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July 2002, Volume 8, Number 3

Schlosser: Fast Food Nation

Eric Schlosser does not like the way Americans eat. His book, "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal," is an effort "to connect consumers and the workers who process, produce and prepare fast food." Schlosser emphasizes the "dark side" of the fast food industry: "what lies behind the shiny, happy surface" of the golden arches.

Schlosser begins in southern California in the late 1940s, where the fast-food revolution was fueled by the weather that allowed drive-in restaurants to stay open year round, car culture and car hops. He profiles Carl Karcher, the German-American founder of Carl's Jr, who opened his first self-serve burger restaurant in 1956 in Anaheim., and today CKE is the fourth largest fast-food burger chain in the US, after McDonald's Burger King, and Wendy's.

Fast food is synonymous with McDonald's, the chain that got its start when the McDonald brothers in San Bernadino, frustrated with constantly having to replace the car hops who served customers in their cars, experimented with self-service hamburgers at lower prices, that is, customers had to come inside to pick up their food. Restaurant equipment salesman Ray A. Kroc persuaded the McDonald brothers to let him franchise their restaurant, and today McDonald's into the world's largest restaurant chain. Ray Kroc knew Walt Disney, and Schlosser says that both pioneered marketing to children, with McDonald's winning because Ronald McDonald is better known than Mickey Mouse.

Schlosser is a master of presenting data in an interesting way. We learn that the typical American child spends 1.5 months a year watching TV, and sees lots of McDonald's ads. McDonald's operates over 8,000 private "playlands" for children, another way to get children to persuade their parents to take them to McDonald's. Along the way, Schlosser criticizes schools that accept Coke machines and ads in exchange for payments (p53-4).

Chapter 3, Behind the Counter, explains that fast-food restaurants apply the principles of a factory assembly line to a commercial kitchen. Unskilled workers can be hired to operate equipment that has been designed to be used with little or no training and, since most of the workers are teens living at home, minimum wages and no benefits are the norm. Schlosser highlights the successful efforts of the chains to prevent unionization, and calls attention to the dangers of working in fast food restaurants-- there are more robberies at fast-food restaurants than at banks, gas stations or convenience stores.

The number of immigrant workers in fast food has been rising; the National Restaurant Association says 1.4 million of the 11 million employees in US restaurants are immigrants.

Chapter 4, "Success," argues that the expansion of fast food restaurants accelerated franchising, which can provide mutual benefits for the company that wants to expand but lacks capital, and the person who wants to become a business person but lacks a plan. Unlike other chains, McDonald's became a major property owner, often buying real estate and leasing it to franchisees which, Schlosser argues, keeps franchisees obedient because McDonald's can terminate their lease. During the 1960s and 1970s, many McDonald's franchisees became millionaires, but a fast food franchise is no longer a sure-fire way to make money- about 40 percent of newly franchised fast-food restaurants go out of business within a few years.

Chapter 5 profiles Idaho potato king John Simplot, who went from grading potatoes to producing dehydrated food for the military in World War II and then became one of the big three producers of French fries. Americans consumed an average 139 pounds of potatoes in 2000 (farm level), but more were frozen French fries, 58 pounds, than fresh, 47 pounds. The taste of French fries, Schlosser explains in some detail, comes from the oil they are cooked in, and McDonald's used 93 percent beef tallow until 1990, which gave the French fries more saturated beef fat per ounce than hamburgers.

Fast-food, based ground beef and chicken, is cheap, convenient and tastes pretty good- Schlosser reports that 25 percent of adult Americans visit a fast-food restaurant on a typical day. In 1970, fast-food sales were $6 billion; in 2000, they were $100 billion. Cattle do best when it is cool enough that they do not stop eating in summer, and not so cold that they expend energy to stay warm in winter, and Greeley, Colorado is a perfect location.

