Fast Food Nation – Schlosser

Fast Food Nation – Schlosser

Dare I say that I think the humans come off worst in this book about the fast food industry?

Actually, that strikes me as one of the most genius things about this book. I’m sure there is a litany of work out there detailing every minute of a battery hens life, or that of a ‘roid-raging cow… but once you know that we (you know, humans) often don’t treat animals particularly nicely, then it just kind of sinks in and you either care or you don’t. If we’ve pulped a million billion chickens, then what difference is 2 million billion? (Answer : one million billion) Maybe you don’t like chickens? What if you think chickens suck?

Okay, I mean, I wouldn’t want one living in my house. (Perhaps living outside, eating pests, weeds and dishing out eggs – yes please). I don’t want to be the kind of dick who even looks at, let alone gets up on a high horse: not that I could. The one major difference to animals I’ve ever made (being a vegetarian) I have been all my life, so really it’s never really been an ethical dilemma I’ve had to solve.  I suppose I stuck with it anyway, that counts for something. But then I just use my saved up ‘karma-offset pain pounds’ and throw a stoat out of the window every other week.

“I’m on a stoat / I’m on a stoat / Everybody look at me ‘cos I’m sailing on a stoat”

Fast Food Nation gets into more than just this admittedly gruesome and fascinating topic. It is not a single issue book, and I don’t think has ever claimed to be, but you have to admit, on hearing the phrase “It’s something to do with the fast food industry” you immediately think “Oh, so it’s about mass produced meat and why it’s bad for animals, our diets and the planet”. Well, it covers that but much more besides.

Schlosser takes us through every corner of the industry, from ranches to feedlots to drive-thrus to boardrooms to schools… back to the 19th century and all the way up to today. How could you sustain an entire book (not a massive read, under 300 pages) based on ‘just’ the food? (Also a not-very-well-received film was made. It has Greg Kinnear and Avril Lavigne in it, and was directed by Richard Linklater, who did the pretty great Philip K Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly)

Food is a good vehicle for looking at all kinds of other social and cultural trends.

How appropriate to choose a Porsche for your chocolate treats, because of it’s silky veneer, smooth handling and fairtrade ..errrr.. windows

It’s something we all have to engage in, something that shapes every day of our lives. As we go on to find out, fast food is a pretty specific 20th century invention with all kinds of things to teach us about how we’ve decided to function as individuals and as a society. Granted, many of those things are “Man, humans never stop coming up with ingenious ways of being bastards”. The culture of the fast food industry has helped spawn a lot of the crappiest, money grabbing, exploitative facets of the modern world: tragically, as Schlosser points out, much of the time these things (whether employment conditions, food sanitation or financial management) have the depressing air of inevitability about them. But what better way to challenge this than to have a thorough look at the history and root causes of these things?

I should also mention his somewhat-predecessor, Upton Sinclair, nominee for Mr Worlds Most Awesome Name, and writer of The Jungle, a semi-fictional novel written in 1906, taking place in the meatpacking industry of the time: but also a book more concerned with capitalist evil than food hygiene. Like Fast Food Nation, the immediate gross-out shock got remembered more widely than the social message, but in this case it was “Oh I say, this burger contains parts of a unfortunately pulped worker!” rather than “Oh I say, the industrial complex we have participated in is a horrendously dehumanizing and degrading system!”

Well, who are they bastards to anyway?

Students: College/University kids really want money, education and a car, but most can only choose two! Many choose to spend that study time working in absolute bottom rung fast food work in order to afford a car. (This being America, not having a car appears to blow a far sight more than it does in Europe) This interferes with their studies and gives a lifelong contempt for any kind of work. They live at home, so they will take a lower wage than an adult, they’re easier to boss around, don’t know their rights are less likely to join a union. The average career length is 3 to 4 months (mean average). But hey, if having burgers thrown at you by shitty customers is too bad, you can always work in telesales where you might get a decent wage in exchange for at least 40 hours a week. Supervisors watch out for teenagers doing homework on the job. Lookie here! Looks like we got ourselves areader.” Sure, telesales isn’t the fast food industry, but the management style (particularly recruiting teenagers) borrowed a lot. A lot of money is spent on the development of equipment that is as easy as possible to operate, so training is kept at a minimum. Meanwhile, why not get some state tax credits for your contribution to the labour pool? Worth a few thousand dollars per worker hired, and over 90% of the positions you ‘create’ were found by inquiry to be ones that would have been created anyway! Cash back.

