American McHistory

by Kathryn Eastburn

When Eric Schlosser set out to write about the all-American meal, on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, he expected to have some fun analyzing the most kitschy, ubiquitous business success story of our times. Fast food, after all, was burgers and fries, pimpled teenagers at the cash register, relentless good cheer, an escape from home -- the ultimate in convenience.

What the investigative journalist found, the longer and deeper he dug into his subject, was nothing less than a "revolutionary force in American life," an industry whose influence infiltrates every nook and cranny of contemporary society.

An enterprise that began in post-World War II Southern California in response to the rise of the automobile in America's daily life, fast food has become our leading export abroad, the primary influence on our collective dietary habits, the biggest employer of low-paid, unskilled workers and the model for franchise and corporate chain businesses from the GAP to Auto Zone. The fast food industry has helped shape America's landscape, buying habits, work ethic and corporate mentality. At its roots, Schlosser concluded, the food industry serves up anything but a cheap, happy meal.

In the book, Schlosser heralds the entrepreneurial genius of the industry's beginnings and scrutinizes its business and marketing practices. In his research, asking what forces drive and support the industry, he visited cattle ranches, potato processing plants, slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities, even a factory on the New Jersey Turnpike where the familiar flavors of our favorite fast foods are manufactured in a test tube.

The result of his research is an American classic that has quickly captured the imagination of the national media. Since its publication earlier this year, Fast Food Nation has been reviewed and featured everywhere from National Public Radio to Entertainment Weekly, from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times Book Review. A few critics accuse the author of overreaching, of blaming all society's ills on the fast food industry. But most critics agree that Schlosser's unique blend of social commentary and solid investigative journalism raises issues that hover just beneath the daily consciousness of the average American, issues that drive and shape the culture, issues that should not be ignored.

Fast Food Nation contains plenty of dirty-kitchen, cockroaches-in-the-milkshake-machine and "mystery meat" lore. But what's in the food is merely anecdotal compared to the larger, more pervasive cultural and socio-economic issues raised in the book.

"It's not just food they're selling," says Schlosser, referring to the relentless and far-flung marketing techniques employed by the fast food industry.

Utilizing advertising strategies aimed directly at children, the fast food industry has infiltrated the nation's schools with lunchroom franchise and advertising schemes, and has so successfully imprinted trademarks on formative minds that McDonald's golden arches are now more recognizable than the Christian cross.

In the 1990s, the fast food and entertainment industries -- most notably Disney and McDonald's -- joined forces in a multibillion dollar alliance to sell movie-themed and trademarked toys in kids' fast food meals. The results were phenomenal -- reinvigorated profits for the corporations and a virtual reinvention of childhood for American kids.

And fast food chains, says Schlosser, drive a huge food-industrial complex that dominates American agriculture. The industry's massive demand for beef and potatoes supports corporate production and directly undermines family farming and ranching.

In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser urges us to consider the real costs of the cheap, convenient, all-American meal -- inhumane and dangerous working conditions in the highly industrialized plants where cattle are slaughtered and meat is processed, a devalued and untrained work force made up mostly of vulnerable youth, questionable and largely unregulated food safety and a corporate mindset that defies closely held American values.

I spoke with Schlosser recently from his New York home:

Eastburn: You have said that fast food embodies the best and worst of capitalism at the turn of the 21st century. What's best and what's worst?

Schlosser: Best is the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit of the industry founders. The origins of the industry, its early growth in California in response to a new automobile-driven economy is fascinating. All these mavericks with no credentials, high-school dropouts who couldn't get a loan, came up with brilliant schemes and ideas, and grew one of the nation's most powerful industries.

But like many American stories, once a success like this one reaches a certain size and critical mass, once it achieves a corporate mentality and a ruling bureaucracy, it turns ugly.

The worst part of the fast food industry is the mentality of the corporation, fixated so much on quarterly profit reports that it no longer asks what's best for its workers. There is now in place a deliberate labor strategy that exploits unskilled, uneducated workers, paying low wages and paying little attention to job security, worker safety or training. The fast food industry really brought that to our service economy and perfected it.

Eastburn: You have a lot to say about the fast food industry and the rise of the franchise/chain system with its "emphasis on uniformity, simplicity and the ability to replicate an identical environment anywhere." Can you talk a little about that?

