Schlosser begins the book by tracing the genesis of fast-food companies, especially McDonald’s. Like Disney, another company based in southern California, McDonald’s was invested in a product—hamburgers, rather than cartoons—that could be marketed effectively to children, and created in bulk. Disney, McDonald’s, and countless similar corporations participated in a post-war economic boom, coupled with the explosion of the automobile and the Eisenhower federal interstate highway system. The “suburbanization” of the United States—whereby middle-class families moved from cities into outlying, car-dominated regions—changed food consumption patterns greatly, and McDonald’s positioned itself to capitalize on this shift—indeed, McDonald’s encouraged it.
As fast-food corporations like McDonald’s grew—largely by franchising, or the land-ownership of independent-operated storefronts—the corporation’s officials and stockholders became very wealthy. This was coupled with an increasingly technological streamlining of the food-production process, which meant that the fast-food workforce could, and would, be largely under-trained, under-staffed, workers, often transient, often very young (in high school) or of unsettled immigration status. Fast-food work became, in the second half of the twentieth century, the dominant service-industry job for low-skilled workers. And fast-food work paid terribly, often requiring employees to work overtime without pay, in unsafe or unsanitary conditions, with little possibility of advancement.
Schlosser notes, too, that the economic impact of fast-food rippled beyond both the workers in individual stores and the corporate officials becoming wealthy in the “home offices.” Ranching, potato-growing, and other farming practices changed enormously, owing to vast corporate demand for meat and starch products. Small farms became impracticable, and large-scale farming had its own impact on people and the land—promoting the slaughter of cattle en masse, and forcing large tracts of land to be devoted to the growth of one crop (mostly potatoes for French fries).
Thus, for Schlosser, the economic impact of the fast-food industry is a primary engine of, and symbol of, an increase in income inequality in the US following the post-World-War-II boom—fast food, like other corporate industries, prizes profit for a relatively small number, against low wages for unskilled workers. And the social costs of this industry are vast, and often not accounted for: damage to the land, consolidation of food production into relatively few under-regulated companies; low nutritional standards; and privileging of profit over quality of product and service.
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Greed, Corporations, and “The Bottom Line” Quotes in Fast Food Nation
The key to a successful franchise, according to many texts on the subject, can be expressed in one word: “uniformity.” Franchises and chain stores strive to offer exactly the same product or service at numerous locations.
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.
Richard McDonald . . . though untrained as an architect . . . came up with a design [for McDonald’s stores] that was simple, memorable, and archetypal. On two sides of the roof he put golden arches, lit by neon at night, that from a distance formed the letter M.
This is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I’ll kill ‘em, and I’m going to kill ‘em before they kill me. You’re talking about the American way of survival of the fittest.
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.
Every Saturday Elisa Zamot gets up at 5:15 in the morning. It’s a struggle, and her head feels groggy as she steps into the shower. Her little sisters, Cookie and Sabrina, are fast asleep in their beds. . . .
The fast food industry pays the minimum wage to a higher proportion of its workers than any other American industry. Consequently, a low minimum wage has long been a crucial part of the fast food industry’s business plan.
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 . . . .
McDonald’s began to sell J. R. Simplot’s frozen french fries the following year. Customers didn’t notice any difference in taste. And the reduced cost of using a frozen product made french fries one of the most profitable items on the menu—far more profitable than hamburgers.
Since 1980, the tonnage of potatoes grown in Idaho has almost doubled, while the average yield per acre has risen by nearly 30 percent. But the extraordinary profits being made from the sale of french fires have barely trickled down to the farmers.
Toward sunset we spotted a herd of antelope and roared after them. That damn minivan bounced over the prairie like a horse at full gallop, Hank wild behind the wheel . . . we had a Chrysler engine, power steering, and disk brakes, but the antelope had a much superior grace, making sharp and unexpected turns, bounding effortlessly . . . .
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.
The suicide rate among ranchers and farmers in the US is now about three times higher than the national average. The issue briefly received attention during the 1980s farm crisis, but has been pretty much ignored ever since. Meanwhile, across rural America, a slow and steady death toll mounts. As the rancher’s traditional way of life is destroyed, so are many of the beliefs that go with it.
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.