Minimum wagers: In the 25 years fast food grew the most, the real value of the minimum wage  dropped 40%. Fast food employs the largest group of minimum wagers of any industry. (With the exception of the unknown, probably illegal fruit pickers etc) The crew get an hourly rate, no bonus, no overtime, no insurance. The managers get some of this in exchange for 50,60,70+ hours a week. (The whole economic idea of a minimum wage is interesting. It would seem in the UK that it still drags its ass behind other growth factors) Schlosser estimates that increasing the minimum wage by a dollar would add 2 cents to the cost of a burger. Love those cheap prices, man!

Let’s talk recent and illegal immigrants here as well, working more in the slaughterhouses and processing side of the industry, with some astonishingly crappy stories to tell. Get a big factory full of machinery designed for killing things, chopping them up into bits and disposing of the waste: add a bunch of untrained, desperate to work immigrants (with poor language skills): get a ruthless taskmaster to run the place at beyond it’s maximum capacity/speed and… fill in the blanks. Deaths, injuries and life long health problems. Few willing or knowledgeable enough to report accidents or to try suing. Lots of incorrectly slaughtered cattle, mixing feces with meat. Even the dedicated, physically strong, anti-union staff get thrown on the scrapheap once they wear out: see the ballad of Kenny Dobbins. Actual beheadings, actual being pulled into a machine and pulped, actual repeated incidents of head-crushed-by-the-same-piece-of-machinery. The repeated incidents are the most depressing. A worker cleaning a tank with hydrogen sulfide passed out, two others went in to rescue him, no one came out. Then years later, another died in exactly the same way. The fine was $480 per death. Finally the heartwarming case of the slaughterhouse picking up its workforce at the border, working them in the day, and dropping them off at the homeless shelter at night. (Of course the shelter took them in on that occasion, but words were had)

Miserable people:

“In the absence of good wages and secure employment, the chains try to inculcate ‘team spirit’ in their young crews…one of these techniques is called ‘stroking’, a form of positive reinforcement, deliberate praise and recognition that many teenagers don’t get at home. Stroking can make a team member feel their contribution is valued. And it’s a lot less expensive than overtime or raising wages”

On the other hand, you could be one of the lucky 4 or 5 workers killed on the job every month (usually robberies) Robbers are likely to target fast food outlets because they still take a lot of their payments in cash, and it’s pretty easy to intimidate a bunch of people who loathe their jobs: This also means that “No other American industry…is so frequently robbed by it’s own employees” (President of the National Safe Workplace Institute) One assistant manager, who had a previous life as a drug runner, brings an illegal handgun at work. Illegal handgun! In America! Musta been a Pfefer Zeliska:

It’s a real gun folks!

– Potato famers:

The fast food companies purchase frozen fries for about 30 cents a pound, reheat them in oil, and sell them for 6 dollars a pound….out of every $1.50 spent on a large fries, about 2 cents finds its way to the farmer who grew the potatoes” .

Fries are one of the most profitable items on the menu, next to soda. Potatoes can be a fickle crop, the more you scale up, the risk of a massive failure can outweigh the gains made in growing. Here’s your word for the day ‘oligopsony’. The market for potatoes is one: loads of sellers, not many buyers. 3 french fry producers control 80% of the market in the US (Simplot, Lamb Weston and McCain). One year when prices dropped, it would have been more cost effective to let the potatoes rot in the field, but this would damage the land for the future. And while we’re talking about potatoes, we might as well talk about the fries: McDonalds fries used to have more saturated beef fat in them than their burgers, as they were cooked in beef tallow. They changed to vegetable oil in the 90s, but found necessary flavourings keep the taste.

