The High Cost of Cheap Food

The first thing I did after finishing Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation was to go into the kitchen, slice up some potatoes, and make my own french fries. I sprinkled salt over them, omitted the ketchup, and ate the fries one by one, slowly, savoringly. At the same time, I tried to recall my distant memories of the taste and texture of McDonald's fries, which I haven't eaten for many years. Mine were not as crisp, nor as evenly sized. But they tasted pretty good -- even though my potatoes were store-bought, not harvested from the ground that morning as McDonald's fries are said to be; even though I had not bothered to determine the sugar and starch content of the potatoes as McDonald's does; and even though I had not added the "natural flavor" that gives McDonald's fries their distinctive taste.

"French fries have become the most widely sold foodservice item in the United States," Schlosser reports in his wide-ranging book, and "ninety percent of those fries are purchased at fast-food restaurants." Schlosser describes a visit to Lamb Weston in American Falls, Idaho, the nation's biggest supplier of frozen fries to fast-food chains, where he sampled a batch of fries in the company's sanitized lab. "The french fries were delicious," he says, "crisp and golden brown, made from potatoes that had been in the ground that morning. I finished them and asked for more."

But behind the innocent packet of fries lies a bigger story. It features a few giant corporations cornering most of the profits while potato farmers struggle to survive. "Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast-food restaurant, perhaps 2 cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes," Schlosser says. As for the taste, which makes people come back for more, the author tells a story that has rapidly made its way into the mainstream media in the months since his book came out. For decades McDonald's cooked their fries in 93 percent beef tallow. It was only after intense criticism over cholesterol that the company switched to pure vegetable oil in 1990. But that is not as simple as it seems, for the company still adds "natural flavor" to the fries. A recent class-action lawsuit filed by a Seattle lawyer reveals that this additive is actually beef extract, which vegetarians consume unknowingly.

As a food writer, I think of it as a great sin to transform good food into a mediocre commodity that one consumes without noticing. French fries, hamburgers, and milk shakes are neither inherently objectionable nor harmful to one's health if they are consumed in moderation and made in one's own kitchen. But the objective of the fast-food industry is to make mindless, repetitive consumers out of us -- to reduce our autonomy in eating and cooking -- and to a large extent, it has succeeded. In the process, it is denaturing food and increasing our disconnect with the processes by which it is grown, harvested, supplied, and eaten. Fast Food Nation is not the diatribe of yet another health-food advocate against the nutritional deficiencies of fast food: It is a multifaceted examination of the whole phenomenon. Usually, I like to read about food. But reading about the food industry is a different experience. It's enough to drive you back into your own kitchen, in search of the simple pleasure of eating a fried potato.

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"Over the last three decades, fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American life," Schlosser writes; indeed, it "has proved to be a revolutionary force." Schlosser is interested in it "both as a commodity and as a metaphor." He takes the small Colorado city of Colorado Springs as a focal point and documents the rapid changes it has undergone: "During the last few decades, the city's population has more than doubled. Subdivisions, shopping malls, and chain restaurants are appearing in the foothills of Cheyenne Mountain and the plains rolling to the east." The same has happened to countless other suburban communities throughout the country.

Schlosser, a prize-winning investigative journalist, documents this process with the meticulous passion of a historian. He shows the inevitable adjuncts of the spread of the convenience-food industry -- the dreary landscapes, the strip-mall developments, the meat-processing plants whose foul odors despoil the air for miles around, the wretched pay and lack of security that workers have to accept, the frustrations that lead to the proliferation of criminal behavior, and the scientific precision with which fast-food companies turn the public into consumers. "Over the past twenty years," Schlosser writes in a sweeping indictment of society and government, "the United States has swung too far in one direction, weakening the regulations that safeguard workers, consumers, and the environment. An economic system promising freedom has too often become a means of denying it, as the narrow dictates of the market gain precedence over more important democratic values. Today's fast food industry is the culmination of those larger social and economic trends."

