Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal tells the story of how the United States—and, increasingly, the world—has become shaped and defined by the fast food industry. From its origins in the new suburbs of California in the 1950s, fast food has spread across every corner of the nation and profoundly altered the way American food is produced, sold, and consumed. The rise of fast food has negatively impacted American life, through manipulative marketing aimed at children, exploitative labor practices, the destruction of American family farms, lax food safety standards, and a national epidemic of obesity. Below are some of the key themes and topics from Fast Food Nation.
Fast food began in the early 1950s in Southern California, which experienced a massive population growth in the years following World War Two. This population growth also occurred at a time when rates of automobile ownership were rising, causing the region to be heavily shaped by the car. LA’s low-density, detached-home model of growth was ideally suited for the burgeoning fast food industry, as motorists could drive through for a quick meal as they passed by the restaurants (conveniently located off the new freeways).
In the 1950s in San Bernardino, the McDonald brothers implemented a standardized system of food preparation that increased speed, lowered prices, and boosted sales. Food preparation was divided into separate jobs done by different workers, eliminating the need for skilled and expensive short-order cooks. This was the importation of assembly line principles into a commercial kitchen. The business model was a runaway success, enabling McDonald’s to save labor costs and undercut their competition.
A businessman named Ray Kroc witnessed the success of the McDonald’s system and saw that it could be replicated on a national scale. He partnered with the McDonald brothers and began opening new franchises across the country, eventually buying them out in 1961. He established the chain’s core values—Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value—and understood the need to create a wholesome, clean, All-American image for McDonald’s. Critically, he understood that children would be the chain’s most valuable customers and directed the bulk of its marketing at them.
Because kids exert a strong influence over what adults purchase, marketers know that kids can be powerful surrogate salespeople for their products—and no one has internalized this lesson better than the fast food industry. They aggressively market to children, through television advertisements featuring bright and colorful mascots, on-site playgrounds, and cross-promotional campaigns with toy companies and film studios. The most famous example of the latter is the Happy Meal, within which McDonald’s packages the hottest children’s toys as a “free” promotion. Major toy crazes like Pokemon cards, Beanie Babies, Tamogotchis, and Cabbage Patch Kids have all been boosted by synergistic fast food tie-ins.
Perhaps most insidiously, fast food chains have even brokered deals with school districts, enabling them to promote their high-fat, high-sugar products directly to children through bus and hallway advertisements, endorsement deals, and even direct provision of school lunches.
By minimizing the level of human skill that goes into food preparation, fast food chains have at their disposal a workforce that is cheap, easy to replace, and easily controlled. And they are always finding new ways to keep their employees from gaining any leverage in the workplace. Automatic condiment dispensers, robotic sensors at drive-throughs, digitized timers for cooking french fries, and other technological innovations ensure that McDonald’s and other fast food giants get maximum efficiency out of their employees, with paychecks as low as possible.
They also tend to hire the most vulnerable members of society who have the least ability to fight back—teenagers, the elderly, the disabled, and undocumented immigrants. The industry is known for being one of the most uncompromisingly anti-union sectors of the economy, with a long history of extreme hostility toward organized labor and an established record of turning a blind eye to worker safety. The low wages, disregard for worker safety, and union-busting labor practices extend beyond the fast food chains themselves: these practices have also become hallmarks of the agribusiness and meatpacking industries that supply the fast food sector.
The overwhelming economic power and demands of the fast food industry have been disastrous for formerly independent farmers, ranchers, and poultry growers. In the potato industry, the fast food chains force farmers to accept absurdly low prices for the crops they grow: out of $1.50 spent on an order of fries, perhaps two cents accrue to the farmer who actually grew the potatoes. The chains’ purchasing power has created a similar situation in both the beef and chicken markets, with once-independent agriculturalists now working as little more than hired hands for the major agribusiness firms. This has led to the destruction of family farms and the increased centralization of the nation’s food supply.
Deadly outbreaks of E. coli, a virulent pathogen primarily found in beef, have become far more common since the rise of fast food. This is largely due to fast food’s centralized system of food production, which exponentially expands the reach and scope of outbreaks. Today’s slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants are marked by appalling sanitary conditions, where cattle are packed into close quarters, given little exercise, and splash around in pools of manure. After the animals are slaughtered, poorly trained workers often handle the carcasses improperly, pulling out the stomach and intestines of the cattle by hand and spilling the contents of the digestive system all over the slaughterhouse floor and into the meat that’s sold to consumers.
Ground beef is particularly prone to contamination, because the package that’s sold in the supermarket does not come from a single animal. Because of how it is processed and shipped, the meat of just one infected cow can find its way into 32,000 pounds of ground beef.
Fast food has contributed to a national and global epidemic of obesity. In 1991, only four states had obesity rates reaching 15 percent; just a decade later, 37 did. The human costs are immense: severely overweight people are four times as likely to die young as people of normal weight. These health conditions are now increasingly seen in other parts of the world: between 1984 and 1993, fast food locations in the United Kingdom doubled, bringing American-style obesity in its wake. The British consume more fast food than any other Western European country; they also claim the continent’s highest rate of obesity. China also saw its proportion of overweight teenagers triple during the 1990s; meanwhile, at the dawn of the 21st century, one-third of all Japanese men in their 30s were overweight.
It seems like fast food is an unstoppable force as it reshapes communities and cultures, forces workers into exploitative relationships, contributes to global health problems, and despoils the environment. However, there are concrete steps that workers, activists, and elected officials can take to bring the industry to heel.
