Fast Food Regulation: Failure and Influence

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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Is there fast food regulation in the industry? What kinds of government restrictions are put in place?

In reality, when it comes to fast food regulation, big businesses are in control. Even regulatory agencies like OHSA have little power to act independently.

Read more about fast food regulation and the fast food lobbyists that control it.

Fast Food Regulation Avoids Oversight

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. But fast food regulation often gets around these requirements.

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). These actions sent a clear signal to business that they could roll back worker safety measures with no fear of consequences from the federal government.

This created a strong incentive for companies to reduce the number of recorded injuries. Meatpacking companies like IBP began keeping two sets of injury logs—a comprehensive one that showed all the actual injuries at their plants and a doctored one to show to OSHA. On top of that, IBP executives made it standard practice to only allow employees to report injuries to company-approved doctors and force injured employees to make brief appearances at their plants so that the company wouldn’t have to report “lost workdays” to OSHA. This latter practice often forced injured workers to show up on the same day as surgery or the day after an amputation. 

The major meatpackers have also led the charge to gut the few protections that remain, such as worker’s compensation. They have been assisted in this by conservative Republican allies in Congress and in the state capitals where they operate. The worker’s compensation forms can be complicated and intimidating to a non-English speaker, which further inhibits workers in this disproportionately immigrant-dominated industry from accessing the benefits to which they are legally entitled. States like Colorado have even set maximum legal caps on compensation claims for certain injuries—there are set awards for losing an arm, a finger, or having your face disfigured. In many respects, the workers are treated little different from the cattle they slaughter.

Fast Food Regulation: Failure and Influence

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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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