Schlosser: Uniformity and conformity are the two key words. Look at [McDonald's Corporation founder] Ray Kroc's quote at the beginning of the book: "We will not tolerate non-conformists." It's a chilling quote. The organization cannot trust the individual. That, in many ways, still is the McDonald's corporate culture. Uniformity and conformity are crucial to the rise of the industry, and it is remarkable how they have achieved that. When I visited McDonald's in Dachau, it could have been Idaho. And if you closed your eyes and tasted that hamburger, you could have been anywhere on the planet in a McDonald's. The food was exactly the same.

Eastburn: How does that guiding principle relate to late 20th century American history?

Schlosser: McDonald's most significant growth occurred in the early '70s when the minimum wage declined. [From 1948 to 1969, they built 1,000 restaurants; now there are 13,000 in the United States.] I would argue that you needed a certain social, political climate to embrace this kind of uniformity; the reassurance that you know exactly what you're gonna get, how it will taste. This appealed to people at that time, following the social upheaval of the late '60s.

Going from 1,000 to 13,000 in this period tells you a lot. And once every retail business under the sun realized how this worked, they went gung-ho. And it's no accident that the industry's highest rate of growth occurred during a period when the real value of the U.S. minimum wage declined by about 40 percent.

Eastburn: One of the big businesses you scrutinize particularly harshly is the meatpacking industry, most of whose profits and business come from supplying the fast food industry. Can you talk a little about what you saw there?

Schlosser: More difficult for me personally than seeing the slaughter of cattle and the incredible carnage in those factories was seeing these workers, how they live. Meatpacking, until the late '70s, was one of the highest paid industrial jobs in the United States. Then the Reagan and Bush administrations allowed the industry to bust unions, to hire strikebreakers, to hire illegal immigrants for these jobs, even to transport them here from Mexico in company buses. Now meatpacking is one of the lowest paying industrial jobs, as well as the most dangerous.

Eastburn: In the book you say: "Congress should ban advertising that preys upon children. It should stop subsidizing dead-end jobs. It should pass tougher food safety laws. It should protect American workers from serious harm. It should fight against dangerous concentrations of economic power." Is any of this likely to happen?

Schlosser: Ideally, this kind of consumer protection would come from Congress, from government. That's why they should be there -- to do these kinds of things for us. But if you look at the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, you will find a close link with meat packers and with the restaurant industry.

George W. Bush is new in office, and who knows, he could pull a Teddy Roosevelt and take on these vested interests. I think that's highly unlikely.

Eastburn: What can be done?

Schlosser: We all need to be aware of the social costs of industrial agriculture. The burden needs to be imposed on the firms practicing it. Short of that kind of regulation and government protection -- forcing the industrial meatpackers to take care of their workers, ensuring a safe food supply -- this kind of industrial agriculture might collapse under its own weight if they don't change their practices.

Our accepted form of cattle production and processing doesn't treat the animals we eventually eat as sentient beings but as production tools. Things may have to change because of the built-in contradiction in how those industries are treating the animal-to-food cycle. Look at how England got mad cow disease, and look at how the European consumer reacted.

Mad cow disease is a terrible thing in Europe, but maybe good things will come from it. In Germany, the government supports a complete deindustrialization of agriculture. But just as it shouldn't take an outbreak of E. coli to get enforced testing of meat in place in the U.S., it shouldn't take a mad cow disease outbreak to change how we raise cattle.

The bottom line is we cannot afford to leave our health in the hands of corporate agriculture and industry who operate on a strict standard of low costs, high profitability and growth at any cost. Really, the book is, in many ways, about not trusting these businesses or, unfortunately, the government to be looking out for you.

Eastburn: What can individual consumers do to force change?

Schlosser: The purchasing power of consumers is vast. The vulnerability of the market is also vast. McDonald's stock is down. They have enormous power over their suppliers.

Consumers should hold McDonald's responsible for the behavior of their suppliers. Tell them you won't buy their products until they demand reasonable reform.

Last year, they took a big step when they decided not to buy any genetically engineered potatoes. This had a huge impact on Monsanto's GE potato market. McDonald's did it because of huge protests in Europe. They probably did some market research and concluded that people here would [also protest] if they were sold genetically engineered foods.

Recently, McDonald's has issued very strict rules for how livestock are to be ethically raised and slaughtered. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has commended them for it. I'd like to see them take steps to assure the ethical treatment of humans in these plants as well.

Eastburn: Do you really see hope for change?

Schlosser: I'm genuinely optimistic. The act of writing this book is an act of optimism. There's nothing inevitable about the way things are or how they will be in the future.