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Most Americans have eaten fast food at some time or another in their lives. As the reach of major fast food chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell has extended across the planet, the same can increasingly be said of most people around the world. As it has done so, fast food has come to stand as a hallmark of our civilization and our time. Just as we ponder the amphorae and marble ruins of the ancient Romans, so may future scholars study the discarded Big Mac wrappers and golden-arched fast food restaurants of our culture.
For indeed, food is one of the defining traits of a culture—it shows how we live, how our economy functions, how our political institutions operate, and what we value and prioritize as a society. Since its rise in the postwar United States, fast food has worked its way deep into the fabric of America’s social, economic, educational, and political institutions. In the 30 years between 1970 and 2000, consumer spending on fast food in the US rose from $6 billion to $110 billion.
(Shortform note: Fast Food Nation was originally published in 2001. As such, the statistics cited throughout the book and throughout this summary do not represent the most up-to-date data. Where possible, we have supplemented the numbers in the book with more current figures.)
These numbers give a glimpse of the grip that fast food has obtained over American life, but they can only tell part of the story. Because the story of fast food is about much more than the rise of an industry and the success of a few entrepreneurs—it is a story about the fundamental transformation of a society. The sheer size of the fast food giants and the spread of their business practices to other sectors of the economy has wrought enormous changes in:
In many ways, the story of fast food is the story of the American West—and specifically, the story of Southern California in the postwar boom years of the 1950s. It was here that the low-density suburban housing sprawl, automobile-driven economy, and youth-centric consumer culture that would come to define so much of the rest of the country (and prove so conducive to the fast food industry’s success) got its start. Underpinned by a...
The fast food industry has its roots in the risk-taking, unconventional ideas of a handful of entrepreneurs. A combination of US public policy choices and broader macroeconomic trends fostered an ideal business climate in Southern California for their success and laid the groundwork for an economic transformation of the region—one that would eventually become the prototype for the rest of the country. Taxpayer-funded irrigation projects and publicly subsidized highways were drawing people to California in droves, laying the groundwork for a mass consumer-driven retail economy (powered by the ease and convenience of the automobile) that California would export to the other 49 states.
This population explosion was also driven by another stream of federal investment in Southern California—defense spending. During World War Two and the years immediately following, the US government pumped nearly $20 billion into California, building airplane factories, steel mills, military bases, and naval ports. During the war years alone, federal spending accounted for approximately half of Southern Californians’ personal income.
If the old cities of the East Coast were shaped by the railroad and the trolley car, then Southern California was defined by the automobile. LA’s growth happened precisely at the time when mass-produced cars were becoming affordable to the growing middle class—indeed, from 1920 to 1940, the region welcomed 2 million residents from all across the rest of the US. The automobile sculpted the city, giving rise to LA’s famous low-density, detached-home model of growth (with each unit having room for a garage or driveway with one or two family cars). By 1940, LA had roughly one million cars, more than the vast majority of most of the states. Much of this was fueled by federally funded highways, which amounted to a public subsidy of the major automakers.
Local entrepreneurs quickly saw that they needed to adapt their business models to account for the car-driven growth of the region. Zipping by in their cars, the new consumers placed a premium on speed, convenience, and easy access from the freeways. Thus, Southern California became home to the world’s first motel and drive-in bank. The lesson was not lost on the region’s restaurateurs—beginning in the 1940s, Southern California saw an explosion of drive-in restaurants offering curbside service to motorists waiting in their cars. The speed of the automobile made flashy marketing a necessity: drivers needed to be able to see the restaurant signs as they whizzed by. With a corresponding rise in the population of teenagers in Los Angeles County, the new drive-ins fit in perfectly with the rising youth culture, offering a unique blend of girls, cars, and late-night food.
One entrepreneur who seized the opportunity was Carl Karcher. Born to a hardworking German Catholic family and raised on a farm in the Midwest, Carl moved to the then-small city of Anaheim in the 1930s. While working as a bakery truck driver, Carl took note of the local hot dog vendors and saw how successful they were selling frankfurters to the nearby factory workers. He was deeply impressed by the sheer number of franks and buns that these hot dog carts seemed to go through in just a day.
After taking out a small bank loan, he purchased his own hot dog cart and went into business for himself. It was a success—by 1944, he and his wife owned four hot dog stands, each of them doing a brisk business. In January 1945, he opened his first sit-down restaurant, Carl’s Drive-in Barbeque, featuring a five-pointed star at the top of a neon sign in the parking lot—even at this early stage, Carl had seen that the automobile was the way of the future. His business boomed as more and more of Anaheim’s disposable income went into the pockets of keen entrepreneurs like himself.
One day, he heard of a restaurant outside of LA that was selling hamburgers for 15 cents each—far less than what he was charging. Determined to know what their secret was, he ventured out to San Bernardino to catch his first glimpse of a restaurant that would eventually change the world: “McDonald’s Famous Hamburgers.”
The McDonald brothers had implemented a “Speedee Service” system that was designed to increase speed, lower prices, and boost sales volume of their hamburgers. This was the secret to their success and was the formula that birthed the fast food industry as we know it. Everything was standardized: they would sell only burgers, offer no expensive serving ware with the meals, and divide the food preparation into separate jobs done by different workers. This eliminated the need for skilled (and expensive) short-order cooks, as well as dishwashers. It was bringing the management principles of the Ford assembly line to the realm of food preparation. In addition to these advances in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, the brothers also designed and installed the famous golden arches on the roof, destined to become one of the world’s most recognizable corporate logos. The business model was a runaway success. For the first time, it enabled even working-class families to afford restaurant food.
