We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Until recently, I believed that I was going to bring down the McDonald’s empire.
My plan was diabolical in its simplicity. McDonald’s is constantly growing. It has more than 28,000 stores but still adds more than 2,000 new locations each year. Literally, every hour, McDonald’s needs more and more new customers to sustain its unholy growth. Eventually, I reasoned, they were going to need meand I wasn’t going to be there. I was going to be the nail they were for want of.
Then I had children.
Somehow, before my twin daughters were old enough for me to convey my feelings to them, they found out about Micky D’s, and they don’t seem to share my opinion of it. “Donald’s! Donald’s!” they say with 2-year-old enthusiasm when we pass one of the restaurants. I don’t know who took them there first, but now they love it. They love the playgrounds, they love the toys, they love the atmosphere, they love the kids, and they even love the food. It was a black moment for me when I stood in a McDonald’s for the first time in a half-dozen years and saw, with my own eyes, one of my daughters using a french fry to scoop up Satan’s own sauce, that sickly-sweet flavor-obfuscating red paste that is just one of the many unsavory unavoidables in McDonald’s homogenized, sanitized, frozen-and-thawed world.
The devil is nothing if not patient (and make no mistake, Ronald McDonald is the devil), and he doesn’t need me. He has my daughters.
In truth, my objections to McDonald’s are largely aesthetic, with a little bit of lefty thrown in. I think the food is nasty and the restaurants are a blight upon the nationsimple enough. My desire to deprive my daughters of Happy Meals was mostly because I didn’t want to subject myself to them. But Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal suggests that there are other reasons to look suspiciously at what has become the most popular meal in America. It’s an odd smorgasbord of a book, at once sociology, business history, science, and culinary apocalypse. It examines the food supplyand what we have become after eating of it.
The modern fast-food hamburger is defined by chemicals. The burgers are made from beef, but the cows used are so old (generally dairy-farm pensioners) that both flavor and nutrition are depleted by the time the animals are slaughtered. And both of these problems are exacerbated by the mass production and freezing processes. Burger “flavor” instead comes from added agents, enough to give the food an exaggerated tastemaking it seem realer than real. In short, chain burgers are the culinary equivalent of two-dollar whores: old, cheap, doused in perfume, and caked in condiments.
And it’s not just the burgers that are enhanced. McDonald’s frieswhich were formerly fried in beef tallow and contained more protein than the chain’s burgersnow have beef additives to simulate the once honestly achieved signature flavor. The fries got less healthy in 1990, when the chain switched to vegetable shortening, explains Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker. Whereas beef tallow contains high-cholesterol saturated fatswhich the public was newly aware of in 1990the chain’s new frying medium, like margarine, contains trans-fatswhich are worse because, even in small doses, they damage the body’s ability to regulate cholesterol. But kids eat ’em up.
Using children to bring adults into restaurants is at the very core of the fast-food marketing strategy, according to Schlosser. Richard and “Mac” McDonald, the two brothers who founded the first Golden Arches, in San Bernardino, Calif., made several innovations that would change the appearance of America forever. They dropped prices by reducing the menu to burger-shake-fries essentials and by eliminating the wait staff. They did not market to teenagers, as most ’50s burger joints did. Instead, they courted children, reasoning that an 8-year-old burger fan would have to show up with at least one more customer in tow. The basic food-fun-family formula was in place when Ray Kroc (who became rich from taking the concept national) walked into the McDonald brothers’ Self-Service Restaurant in 1954. Today, McDonald’s operates more than 8,000 playgrounds in the United States and is one of the nation’s largest distributors of toys. It is a formula that every fast-food chain has tried to emulate; none have had success to equal Micky D’s.
The typical fast-food kitchen is run by people who aren’t much older than its customers, making it a surreal environment in Schlosser’s estimation. Fast-food restaurants contradicted what was previously considered business gospelthat it costs thousands of dollars to replace old and train new employeesby developing a kitchen that is so rationalized and jobs that are so simple that workers can be snapped in and out of place like Legos. As a result, staff is young, turnover may be several hundred percent a year, and illegal labor practices are common: Schlosser mentions as an example the practice of paying employees minimum wage but requiring them to work extra hourssetup and cleanup times, perhapsoff the clock.
And, in a culture in which line workers are considered little more than components in a machine, unions are looked on as extraordinarily threatening. McDonald’s has been particularly aggressive in its anti-union practices, going so far as shutting down a restaurant on the verge of unionization and opening a new restaurant nearby, hiring (of course) none of the laid-off workers from the shuttered location.
Much can be said about McDonald’s labor practices, but at least they’re not not deadly. Far more disturbing than the conditions in the restaurants are the conditions in the slaughterhouses. Schlosser quotes extensively from The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s novel set in and around the turn-of-the-century Chicago stockyards. Schlosser clearly believes that the reforms that resulted from that book’s shocking revelations were fleeting. The Food and Drug Administration, starting under Reagan and continuing under Clinton, relaxed standards for meat handling and reduced staffall but eliminating the once-ubiquitous federal presence in U.S. slaughterhouses. Working in a slaughterhouse is now the most dangerous and possibly the most stressful industrial job in the country, says Schlosser. Sinclair wrote about a killing and dressing line that processed about 50 cows an hour. Today, the typical line processes 300 head an hour. Operating at this speed is dangerous for both the worker and the consumer. Not only are workers with knives and power saws working quickly in close proximity, but the likelihood that beef can be contaminated when an improperly removed intestinal tract spills onto food is also increased. Dead or sick cows are occasionally processed, and beef from old cowsburger-chain-destined meatis more likely to be contaminated to begin with. There are nearly 330,000 hospitalizations from food poisoning each year. Of these, more than 5,000 result in death.