Schlosser refers to Upton Sinclair's muckraking classic The Jungle and sets out to provide an update, describing the gigantic, mechanized slaughterhouses that hire migrant workers at minimal wages and push them on a dangerous, unremitting production schedule. "Meatpacking is now the most dangerous job in the United States," Schlosser asserts. And he provides a plethora of horrific details: swinging cattle carcasses, floors awash in blood and manure, workers with faces splattered with gray matter and blood. Today's high-speed, "disassembly line" methods of slaughtering ensure that "the injury rate in a slaughterhouse is about three times higher than the rate in a typical American factory." Unions are kept strictly at bay. The workers hardly know their rights. And the government, subject to powerful corporate lobbies, does little to ensure worker safety or provide redress for the injured worker. Even federal inspectors are demoralized -- their numbers unequal to the job, their ability to enforce standards subjected to the whims of the very companies whose operations they have to inspect. "The working conditions in America's slaughterhouses demonstrate what can happen when employers wield virtually unchecked power over their workers," Schlosser writes. "If the meatpacking industry is allowed to continue its recruitment of poor, illiterate, often illegal immigrants, many other industries will soon follow its example. The rise of a migrant industrial workforce poses a grave threat to democracy."

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One of the most distressing sections of Fast Food Nation describes how fast-food chains have targeted children as customers -- and the ultra-sophisticated corporate thinking that has gone into that effort. It seems that Ray Kroc, who built the McDonald's empire, was at one time a friend of Walt Disney. Initially, many of McDonald's marketing ploys for toddlers and young children borrowed ideas and images from Disney. With the explosion of children's advertising in the 1980s, marketing experts have gone after this most impressionable segment of society with a vengeance. Like the now-deceased Joe Camel, the logos and mascots of fast-food companies have been created specifically to ensure brand loyalty among children. Quoting extensively from corporate strategy manuals and industry marketing experts, Schlosser tells of the ways that children are classified as "pleading, persistent, forceful, demonstrative, sugar-coated, and threatening" nags and how different marketing ploys cater to these personality traits.

The companies use image, light, color, playpens, and giveaway toys to create the mythical family-friendly, benign enterprise. The cheery interior of a McDonald's or a Burger King is as much of a draw as the food they sell. As Constantin Boym wrote recently in a poignant article, "My McDonald's," published in Gastronomica, this appeal transcends countries and cultures. Boym talks about being a Russian immigrant in Boston, unsure of himself, awkward in social and professional situations. Finding a place where lunch was affordable was one of his many trials -- until he walked into a brightly lit, cheerful place full of families with children where the food was cheap and the atmosphere relaxed. It was McDonald's, of course, and it was a discovery he cherishes. Several years later, playing host to a compatriot in Manhattan, Boym took him to a pleasant restaurant in Greenwich Village. But the friend was acutely uncomfortable until Boym suggested that they go to a McDonald's visible from the restaurant window. To the newcomer, the American McDonald's recalled the familiarity and comfort generated by an identical McDonald's he had visited in Moscow's Pushkin Square. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Boym himself visited Moscow and came upon the familiar golden arches. He walked in and felt immediately at home as an American.

The fast-food chains continue to proliferate, changing centuries-old eating habits. The incursions are planned with the precision of a military campaign. I learned from Schlosser's book that seven years before opening the first McDonald's in India, the company started "teaching Indian farmers how to grow iceberg lettuce with seeds specially developed for the nation's climate." It was a small datum that underscored my dismay during a recent visit to Calcutta, where I noticed the logos of American fast-food chains all over the city and saw my friends' children clamoring for burgers and pizza instead of traditional Bengali food.

The massive amount of information and statistics that Schlosser presents in Fast Food Nation might fatigue some readers, but not before making an indelible impression. This book has the potential to turn a couch potato into an activist. Certainly, it will be hard to look at a Happy Meal with much happiness once you've read it. The sad thing is that those who can benefit most from the information Schlosser has compiled -- the lower-income, less-educated minorities of American society and, especially, their children -- are the least likely to read it. Municipal, state, and federal authorities will have to act on their behalf if their health and their rights are to be protected. And Schlosser makes it clear that this is a moral imperative no government should deny. "People who smoke crack know the potential dangers; most people who eat hamburgers don't," he writes. "Eating in the United States should no longer be a form of high-risk behavior."

Fortunately, as Schlosser tells us at the end, each one of us, as a consumer, has the power to do something: We can choose not to buy; we can agitate for more government action; we can demand corporate accountability. If the number of fast-food resisters were to grow every year, how long could corporations withstand the pressure?

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