Inspired by what he saw, Carl Karcher decided to open his own McDonald’s-style restaurant. The timing was perfect. President Eisenhower’s signing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 created nearly 50,000 miles of new paved roadways and invested over $130 billion into the American economy. **These new federally...
The McDonald brothers may have started the company and given it its famous name, but their vision for it was relatively limited. They were content being regionally successful restaurant entrepreneurs, making approximately $100,000 per year (by no means a small sum in the mid-1950s). They did not see the global potential of what they had created—that vision was Ray Kroc’s.
Kroc was an unlikely individual to emerge as one of the leading figures in a new and rising industry that was largely driven by youth culture. When he first visited the McDonald’s Self-Service Restaurant in 1954, he was already in his fifties, with a largely unremarkable career as a travelling salesman behind him.
Seeing the potential of the McDonald’s system and how it could be replicated on a national (and eventually global) scale, Kroc seized the opportunity. He bought from the McDonald brothers the right to franchise McDonald’s nationwide. Taken at face value, this deal was appealing to the brothers—they could stay at home and count their money while Kroc travelled across the country promoting the brand and taking most of the risks. But Kroc would determine the ultimate direction and shape of McDonald’s, not the founding brothers.
Kroc saw that expansion was important to building up the brand: to him, it was more important to have new McDonald’s restaurants opening up than it was to have a uniform set of financial details for each new franchise. He kept the franchise fees low for new franchisees and made a conscious effort to help them be successful. This patient and nurturing strategy paid off and resulted in the successful expansion of McDonald’s. In 1961, Kroc had done well enough in growing the company to secure the financing to buy the brothers out. As a symbol of his total triumph over them, Kroc opened up a McDonald’s across the street from a new restaurant they opened (called “The Big M”) and ran it out of business.
Kroc instituted a philosophy, the core values that would guide McDonald’s—Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value. He was a dogged believer in McDonald’s, selling franchises with an almost holy zeal. What he understood keenly was the power that young people had over American consumer spending—especially children. Like his contemporary and friend Walt Disney (with whom he has often been compared), Kroc was a master at marketing to kids. Once again, the strategy was right for the times. America was experiencing the baby boom of the postwar years, during which birth rates skyrocketed—between 1944 and 1961, over 65 million children were born in the United States. There was now a youth market that, in terms of sheer scale and disposable income, was unlike anything that had ever existed before.
To bring in families with young children, Kroc knew he needed to create a wholesome, clean, All-American image for McDonald’s. Even in these early days, there was an emphasis on bright, colorful mascots and an entertaining atmosphere for children. In 1965, McDonald’s unveiled a new mascot who would come to eclipse even Disney’s Mickey Mouse in popularity: Ronald McDonald. Expanding on this idea, Kroc installed mini playgrounds at each McDonald’s location. This, of course, attracted more children, which attracted more parents and grandparents—and more sales.
Under Kroc’s direction, McDonald’s became a pioneer at marketing to children, a practice that is now widespread across consumer brands. By the early 2000s, there existed an entire subset of the marketing and advertising industries devoted solely to fostering brand loyalty in children. Indeed, this familiarity and affinity with brands and products can begin in children as young as two.
Marketers recognize that kids are powerful surrogate salespeople and brand ambassadors. By bugging and cajoling their parents, children exert a great deal of influence over family spending decisions. Within the marketing industry, this has been distilled down to a science, with advertisers differentiating between the different types of whining and pleading that kids will do to harangue their parents. Marketers have, for example, identified pleading nags (repetition of “please”) and sugar-coated nags (in which kids promise affection in exchange for the product they want) as highly distinct appeals. The goal is always to get kids to feel a natural affection, even love for the brand, a bond as close as that they feel for their own family.
To market to kids, advertisers need to study kids. Today, they survey children at malls and public places, run focus groups on them, and even study their artwork to unlock the elusive (but lucrative) mystery of what exactly it is they want. They have even enlisted child psychologists into their efforts, using a technique called the Character Appeal Quadrant Analysis to help craft characters and mascots that ideally suit their target audience’s level of psychological and emotional development. This is especially effective, as research has consistently shown that children are seldom able to tell the difference between TV shows and TV advertising.
Efforts to crack down on advertising targeted at children have met with fierce opposition from special-interest groups. As far back as 1978, the Federal Trade Commission attempted an outright ban on all television ads aimed at kids under seven—but lobbies like the National Association of Broadcasters, the Toy Manufacturers of America, and the Association of National Advertisers used their influence in Congress to stymie the effort.
The efforts of fast food chains to market to children extend far beyond conventional ad buys. The industry works hand-in-glove with toy companies and film studios (with whom they share a target audience) to cross-promote their products across one another’s platforms. The most famous example of this is the Happy Meal, within which McDonald’s packages the hottest...
The fast food industry has standardized, commodified, and homogenized the skillset of the country’s labor force. Going back to the early days of the McDonald brothers’ “Speedee Service” system, fast food has employed a low-skill, low-wage system of labor that keeps costs—and therefore, consumer prices—to a minimum. By minimizing the level of human skill that goes into food preparation, fast food leaders have at their disposal a workforce that is cheap, easy to replace, and easily controlled.
