to army rations throughout the campaigns in the Pacific and in Europe. In 1953, Simplot “began selling frozen, pre-cut french fries” directly to consumers, and by the 1960s, Ray Kroc began buying Simplot’s frozen fries, since they tasted nearly similar to the fresh-cut variety in stores, and were vastly cheaper and “more uniform.” Simplot became a multibillionaire, though he “still ate at McDonald’s,” and his company grew—influencing American eating habits along the way. Simplot diversified his company into ranching and related concerns, without abandoning his core business in potatoes.
In contrast, this section demonstrates Simplot’s business acumen—which, in addition to his luck, of course plays a role in his success. It was an enormous insight of Simplot’s to recognize that pre-cut and frozen potato fries might have market value. And it was doubly clever for him to see that he could not only sell these fries directly to consumers but also to fast food restaurants, who would then turn around and sell them at a great mark-up. Lots of consumers buy french fries frozen from the store, but truly immense numbers of people buy them cooked at McDonald’s.
Today, three potato companies—Simplot, Lamb Weston, and McCain—“control about 80 percent of the American market for frozen french fries, having eliminated or acquired most of their small rivals.” Although farm groups like the Potato Growers of Idaho (PGI) do their best to represent the interests of small farmers, even as those farms are often bought up and managed by the conglomerates, Schlosser notes that, at the time of his writing, there are only 1,100 independent potato farmers remaining in Idaho, despite that state’s reliance on the crop as the bedrock of its economy.
One of the more shocking statistics in the book. Although Idaho is known as a state for potatoes and potato farmers, the actual process of farming potatoes is so heavily impacted by technology, and by consolidation in the industry, that it only takes about 1,000 farmers to raise enough potatoes to feed much of the nation. This is a triumph of productive efficiency—and also a major adjustment for the farmers themselves, many of whom have been forced out of business.
Schlosser believes that potato farmers in Idaho, who hope to sell their crops to one of the large potato corporations, have fallen under the sway of what he terms “the fallacy of composition,” “a mistaken belief that what seems good for an individual will still be good when others do the same thing.” This fallacy has encouraged growers to spend enormously on every new invention and efficiency technology they can. However, when other farmers do the same, everyone produces more potatoes and the profit margin for potatoes goes down even more—thus making it even more difficult to generate enough income to sustain a living farming the crop.
Another important term, in Schlosser’s lexicon: the “fallacy of composition” might be applied to other “arms races,” or forms of self-destructive competition, across the fast-food and meatpacking industries. Schlosser introduces this term to show that competition—one of the mainstays of right-wing discourse on the “free market”—is not always a net good for society, nor is it necessarily always a net good for the businesses competing.
Schlosser writes that McDonald’s fries used to be made in beef tallow, giving them a taste that many customers raved about. But since1990 the fries have been made in less expensive “pure vegetable oil.” To maintain their characteristic flavor, they are then treated with “natural flavors,” which themselves are chemicals made in laboratories (most of them in New Jersey) specializing in developing flavors and scents used across the US food industry.
A significant irony. “Natural” in this case means, simply, “derived” in some sense from an object that was at one point natural. Under this definition, most things could be considered natural, as the vast majority of products Americans use are, at least in the beginning of their production cycle, extracted from some sort of compound occurring in nature.
Schlosser visits several plants where flavors and scents are made, and reports on what he sees. One company, International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), has, like others at the top of the field, reduced the science of tasting and aroma to the “smell of gases being released by the chemicals you’ve just put in your mouth.” IFF researchers help to create the characteristic tastes—sweet, spicy, fatty, salty—that “enhance” many of the foods we consume—although flavor companies (themselves a field valued at over 1 billion dollars) are not required to “disclose the ingredients of their additives . . . as long as they are ‘Generally Regarded as Safe.’” This means, in practice, that flavor companies like IFF have wide latitude over what they put in the natural flavorings that go into the foods many Americans eat.
Schlosser’s response to this visit is a complex one. On the one hand, he seems to appreciate the chemical wizardry and the intelligence of the scientists when he sees the amazingly “realistic” “natural” compounds, tastes, and aromas they can create in a lab. But Schlosser also implies that these tastes and aromas have a strange, almost otherworldly quality—not because one can distinguish them from “the real thing,” but because one cannot. That science has progressed to such a degree, that it can trick consumers into believing they are eating an actual peach or an actual apple, is a striking development.
Schlosser notes, with some irony, that the line between “artificial” and “natural” flavors can often be quite thin—or, even, impossible to see. As Schlosser explains, in theory, “artificial” flavors are those synthesized in a lab—built “from scratch” by combining different molecules and arriving at a certain taste and smell. “Natural” flavors, again in theory, are those organic compounds derived from the breaking-down or recombining of other compounds already found in a given “natural” or organic product—such as an apricot. In practice, however, a flavor is always a combination of chemicals—and whether that combination is synthesized in a lab or derived from an apricot makes no difference at all, biologically or scientifically. Despite this, because “natural” flavors sound better to consumers—and healthier, although they are exactly the same as “artificial” counterparts—agribusinesses try to include as many natural flavors as possible in their food products.
Here, too, Schlosser implies that a major inefficiency has been built into the system of the production of natural and artificial flavors—and that this inefficiency wastes a fair amount of time and money. Even if an artificial flavor would be far easier to synthesize than a “natural” flavor, the artificial flavor is far, far less in demand among food producers, since consumers balk at the idea of eating products they believe have been “synthesized” in labs at all. Of course, consumers tend not to recognize the fact that even natural flavors are developed in labs over a period of years. Thus Schlosser underscores just how important consumer perceptions of “naturalness” are in the fast-food industry.
Schlosser closes the chapter with his description of a tour of a potato factory in American Falls, Idaho, which is one of the “biggest fry factories in the world” and a supplier for McDonald’s. Schlosser notes that, even though he understands and has seen the complex machine processes that sort, cut, and place the fries, flash frozen, and ready for consumption, in a warehouse, he nevertheless marvels at the delicious taste of the fries—which a worker guiding him through the plant provides him, at the end of his visit, on a plate with salt and ketchup. Although Schlosser writes that the fries seem “wildly out of place in this laboratory setting, this surreal food factory with its computer screens, digital readouts, and shiny steel platforms...,” he notes that the fries “were delicious,” and that he “asked for more.”
Although Schlosser has spent a great deal of time up till this point critiquing the fast food industry, its practices of the production of food, and its treatment of employees, he does not want to lose sight of what attracts consumers to places like McDonald’s in the first place. Indeed, the food has been finely tuned and crafted—by scientists, and over decades—to make us hungry, to encourage us to eat more. Finding fast food delicious doesn’t make one a bad person, as Schlosser demonstrates. It merely makes one human.