– Children: Children who can recognise a logo before they can recognise their own name, and focus group/slumber parties for two and three year olds. Look at Joe Camel, the famous mascot for Camel cigarettes. The American Medical Association found that nearly all 6 year olds could recognise the character, and a further study showed that nearly a third of cigarettes sold illegally to children were Camels. The explosion in child-oriented marketing (for fashion, phones, beauty products, not just food) could be traced to the good ol’ materialistic 1980’s where parents began to compensate for spending time with their spawn with spending money on them instead. A sound idea, you’ll agree.

Cattle and chicken farmers: In the late 19th Century, many corporate alliances called ‘Trusts’ exerted a huge control over their relevant industries: the Steel trust, the Beef trust etc etc.  The Anti-trust act (I always wondered where that phrase came from) was passed to combat these monopolies, and eventually the Beef trust was broken up: farmers got paid decent prices in a competitive marketplace. Until Reagan shows up, and lets the meatpackers merge again. In 1970 the four largest meatpackers slaughtered 21 percent of the cattle, in 2002 the top four slaughter 84 percent. For chicken processors, the balance is 8 processors for 60ish percent of the market. The McNugget revolutionised the way chickens are farmed and eaten: from something that was carved up at the table to something easily eaten by hand. They were popularised, in part, by the view that chicken was healthier to eat than beef: even though McNuggets have twice as much fat as burgers, by weight.

I should point out the original book was published in 2001, then updated in 2002 with a section on mad cow disease. In the interests of staying up to date, I had a quick scan for further news in the industry, after all, even massive evil corporations are, say, only buying free range eggs, or being nicer to employees nowadays right? Well, here’s a mixed bag of recent stories I found… no coherent point to be made here, just some interesting self contained nuggets.

Industry in the UK grew 16% over the last five years

Kids exposed to less food advertising , but more fast food advertising (study from 2003 to 2009) however, it is something you can still blame the parents for

Health insurance companies own lots of stock in fast food companies (at least they have a sense of irony)

49% of rubbish dropped in the streets of San Francisco is from fast food items (Though this is more people being dumb than the industry)

Government strategy to deal with obesity: put down the fork (It’s not like getting involved and passing laws ever changed anything. You deal with it, tubby. What leadership.)

Even the French haven’t got time to have a decent lunch break any more (22 minutes today, an hour and a half 10 years ago)

Intensive farming on the rise, soil erosion, herbicides, pesticides, and morebecides (Wit)

Tesco to open an in-store Dominoes Pizza in Dudley  (Please read following quote in the appropriate accent) “We’re looking forward to opening our doors on October 17th 2011 and offering Domino’s Pizza to our customers as part of the great services from Tesco Extra Dudley.”

Cost of food has risen over twice the rate of the minimum wage (Quite the double whammy for people who are paid the minimum wage AND have to EAT FOOD)

Is the McRib a product of McDonalds McMonopoly control of the McPork McMarket? (Bonus fact: it was also because they’d run out of chickens to eat)

Coming back to my original statement, yes, I think humans come off worst from this whole thing.

Sure we are pretty much at evil-mastermind levels of dastardliness when it comes to animals, but it’s not even like we get anything worthwhile in return. Shitty food that slowly kills you, shitty jobs that make you want to kill yourself or save you the trouble and actually kill you, shitty monopolies that reduce competition and shit on the little guy, shitty marketing to kids, shitty industries that contribute to the killing of the planet we need to live on, shitty chasing-the-lowest-common-denominator type thinking that gets the rest of the shitty world acting the same.

At least the animals are innocent. Despite being a veggie, I am still generally on the side of “Humans are the best and can do whatever we want to do” as much as it applies; for example, (humane of course) scientific testing of medicines and so on. Having pets doesn’t seem particularly evil. It’s a tragedy we’ve destroyed loads of habitats, so maybe living in captivity is the only way some animals will realistically survive. But come on,  this is not an area of human endeavor that ANYONE comes away from smelling like roses. At best you smell like french fries. Fast food could be better for everyone involved and it would probably cost an extra few pennies or pounds here and there.There is nothing inevitable about it, as always, vote with your wallet.

Finally something to lighten the mood:

Creative Commons - Flickr user - vegetarians-dominate-meat-eaters-01

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