Schlosser visits the Conagra meatpacking plant in Greeley, the world's largest, supplied in part by two 100,000 cow feedlots and employing 2,400 workers and 600 supervisors and managers. He describes Warren Monfort's evolution from school teacher to feed lot operator to meatpacker, and suggests that Monfort turned from a high-wage, union-friendly employer of meatpacking workers to a low-wage union buster after the predecessor of IBP "deskilled" meatpacking jobs in the 1970s and lowered wages to produce "boxed beef" that supermarkets could sell without employing high-wage in-store butchers-the IBP predecessor firm was started in 1960 with a $300,000 government loan. IBP, we are told, cooperated with the New York Mafia to get boxed beef into the city (pp154-5).

There was a 73-day strike at the Monfort plant, and it was closed for two years before it was reopened with lower wages. Conagra, which often runs afoul of labor, antitrust and other laws, bought Monfort's Greely plant in 1987, and sold a majority interest in its six fresh beef and pork processing operations in 2002 to Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, an investment group based in Dallas, for $1.4 billion; when the sale is completed, the plant will be a Swift & Company operation. The plant's workers, 90 percent of whom are Latino, are in the middle of a 2000-2004 contract that raised wages 14 percent. In July 2002, some 19 million pounds of ground beef from the Conagra plant were recalled; in August 1997, some 25 million pounds produced by Hudson Foods in Nebraska were recalled.

Deskilling jobs and lowering wages created a new meatpacking work force, "industrial migrants." Often immigrants who do not speak English, they see meatpacking jobs as pretty much the same, regardless of the company name on the door, and contribute to high turnover by quitting when they have saved some money and want to return home, or when they get into disputes with fellow workers or supervisors. Schlosser, who lays the blame for the transformation of the meatpacking industry on the Reagan administration, which did not oppose mergers, and a 1986 US Supreme Court decision that facilitated mergers (p158), notes that high turnover can save the meatpackers money, since benefits such as health insurance are not available to workers until they have worked six months in the plant (p161). Immigrants are the mainstay of the meatpacking work force today.

Schlosser vividly describes his tours of the "disassembly lines," describing meat packing as a: "A savage servility slides by on grease." Meatpacking workers have a high injury rate- a fourth have reportable injuries each year- and Sclosser faults IBP and the speed up of the lines as the reason why workers tend to cut themselves, or to be cut by other workers. Some meatpackers reportedly do not report all of the workers' injuries, maintaining two sets of injury logs, in part because nurses and doctors are paid to minimize reportable injuries (p180-1). According to Schlosser, Anglo supervisors earning $30,000 a year- good jobs in rural communities- drive the Latino work force hard (pp175-76). Most plants are cleaned after the second shift finishes with a mixture of hot water and chlorine, "the worst job in the US." (p177).

Chapter 10, "Global Realization," skips from Plauen, Germany, the first city in the former East Germany to get a McDonald's, to Las Vegas and back, with the detour filled with snippets on the body mass index and obesity (a BMI over 30) and on Mikhail Gorbachev's speech to the 26th Chain Operators Exchange, which prompted the observation that "In ancient Rome, the leaders of conquered nations were put on display at the Circus." (p239). Schlosser argues that one reason for declining beef consumption is poor wages and working conditions in the plants. He argues that wages and working conditions are better in Europe, and that beef consumption is higher.

Schlosser ends with a sweeping indictment and calls for consumers to boycott fast-food restaurants until the system changes: "The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today's retail economy, wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences, and spreading identical stores throughout the country like a self-replicating virus… During a relatively brief period of time, the fast-food industry has helped to transform not only the American diet, but also our landscape, economy, workforce and popular culture."

The book ends with a plea to think about where the burgers came from the next time the reader is in a fast food restaurant, and then "walk out the door. It's not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way." (p270). In addition to consumers exercising market power, Schlosser favors laws and regulations that would slow the rising consumption of burgers, fried chicken, and pizza that, he says, is producing obese Americans while wiping out family farmers and independent restaurants. This recommendation for more government intervention is one reason why many of the reviews of Fast Food Nation in the business press were negative.

In a November 1995 piece in the Atlantic magazine on California strawberry workers, Schlosser looked at sharecropping in California's strawberry industry and concluded that blind faith in the market has led to bad conditions for farm workers.

Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York. Houghton Mifflin. ( Schlosser, Eric. 1995. In the Strawberry Fields, Atlantic Monthly, November.