And they are always finding new ways to keep their employees from gaining any leverage in the workplace. Automatic condiment dispensers, robotic sensors at drive-throughs, digitized timers for cooking french fries, and other technological innovations ensure that McDonald’s and other fast food giants get maximum efficiency out of their employees, with paychecks as low as possible.
Anyone who’s been inside a fast food restaurant can’t help but notice that the workers behind the counter are disproportionately young—often teenagers.
(Shortform note: According to The Atlantic, over 60 percent of the fast-food workforce is under 24).
That’s no coincidence. The industry wants a workforce that is unskilled and willing to accept low pay. From the view of the fast food executives and franchisees, teenagers are the ideal candidates for these jobs. But the teenagers themselves are ill-served by this arrangement. Working long hours at fast-food restaurants has a negative effect on their education and takes away from more meaningful opportunities for enrichment. These teenage fast food workers neglect their schoolwork and eschew after-school sports and activities. Research has shown that people this age who work more than twenty hours per week are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, permanently stunting their life prospects.
Quantity is the key to how McDonald’s and Burger King operate, not quality. Getting maximum production out of the workforce, maximum speed and volume of product output, is how they make money. With the right technology and system of management, even a small number of unskilled workers can churn out a high level of goods on the cheap.
The fast food chains have taken almost all skill and talent out of food preparation. At McDonald’s, nearly all of the buns, patties, and fries arrive at the restaurant frozen. All the employees need to do is thaw it, assemble it, and serve it. Every step of this process is painstakingly laid out in a four-pound manual known as “the bible” that employees are told to follow to the letter, no exceptions. The point is to achieve total uniformity of the product. This level of control and standardization—from where the supplies come from to how the food is prepared to how it is presented—is why a Big Mac tastes and looks the same everywhere, from Boston to Beijing.
Naturally, the employees in such a system are highly interchangeable, mere cogs in a machine. In addition to teenagers, fast food chains are also major hirers of recent immigrants (including many undocumented people), the handicapped, and the elderly. With low skill-sets and little leverage in the labor market (and with undocumented immigrants in particular being at a disadvantage due to their legal status and the language barrier), these groups make for pliant, reliable, and easily replaceable workers.
Not only are fast food companies exploiting some of the most vulnerable members of society—they’re doing it with your tax dollars. These firms have received hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of grants and subsidies from federal programs that were originally created to encourage companies to teach employees valuable job skills. Well-intended programs like the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit now increasingly subsidize low-wage, low-skill jobs at McDonald’s. In effect, the government is rewarding these companies for exploiting their workforce through lucrative tax breaks (in the 1990s, this figure was $2,400 for every new low-income worker hired by the fast food chains).
Adding insult to injury, this federal largesse isn’t even creating net-new employment opportunities—studies have shown that most of these workers would have been hired anyway, with or without the subsidies. On top of that, all the chains need to do is employ a worker for 400 hours (about 20 weeks for a part-time employee) to claim the money from the government. If that worker quits (as frequently happens in a high-turnover industry like fast food), they can start the process all over again when they hire their replacement. The US taxpayer is bankrolling the industry’s hire-and-quit labor practices.
Unsurprisingly, the fast food chains, through their lobbying groups like the National Restaurant Association, are vehemently opposed to any raising of federal, state, or local minimum wages. This is despite the fact that a one-dollar minimum raise increase would only translate into a two-cent rise in the cost of a fast food burger.
Both corporate management and individual franchisees are also very strict about making sure that employees don’t work more than 40 hours per week, which would qualify them for overtime under federal law. They are scheduled only as needed, and sent home early if they start approaching the 40-hour threshold. Sometimes, fast food employers simply have their employees work off-the-clock, without pay, in order to avoid legal overtime pay requirements (as a 1997 court case against Taco Bell showed).
The decentralized franchise model of the fast food industry creates ample opportunities for exploitation. Kitchen and behind-the-counter workers at your local fast food...
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Think about how fast food’s practices might have impacted your life.
Have you ever felt exploited by an employer? If so, describe the situation in a few sentences.
Because fast food was so successful, its labor practices have been exported throughout the food service industry and up the supply chain to farmers, ranchers, and meatpackers. So much food in America is no longer a product of artisanal craftsmanship, created by a skilled cook—it is a manufactured, mass-produced commodity.
In this chapter, we’re going further up the supply chain. We’re going to explore how the economics of the fast food industry have reshaped American agriculture, examine where your fries really come from, and why they taste the way they do.
It’s hard to tell the story of fast food’s meteoric success without telling the story of the french fry. And it’s hard to do that without telling the story of John Richard Simplot, America’s potato king.
Born in 1909, his family moved to Idaho shortly after he was born to establish a farm (made possible thanks to government-funded irrigation projects and free public land). Leaving the family’s homestead at 15, he went into the potato industry. His business grew throughout the 1920s and 1930s as he forged relationships with commodities brokers and farmers all over the country. By 1941, he was the largest shipper of potatoes in the American West, owning dozens of warehouses across multiple states.
