The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Fast Food Nation:
What’s in the fries?

Dec 3, 2001

About 30 to 40 million of us will head to McDonald’s or Taco Bell or Burger King today. We spend more than 110 billion dollars per year on fast food, more than the country spends on higher education.

Eric Schlosser has written Fast Food Nation to show the changes in the way we eat. His perspective is clear in his subtitle: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. As a journalist, Schlosser has filled his book with details you never knew – about Roy Kroc and the McDonald brothers, about how fries get their flavor, about how the meat reaches the market. Did you know that kids watch 30,000 ads per year, and that ads for fast food have even entered their school books, while Pizza Hut and Pepsi gain space in their cafeterias?

The most entertaining stories in the book depict the flavor industry along the New Jersey turnpike. Factories there supply two-thirds of the flavors used throughout the country. For a Burger King strawberry shake, the ingredients include – but are not limited to – amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, anethol, benzyl acetate, butyric acid, dipropyl ketone, ethyl cinnamate, maltol, methyl salicylate, nerolin, etc.

But Schlosser is mostly angry at how the food industry is organized. Today there are 15,000 McDonald’s throughout North America. As of 2001, not a single one has been unionized. Two out of three workers in the fast food industry are younger than 20, and they average only three months on the job before quitting. There were a few unsuccessful attempts at organizing, but fast food remains a minimum wage industry. Its owners have been rewarded with special taxes called “The Targeted Jobs Tax Credit” and “Work Opportunity Tax Credit” by their friends in Congress.

Schlosser describes changes in the meat, poultry and potato industry that have turned these into big business. In 2000, for example, the top four meat processors – ConAgra, IBP, Excel and National Beef – slaughtered about 84% of all cattle.

Schlosser gives us a history of IBP, which started when two executives left Swift meat-packers to start Iowa Beef Packers in 1961. In 1961, workers slaughtered 50 cattle per hour; today the rate is up to 400 slaughtered per hour. The workers there often come from Mexico, thanks to a labor office and bus service which IBP maintains in Mexico. IBP even runs ads on Mexican radio stations to find people to work in their slaughter houses.

Meat-packing has always been an industry using new immigrants who may barely know English in one of the most dirty and dangerous jobs that exist. Schlosser says the rate of injury in slaughter houses is three times higher than the rate in U.S. factories. This book also shows some of the reasons that meat is contaminated seriously enough to kill people, or why millions of pounds of meat get recalled each year.

Although Schlosser wants us to blame it all on the Republicans, he points out that in 1978 the Department of Agriculture had 12,000 meat inspectors, while in 2000, it had only 7,500. That’s certainly too many administrations cutting too many inspectors to blame it all on the Republicans. Apparently he forgot how many times the Democrats controlled Congress.

From Schlosser’s book you would never know that the current state of food production and its results in the American diet are part of a long history of changes in farming. Nor would you know that Sinclair Lewis wrote The Jungle to expose the disgusting conditions in the meat-packing industry in 1906.

Still, Fast Food Nation is a fascinating look at various aspects of how we eat today. Reading this book will NOT encourage you

to go order a Big Mac, fries and a shake.