Schlosser’s examination of the food industry also applies more broadly to the analysis of bureaucracies (especially of the government variety) and of complex systems. Every step of the food production process in America, as it has become streamlined for maximum efficiency, has counter intuitively become more complicated, because food is now manufactured so quickly, and in such volume, that new problems present themselves at newer, faster, larger scales. When one man slaughters one cow, he can do so relatively slowly and carefully, and without fearing that unnoticed fecal matter from the steer will make its way into the meat. But a complex system, wherein hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat are prepared in large factories by many specialized workers—each of whom sees only one small part of the process—means that the possibility of error “propagates,” or becomes far more likely to be amplified over time.
The complex systems of food production in America present problems, even as they are designed to make food production more efficient. Because plants across the country are so effective at preparing (for example) meat products, the profit for meat preparation decreases over time due to the laws of supply and demand: the more meat there is, the less it costs. This means that workers are encouraged to work even faster to produce even more meat to generate profits, which means errors can arise—for example, when meat is not cleaned and prepared properly, leading to bacterial infections (of E. coli and other varieties).
Additionally, the government bureaucracies in charge of managing the American food supply are, according to Schlosser, hopelessly in the thrall of big businesses, who keep inspectors from doing their work, or lie about their data to make food plants seem more safe, or push for legislation that allows the food industry to “regulate itself” (which typically results in decreased food safety standards).
For Schlosser, complex systems of food production run by bureaucrats who manage food production but are separated from the laborers who actually work on the “assembly line,” lead to a gulf between the profit-making features of the food economy and the actual healthfulness and value of the food being produced. Schlosser argues that complex systems naturally tend toward self-perpetuation at all costs—which, in many cases, means making a profit without regard to the quality of the product.
Bureaucracy and Complex Systems ThemeTracker
Bureaucracy and Complex Systems Quotes in Fast Food Nation
Fast food is now so commonplace that it has acquired an air of inevitability, as though it were somehow unavoidable, a fact of modern life. And yet the dominance of the fast food giants was no more preordained than the march of colonial split-levels, golf courses, and man-made lakes across the deserts of the American West.
The southern California drive-in restaurants of the early 1940s tended to be gaudy and round, topped with pylons, towers, and flashing signs. They were “Circular meccas of neon,” in the words of drive-in historian Michael Witzel, designed to be easily spotted from the road.
Despite all the talk in Colorado about aerospace, biotech, computer software, telecommunications, and other industries of the future, the largest private employer in the state today is the restaurant industry . . . [it] has grown faster than the population.
As franchises and chain stores opened across the United States, driving along a retail strip became a shopping experience much like strolling down the aisle of a supermarket. Instead of pulling something off the shelf, you pulled into a driveway. The distinctive architecture of each chain became its packaging . . . .
Many ranchers now fear that the beef industry is deliberately being restructured along the lines of the poultry industry. They do not want to wind up like chicken growers—who in recent years have become virtually powerless, trapped by debt and by onerous contracts written by the large processors.
Greeley became a company town, dominated by the Monfort family and ruled with a compassionate paternalism. Ken Monfort was a familiar presence at the slaughterhouse. Workers felt comfortable approaching him with suggestions and complaints.
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.
Workers often bring their knives home and spend at least forty minutes a day keeping the edges smooth, sharp, and sanded, with no pits. One IBP worker, a small Guatemalan woman in graying hair, spoke with me . . . telling the story of her life . . . the whole time sharpening big knives in her lap as though she were knitting a sweater.
Every day in the United States, nearly 200,000 people are sickened by foodborne disease, 900 are hospitalized, and fourteen die. . . . Most of these cases are never reported to the authorities or properly diagnosed. The widespread outbreaks that are detected . . . represent a small fraction of the number that actually occurs.
The pathogens from infected cattle are spread not only in feedlots, but also at slaughterhouses and hamburger grinders. The slaughterhouse tasks most likely to contaminate meat are the removal of an animal’s hide and the removal of its digestive system . . . if a hide has been inadequately cleaned, chunks of dirt and manure may fall from it onto the meat.
In addition to letting meatpacking executives determine when to recall ground beef, how much needs to be recalled, and who should be told about it, for years the USDA allowed these companies to help write the agency’s own press releases about the recalls.
As the fast food industry has grown more competitive in the United States, the major chains have looked to overseas markets for their future growth. The McDonald’s Corporation recently used a new phrase to describe its hopes for foreign conquest: “global realization.”
As people eat more meals outside the home, they consume more calories, less fiber, and more fat. Commodity prices have fallen so low that the fast food industry has greatly increased its portion sizes, without reducing profits, in order to attract customers. The size of a burger has become one of its main selling points.
Today’s fast food industry is the culmination of larger social and economic trends. The low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect its real cost—and should. The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society. The annual cost of obesity alone is now twice as large as the fast food industry’s total revenues.
[At the fast food 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.