That year turned out to be a momentous one for the country and for Simplot, as the US entered World War Two. The swelling ranks of servicemen created a massive demand from the armed forces for food suppliers. He used his massive market share and dehydrating technology to become one of the principal suppliers of foodstuffs to the US Army from 1941-1945. He used these earnings to buy potato farms, cattle ranches, fertilizer plants, and lumber mills, all of which enabled him to achieve vertical integration up and down the supply chain. His company could now grow its own potatoes, provide its own fertilizer, process them at their own factories, and ship them from their own warehouses and lumber yards, all without ever interacting with an outside supplier.
While this was going on, frozen food was becoming more and more available to ordinary Americans. Although it had been around since the 1920s, most Americans didn’t own freezers at that time, and certainly not when the Great Depression hit just a few years later. But this would all change in the postwar economic boom of the 1950s: now, suddenly, freezers were mass-produced and cheap. Their sales soared, as did those of frozen foods.
Simplot saw a golden opportunity in the frozen french fry. They were easy to produce, easy to eat (they didn’t require a knife and fork), and there was a growing demand for them thanks to the exploding popularity of the new fast food restaurants. Indeed, these fast food restaurants (McDonald’s in particular), with their demand for a uniform and standardized product, were the ideal institutional customers for Simplot’s frozen french fries. This made sense from Ray Kroc’s perspective—they could cut labor costs and achieve enormous economies of scale by purchasing Simplot’s frozen fries in bulk.
Fast food’s popularization of the french fry has radically reshaped US agriculture. As of the publication of Fast Food Nation, three major producers controlled 80 percent of the frozen french fry market. With this purchasing power, they wield enormous leverage over the nation’s potato farmers and strive to keep prices for them as low as possible. In economics, this situation is known as an oligopoly. This is when a handful of powerful buyers have enough market share to dictate prices to suppliers more or less at will. The farmers have benefited little from the nation’s demand for frozen fries since the 1950s: of every $1.50 spent on an order of fries, perhaps two cents accrue to the actual farmer (a little over 1 percent).
The only way farmers can compete under these economic conditions is to grow enough potatoes to make up in volume what they have lost in value. If you’re getting barely one cent on the dollar for the potatoes you grow, you need to grow a lot of potatoes to make your farm even remotely profitable. But that’s not easy either—growing more potatoes means more capital expenses in land and equipment. Farmers increasingly stretch themselves thin and take on debt to acquire new land, with no guarantee that they will be successful. Indeed, their fortunes are increasingly tied to world economic forces far beyond their control. Many formerly small, independent farmers simply don’t make it. They end up selling their land to major agribusiness concerns, who then bring them back as hired hands to work the land they once owned.
It’s not an accident that a meal purchased at one Taco Bell tastes exactly the same as one purchased at another. As we’ve seen, fast food strives to deliver a uniform product to customers that’s the same everywhere in the world.
They achieve this remarkable homogeneity of taste through the artificial food flavoring industry. This industry creates chemical compounds that create the scent and flavor of the foods we love, even if those ingredients are almost entirely absent from the processed food you’re consuming. They can make you taste blueberries without using a single blueberry.
Companies like International Flavors & Fragrances manufacture many of the tastes in the foods we consume every day, including those we experience at fast food restaurants. Everything from potato chips, breads, cakes, cookies, ice cream, teas, malt liquors, and toothpastes have their flavors tested and designed at industrial chemical facilities off the New Jersey Turnpike. The process involves the manipulation of chemicals to produce a desired smell (as most of what we taste actually comes from our sense of smell).
These companies are always innovating, using cutting-edge technology to improve the quality of the flavors...
In the last chapter, we examined how cattle ranchers are exploited by the demands of the fast food giants and the major meatpackers. In this chapter, we’ll explore how workers (and animals) inside those meatpacking facilities are similarly harmed by the inhumane system of food production that fast food has wrought.
Meatpacking, once a heavily unionized, high-skill, and well-paying profession, has been transformed into a dangerous and low-paying job performed by some of the most vulnerable and easily exploited members of American society.
Modern American meatpacking got its start with a man named Warren Montfort. Montfort realized that there were major advantages to feeding cattle grain instead of grass (which had been the standard up to that point)—the meat was fattier and more tender and could be eaten within days after slaughter. On top of that, New Deal-era agricultural subsidies made grain an inexpensive food for livestock. He became a major figure in the cattle-feeding industry. In 1960, he decided to go into the slaughtering business, opening a small slaughterhouse in the town of Greeley, Colorado. At this time, these were still high-paying union jobs. But major changes were just around the corner.
That same year, a new company named IBP came onto the scene. They believed that they could succeed as an upstart by taking a radical approach to cutting costs. Their production system was designed, like that of McDonald’s, to eliminate the need for skilled workers. Rather than using skilled butchers, IBP used an assembly line model, with each worker performing the same repetitive tasks and making the same cuts and stabs to the cattle carcasses that came past them during the course of an eight-hour shift. By mass-producing specialty cuts and shipping them in sealed plastic to the supermarkets, this method of production also enabled the supermarkets to fire most of their skilled butchers.
The by-now-familiar wave of consolidations followed, driven by the market’s new demands for standardized, uniform products. In such an environment, small meatpackers had to face the prospect of either selling themselves to the major players or risk going out of business. They simply could not compete with the scale of production that the giants had. This led to the creation of mega-firms like ConAgra, the largest meatpacking company in the world and the largest food-service supplier in all of North America. This concentration of the industry was actively supported by the Reagan justice department through its non-enforcement of antitrust law.
