4 Ethical Issues in the Fast Food Industry

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are ethical issues in the fast food industry? What causes these issues?

There are numerous ethical issues in the fast food industry. These problems include taxes, public funding, and other workers’ rights issues.

Read more about ethical issues in the fast food industry.

Ethical Issues in the Fast Food Industry

There are many, many ethical issues in the fast food industry. In addition to environmental destruction and animal cruelty, the fast food industry also contends with issues of unethical worker conditions and government subsidies.

Public Funding

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 which is one of the major ethical issues in the fast food industry.

Minimum Wages, Minimum Hours

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 restaurant aren’t hired by McDonald’s or Burger King directly. They’re hired by the local franchise operator, who is given wide latitude by the chain to set wages and working conditions. This absolves the corporation of any legal responsibility for approximately 75 percent of its workforce.

The industry is also known for being one of the most uncompromisingly anti-union sectors of the economy. On the rare occasions where employees at an individual McDonald’s have attempted to organize themselves into a labor union, they have been subjected to a barrage of propaganda, spying, surveillance, and threats. When these tactics fail, the company has been known to simply shut down individual restaurants where there has been even a whiff of potential union activity. 

Dangerous Conditions

State and federal labor laws that prohibit workers under 18 from working more than eight hours per day or with dangerous machinery are routinely violated by the fast food industry. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are tasked with operating dangerous food preparation equipment like electric tomato dicers and deep-fryers. Unsurprisingly, given the preponderance of these workers in fast food, the injury rate for American teenage workers is twice that of adults. Burns, cuts, and falls are common occupational hazards in America’s fast food kitchens, proving even more ethical issues in the fast food industry.

Even more disturbingly, fast food workers face an extraordinarily high risk of being murdered on the job, as these restaurants present an attractive target for armed robbers lured by their late-night hours of operation and convenient getaway locations off the major freeways. In 1998 alone, more fast food workers were killed on the job than police officers. 

(Shortform note: According to a 2011 Slate article, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that assaults are twice as frequent at fast food restaurants as they are at full-service restaurants. The latter had 0.8 assaults per 10,000 employees in 2009; fast-food restaurants had 1.8.)

Teenagers are frequently made to work the late shifts, when the vast majority of robberies and assaults occur. The industry has used all of its influence in Washington, DC and in state capitals to fight against any efforts to improve workplace safety.

4 Ethical Issues in the Fast Food Industry

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  • How the fast food industry reshaped the American economy
  • How fast food marketing is manipulating you
  • Why the rise of fast food has destroyed family farms across America

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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