Food handling inside fast-food restaurants has improved as a result of the Jack in the Box poisonings in 1992 and 1993. But modern slaughterhouse methods have dramatically increased the quantity of food-borne pathogens, particularly the deadly E. coli 0157:H7 virus. A 1996 USDA study found that 78.6 percent of ground beef in U.S. processing plants contained microbes spread primarily by fecal material. E. coli in fast-food burgers can be killed by cooking, but an underdone burger can be fatal.
Schlosser also points out that chain-destined ground beef is mixed in huge batches, so large that a single burger may contain meat from 20 different cows. When a batch is contaminated, it’s a lot of burgers; in the Jack in the Box case, 400 people were hospitalized in four states.
Although the safety of the U.S. food supply is clearly Schlosser’s main concern, it is not necessarily what most interests himor the reader, for that matter. Schlosser looks at fast food as iconic of the cultural and industrial shift in America and in an increasingly Americanized world since World War II. Fast Food Nation is thus largely a book of anecdotes and vignettes. Some are quite fascinating; others are quite pointless, such as Schlosser’s musings on the irony (which, frankly, escapes me) of the Dachau McDonald’s or on the possibility of fast-food wrappers preserved forever in Cheyenne Mountaina fortified military baseafter a nuclear war. But Schlosser argues convincingly that it is the McDonald’s “aesthetic”emulated by every other major chainthat places consistency over quality and has, in large part, been responsible for the corporatization of the American farm.
Schlosser uses the example of the Chicken McNugget, introduced in 1983 in response to chicken’s growing national popularity. The deep-fried chunks of minced bird were an instant success, and McDonald’s wentnearly overnightfrom a company with no interest in poultry to the second-largest buyer of chicken in the United States. Choosing Tyson Foods as the single supplier for the new product, McDonald’s effectively realigned an already consolidating sector. Tyson has since become a brand in its own right. More important, hundreds of once-independent farms have been reduced to contractees of the Tyson empire, raising not their own but Tyson-supplied chicks in what has become a price-controlled industry. Today, the typical chicken farmer is beholden to Tysonor one of a few other surviving chicken conglomeratesand raises birds in batches of 75,000, for which he or she earns only $12,000 annually. Ironically, McNuggets were introduced because of a growing public awareness that chicken is healthier than beef. At McDonald’s, this is one of many carefully orchestrated misconceptions: McNuggets contain about twice the fat of the chain’s ground beef and, like the fries, contain beef flavorings.
Schlosser clearly hopes that Fast Food Nation will have the same effect as The Jungle did upon its publicationwhich makes one wonder why he wrote the book he did. Whereas The Jungle follows the increasingly tragic story of one man as he and his family are destroyed by the brutalizing slaughterhouses, Schlosser’s text is nearly bloodless. He describes a child’s death from E. coli with little more passion than he uses to describe a hamburger “perfume” factory in New Jersey. In short, he doesn’t seem to take his own fears seriously. Although the book has gotten a great deal of notice in the press, much of it has been dismissive of this aspect of Fast Food Nation. The New Yorker piece, for example, spends most of its space on the danger of a slow death from saturated fat rather than a fast one from E. coli.
Schlosser is also distractible. He seems most interested in the little horrors and oddities rather than his main focus. (And, really, who could blame him?) The result is that the most memorable stories sound as if they came from a Believe It or Not! comic, not a book meant to be a wake-up call. We learn, for example, that McDonald’s President Kroc considered abandoning the golden arches in the ’60s but was persuaded to keep them by a psychologist/brand consultant, who suggested that the public subconsciously viewed the two parabolas as giant nourishing breasts.
Fast Food Nation also devotes a great deal of space to stories designed to persuade the reader that success in the burger biz does not have to come with the costs of low-paying and mindless and/or dangerous jobssomething I, for one, am eager to believe. But Schlosser’s examplesof a family-owned Southern California burger chain that is rated first for quality and salaries yet is competitively priced, and a single ranch that raises flavorful free-range cattleshow only that there is always a place for high-quality boutique services, not that the same practices could successfully be extended to a national playing field.
In the end, the worst villains that emerge from Schlosser’s research are not the fast-food giants. In addition to the Reagan administration and the FDAwhich, Schlosser charges, has effectively abdicated responsibility for protecting the food supplySchlosser faults the federal school-lunch program for buying and using beef that is so foul that it doesn’t meet even the modern diminished standards for commercial beefall the more outrageous because food poisoning is much more likely to be deadly or permanently debilitating in children than in adults.
Despite the strong case made in Fast Food Nation, it is hard to imagine a reformation of the beef supply without a crisis. The reforms that followed The Jungle affected a few meat packers in Chicago. Today, there are a half-dozen interlocking industriesand an administration anxious to keep big government off their backsthat like things fine just the way they are. CP