IBP also declared war on the meatpacking unions. They made a point of locating their plants in rural states, outside the urban centers where labor organization was strongest—before this, major cities like Chicago were the nerve centers of the meatpacking industry. The company developed a reputation of having a zero-tolerance policy toward unions, which eventually spread throughout the whole industry. In the early 1970s, they even enlisted the help of organized crime figures to break up a strike that was preventing their beef from being sold in New York City.
The low-skill, low-wage mode of production destroyed the old urban meatpacking districts, as companies flocked west to open new plants in low-tax, anti-union states like Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and Nebraska. Workers at these new-style plants earned less than half of what their union counterparts in Chicago had just a few years before.
These anti-labor policies spread from IBP to other major players in the industry, including at the Montfort plant. When Montfort workers at a slaughterhouse in Colorado went on strike in 1979, the company played hardball: they shut down the facility and fired all the workers, rather than negotiate with the strikers. They opened a new slaughterhouse and refused to hire any of the former workers. It was a statement of unbridled hostility toward labor.
Today, the major meatpackers have gained the decisive upper hand over the greatly weakened unions. Although meatpacking companies do offer basic benefits like health insurance after six months of employment, the (deliberately) high turnover rate prevents most employees from ever being able to take advantage of them. Critically, high turnover makes the workforce easy to control, as no one lasts long enough to emerge as a potential organizer or troublemaker for the company. This severely undermines worker solidarity, making it extremely difficult to launch a union drive inside a plant today.
Having largely busted the once-powerful labor unions, firms like IBP and Montfort have turned to a new source of cheap, unskilled labor: undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and Southeast Asia. These workers earn barely above subsistence level and live in impoverished shanty towns within sight of the slaughterhouses.
IBP led the charge in recruiting recent immigrants to become the new face of America’s meatpacking workforce. They aggressively recruit in poor neighborhoods, as well as at homeless shelters.
(Shortform note: IBP was acquired by Tyson in 2001, around the time of the publication of Fast Food Nation. Tyson still uses the IBP brand name for beef and pork products, so we will continue to refer to the firm as “IBP” for the purposes of this summary.)
IBP even maintains an employment office in Mexico City and offers bus transportation that takes workers directly from their towns and villages in rural Mexico to the meatpacking heartland of the American West. The federal government estimates that about one-quarter of them are undocumented and are not authorized to work in the US.
The companies have been all-too-eager to use public services in order to offload the costs of their exploitative, low-wage labor practices. In...
Think more deeply about what goes into your fast food meal.
Why do you think the major fast food chains have such a powerful economic grip over the nation’s food producers?
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In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which shocked the conscience (and turned the stomach) of the nation by exposing audiences to the dangerous and unsanitary conditions in America’s slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. Scenes that depicted tubercular hogs being led to slaughter and workers being maimed and killed on the job (and then packed into sausages) revolted and outraged readers at the dawn of the 20th century. The novel inspired the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, which was tasked with ensuring nationwide food-safety standards.
If Upton Sinclair were alive today, he would be aghast at conditions in today’s meatpacking industry and marvel at how little has changed. The meat you see at your local supermarket (or in your Big Mac) gives little hint of the gruesome and dangerous process behind how it got there.
Truly disturbing scenes await those who visit a slaughterhouse—or the workers who toil in them. Decapitated cattle carcasses. Organs yanked out of dead animals with bare hands. Ankle-deep pools of blood. Workers severing the carotid arteries of dead cows. All of this is just part of the scenery on a typical business day in America’s meatpacking industry. And this is just what’s at the end of the line, after the cattle have already been killed. The scenery becomes even more violent as one goes further up the production line, where workers interact with live cattle.
As cattle enter the slaughterhouse from the pen, they are greeted by a worker known as the “knocker,” who shoots them in the head with a stun gun that knocks them unconscious. This individual’s job is simply to shoot cattle in the head like this as they are herded into the slaughterhouse through a narrow shoot. After they’re knocked out, the animals are shackled to a chain and lifted through the air to the next area of the factory, where they are killed and dismembered.
(Shortform note: The scenes at these facilities are so gruesome and heartrending that the meatpacking industry has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent the public from seeing what goes on inside them. “Ag-gag” laws make it illegal to film or photograph activities at factory farms or meatpacking plants without the explicit consent of the owner—with the goal of silencing or intimidating activists who are trying to shine a light on animal abuses. These laws are on the books in Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, and Utah. Check out this New York Times article to learn more.)
Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous occupations in America, with about one in three workers in the industry suffering an on-the-job injury. And these are only the official numbers published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Independent studies estimate that the real rate of injury is far higher, with many incidents going unreported.
Workers are routinely lacerated, struck by swinging cattle carcasses, or subjected to carpal tunnel syndrome due to the repetitive physical motions that their jobs demand. The rate of injury is 35 times higher than the national average. This is exacerbated by the speed of the assembly line, as well as the low skills and poor training of the workers (all outgrowths of the IBP assembly-line revolution in meatpacking). The faster production goes, the more injuries occur, as the propensity for accidentally stabbing oneself (or one’s coworkers) with a knife increases. And with the demands of the fast food industry, there is always an emphasis on speed and mass production over quality and worker safety. Many workers resort to abusing methamphetamines and other drugs to stay alert and keep up the pace, which, of course, only contributes to the injury rate.
The nature of the workforce itself also contributes to the problem. Composed largely of recent immigrants (many of whom are undocumented), they can be easily fired and replaced at will, making it a big risk for any individual worker to speak out about the hazardous conditions. Without unions, they have no authority at the plant looking out for their interests. Their language barriers and uncertain legal status also render them extremely reluctant to call attention to themselves by advocating for their interests. All of this makes for a workforce that is powerless, easily manipulated, cheap, and highly obedient to the demands of management.
The late-night cleaning crews come in for perhaps the worst treatment of all. They are tasked with cleaning up the blood and entrails that are left over after a typical day’s work at the plant, during which 3-4,000 cattle might have been slaughtered, each weighing about 1,000 pounds. The clean-up crew uses high-pressure hoses that shoot hot water and chlorine, which creates a fog that severely reduces visibility. Walking through the plant in this semi-blind state, cleaning crew workers suffer gruesome injuries and even death. Workers have been beheaded, dismembered by conveyor belts, fallen from great heights, crushed to death, and even drowned in blood-collection tanks.
In theory, regulatory agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are supposed to set rules that prevent meatpacking companies from harming their workers in this way, and punish those that do. In the last few decades, however, agencies like OSHA have become little more than tools of the industries they are supposed to regulate.
When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 with a pledge to reduce the size of government, his administration cut the number of OSHA inspectors by 20 percent and adopted a policy of “voluntary compliance,” under which an OSHA inspector couldn’t even enter a facility unless it had an injury rate higher than the national average for its industry (that is, according to the company’s own records)....
Beyond its exploitative labor practices at every level of the supply chain, fast food has also proven an ideal vector for the spread of foodborne pathogens into America’s food system. Because of the fast food industry’s demands for highly centralized production and enormous scale, tainted meat (particularly the ground beef used in hamburgers) processed at one meatpacking plant can cause a nationwide epidemic of food poisoning—with tragic and deadly consequences.
Outbreaks of E. coli, a virulent pathogen primarily found in beef, have become far more common since the rise of fast food. One 1997 outbreak was traced to a single plant in Nebraska that had been built to supply ground beef to Burger King, resulting in the nationwide recall of 35 million pounds of meat (25 million of which had already been eaten). Most of the other major foodborne pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, and Clostridium are caused by animal feces making it into the meat we eat.
Foodborne pathogens cause more than just an upset stomach. They can lead to heart disease, neurological disorders, kidney damage, and even death. And they’re becoming more common and more widespread thanks to fast food’s revolutionary changes in how American food is produced. A centralized system of food production exponentially expands the reach and scope of outbreaks, where they might have been confined to a particular locality just a few decades ago. The very same system that creates enormous amounts of uniform ground beef for McDonald’s and Burger King is also highly adept at spreading disease. Foodborne illness has truly gone viral.
Tragically, some of the worst stories of fast food-related foodborne illness are those involving children. In 1993, doctors in Seattle noticed a sharp spike in the number of local children being admitted to emergency rooms with bloody diarrhea. Health officials traced the source to E. coli in hamburger patties at Jack-in-the-Box that had originated from a California-based meatpacking company. Eventually, more than 700 people across four states were sickened, most of them children. One six-year-old girl died in her mother’s arms after suffering through excruciating pain and three heart attacks. In 1982, E. coli was also found in burgers sold at McDonald’s restaurants in Oregon and Michigan, causing dozens of children to fall ill.
Children under the age of five are especially vulnerable to E. coli, and the pathogen is now the leading cause of kidney failure among American children. And its effects on children are truly horrific. In 1993, one six-year-old boy developed abdominal cramps after eating a tainted hamburger. This progressed to bloody diarrhea, the destruction of internal organs, and the liquifying of his brain before his ultimate death.
Distressingly, much of this tainted meat is served to children in their school cafeterias through the USDA’s school lunch program. Some of the meatpackers who provide ground beef for the program have been found to be processing cattle that are already dead when they reach the plant, mixing rotten meat into packages of ground beef, and maintaining facilities infested with rats and cockroaches. Conservative judges have given legal cover to ground beef processors by ruling that they cannot be held responsible for bacteria in their meat, when the bacteria might have come from the slaughterhouses they purchased it from. This novel argument ensures that meatpackers and fast food chains face little legal incentive to demand better standards from their suppliers.
E. coli has likely been present in American cattle herds for decades. But until the rise of industrial-scale, centralized meatpacking driven by the demands of the fast food industry, its spread was fairly limited. The disease gets its start in the vast feedlots of today’s slaughterhouses.
These facilities are marked by appalling sanitary conditions, where the cattle are packed into close quarters, given little exercise, and splash around in pools of manure. This creates ideal conditions for bacteria to grow and make the animals sick. This is exacerbated by what the cattle are now increasingly being fed: the rendered remains of dead sheep and other cattle, as well as dead dogs and cats purchased from animal shelters. Natural herbivores, cows’ stomachs are not designed to eat other animals. Forcing them to do so is not only inhumane and cruel, but also facilitates the growth of deadly parasites in their bodies that are then passed on to the humans who eventually consume their meat.
Things get even worse after the animals are slaughtered. We’ve already seen how unskilled and poorly trained workers make up a larger and larger share of the meatpacking workforce. When these workers improperly pull out the stomach and intestines of the cattle by hand, they often spill the contents of the digestive system all over the slaughterhouse floor. With the industry’s relentless focus on speed and scale, much of this finds its way into the meat that’s sold to consumers. Similarly, these workers are rarely instructed in how to clean and disinfect the knives they use to cut cattle carcasses.
The statistics paint a truly alarming picture. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that about 1 percent of cattle at industrial feedlots carry E. coli in the stomach. At the standard rate of production, this means that three or four infected cattle are processed at a large slaughterhouse every hour.
The problem is compounded exponentially by ground beef, which is, of course, highly demanded by the fast food industry. Unlike a specific cut of beef, the ground meat in your burger doesn’t just come from one cow. The meat of one infected cow can find its way into 32,000 pounds of ground beef.
**The meatpacking industry and the fast food giants have fought tooth-and-nail...
Fast food began in Southern California as a quintessentially American product, boosted by US postwar prosperity and powered by the nation’s growing rates of automobile ownership, highway construction, and suburban sprawl. From these roots, the industry expanded to take over the rest of the country. But it hasn’t stopped there: fast food is now available in almost every country on the planet. Through this global conquest, it has reshaped how the entire world eats and lives.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ending in the final dissolution of the superpower state in 1991, was a dramatic moment in world history. All across Central and Eastern Europe, people took to the streets, refused to obey the orders of Soviet police and military officers, overthrew puppet Communist governments, and participated in free democratic elections for the first time ever. Little did they know that the fall of the Soviet empire would signal the rise of another: that of fast food.
Just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, McDonald’s announced that it planned to open a location in East Germany, the first in the former Soviet Union. Indeed, fast food chains have become a leading indicator of Western economic development in Third World or post-communist states. They are often the first international corporations to arrive after a country has made the decision to open its markets to foreign investment. In the early 1990s, McDonald’s frequently awarded franchises to former Communist officials, thanks to their proven combination of connections and leadership skills.
Fast food has aggressively positioned itself in former Soviet states and even recruited ex-Communist leaders to serve as spokespeople. In 1997, Mikhail Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial. He was hired to serve as a warm and familiar face who could help introduce the Russian people to fast food. In the 1990s, Gorbachev was a frequent figure on the paid-lecture circuit, delivering speeches in which he advertised Russia’s openness to foreign investment to audiences of fast food executives.
The opening of the first McDonald’s in China, although still nominally a communist state, was met with great enthusiasm by the public in 1992. Thousands of people waited in line to take their first bite of a Big Mac, as the chain’s mere presence seemed to symbolize the long-awaited arrival of modernity. McDonald’s has shown few qualms about opening for business in culturally or religiously significant places—the golden arches are now in the Muslim holy city of Mecca and in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Perhaps most shockingly, the company even opened up a restaurant on what was once the grounds of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau—and aggressively marketed itself to visitors with flyers announcing, “Welcome to Dachau and welcome to McDonald’s.”
As fast food has planted its flag in nearly every corner of the world, it has developed a truly global supply chain. The major chains source as many of their supplies as possible from the countries where they do business.
Seven years before opening their first location in India, McDonald’s began cultivating relationships with agricultural vendors in that country, even teaching farmers how to grow the exact right kind of lettuce, using genetically modified seeds uniquely created to survive in India’s climate. The big agribusiness firms have followed suit, with ConAgra, Cargill, J.R. Simplot, and Tyson setting up large-scale factory farming operations in Australia, Canada, China, India, and Turkey.
And as fast food has entered the European, Asian, and Australian markets, so has its aggressive marketing tactics aimed at children. One researcher found that all the children at a school in Beijing recognized Ronald McDonald and that Coca-Cola is the favorite drink among Chinese children.
Much of the foreign embrace of fast food is closely linked to the global community’s view of postwar America as a beacon of prosperity and freedom. This was especially true in European countries recovering from the trauma and dislocation of World War Two. In countries like West Germany, kids developed an early fascination with American pop culture—rock and roll music, television, films, and, of course, fast food. With creeping Americanization and the spread of fast food, restaurants serving traditional cuisines are a dying breed: traditional German restaurants serving schnitzel, bratwurst, and sauerbraten account for less than one-third of the German food service market.
As fast food has spread throughout the world, so has one of its worst by-products—obesity. The US already has the highest rate of obesity among industrialized countries, a trend largely driven by growing fast food consumption. In 1991, only four states had obesity rates reaching 15 percent; by the dawn of the 21st century, 37 did.
(Shortform note: This trend has only gotten worse since the publication of Fast Food Nation. According to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control, every US state and territory has self-reported adult obesity rates over 20 percent. The worst US state is Mississippi, with an obesity rate of 37.3 percent. Even more alarming is the overseas territory of American Samoa, where a whopping 75 percent of adults identified themselves as obese.)
By 2001, obesity-related healthcare costs had risen to a staggering $240 billion, with Americans spending in excess of $33 billion on weight loss regimens and diet programs. Beyond just the financial cost, the human costs are immense: severely overweight people are four times as likely to die young as people of normal weight.
**These health conditions are now increasingly seen in other parts...
Think through how the world can push back against the fast food chains.
Do you think fast food chains should be held responsible for the violations committed by the meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses that supply them? Explain why or why not.
It seems like fast food is an unstoppable force as it reshapes communities and cultures, forces workers into exploitative relationships, contributes to global health problems, and despoils the environment. However, there are concrete steps that workers, activists, and elected officials can take to bring the industry to heel.
**The fast food industry is not all-powerful and its...
Explore the main ideas in Fast Food Nation.
Do you eat fast food? If so, will reading this summary change that? Explain why or why not in a few sentences.