Fast Food Nation

Review by James McWilliams


While protesters at Seattle’s World Trade Organization meeting tossed trash cans through Starbucks windows last year, the so-called “liberal media” was having a field day reducing the protest movement to a few pathetic images. Anyone interested in learning about the larger premises driving the vandalism had to look long and hard to discover coverage of the teach-ins, manifestoes being written, or any other intelligent articulations against corporate globalization. Instead, we got a bunch of thugs storming Baby Gap.

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is a comprehensive attempt to correct this bias. Schlosser has written an ambitious muckraking exposé that will, despite some flaws, set a new standard for future investigations into corporate abuse. Its goal is not immediately apparent because, for strategic purposes, Schlosser has narrowly marketed his book as a sustained and exclusive attack on the fast food industry. A photo of fries cooked to golden perfection adorns the cover. “Are we what we eat?,” asks a rhetorical blurb on the back. In an interview with he warned: “There’s stuff in the meat right now that–you know, you should really be cooking your hamburger meat well. I’m serious.”

Of this last assessment, there’s little doubt. Schlosser’s jeremiad not only performs an investigative vivisection on the business of fast food–which is an impressive accomplishment in its own right–but it goes beyond the industry to untie the knots of nothing less than corporate globalization itself. The fast food industry, as Schlosser situates it, rests at the tip of an iceberg, and it’s a tip that lends itself to a savvy book campaign while illuminating the broader topics that filled the manifestos of the men and women who swarmed Seattle dressed as asparagus spears. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle aimed for America’s conscience and hit it in the gut; Schlosser aims for the gut to reach the conscience.

For all its ambition and success, Fast Food Nation starts with a whimper. Loosely structured along the lines of Dante’s descending levels of hell, the initial chapters insufficiently suggest the horrors that await and thus risk losing readers before Schlosser has a chance to unleash his analysis. After a series of reverential sketches of fast food’s “founding fathers,” Schlosser assures us that “America’s fast food chains were not launched by large corporations relying upon focus groups and market research.” Instead, “They were started by door-to-door salesmen, short order cooks, orphans, and dropouts, by eternal optimists looking for a piece of the next big thing.” From the vantage point of this straw man of honest entrepreneurial capitalism, Schlosser gently–too gently–documents how the fast food industry started to engorge itself on aggressive advertising campaigns, corporate sponsorship, and franchising as it fattened into massive multi-national conglomerates. These developments, albeit important, unfortunately read like the soporific sidebars in a business school textbook.

When Schlosser moves beyond bland Horatio Alger-like summaries to capture real workers doing real labor in real places, however, he hits his stride. “Responding to the demands of the fast food and supermarket chains,” he writes, “the meatpacking giants. . .have turned one of he nation’s best paying manufacturing jobs into one of the lowest-paying, created a migrant industrial workforce of poor immigrants, tolerated high injury rates, and spawned rural ghettos in the American heartland.” Schlosser, a protégé of John McPhee, draws productively on his experience as a Rolling Stone writer, not only to portray worker oppression in vividly construed language, but to wring from that human suffering a sense of the institutional forces supporting it.

The world he first exposes is a slaughterhouse. Focusing on those who confront “the most dangerous job”on daily basis, Schlosser admits that “the voices and faces of these workers are indelibly with me.” “Although I cannot tell all of their stories,” he continues, “a few need to be mentioned.” Like Kenny Dobbins. When a ninety-pound box fell from an upper deck and knocked Kenny into the metal teeth of a conveyor belt, a company physician (he worked for Monfort) informed him that he had suffered nothing more than a pulled muscle. He was allowed the day off. An outside opinion, however, uncovered two severely herniated disks, a condition resulting in back surgery and, upon his return to work, a subsequent plug in the Monfort Newsletter: “GIVE UP AFTER BACK SURGERY? NOT KEN DOBBINS!!”

Dobbins can’t read, has few skills, and at the time felt genuine loyalty to Monfort. Managers frequently exploited this loyalty. On one occasion, when maintenance workers refused to disinfect the blood tanks after a problem with salmonella contamination, Kenny’s supervisor asked him if he wouldn’t mind coming in on a Saturday to do the job. He didn’t, and that afternoon Kenny found himself in the emergency room under an oxygen tent, his lungs scorched with chlorine gas, his body covered in blisters. After a month in the hospital Kenny returned to Monfort, where he suffered a broken leg, a shattered ankle, and a heart attack–all on company time. Monfort then decided that Kenny was no longer worth their investment and fired him without warning or notification. Kenny didn’t realize that he had lost his job until his company health insurance deposit was returned.

Stories like Kenny’s stand on their own as reminders of the consequences that workers suffer when corporations acquire leverage in global markets. Schlosser, however, effectively uses these cases as a springboard into the larger corporate and political structures guiding the transition to global capitalism. How, he asks, could Monfort legally treat Kenny with such cavalier disdain? His answer points to a 1991 Colorado law cynically promoted by its Republican supporters as “workers’ comp reform.” This law, which became the basis for labor legislation in many other states, imposed severe restrictions on workers’ comp payments, reduced the types of injuries that workers’ comp covered, and allowed employers to choose the physicians who would decide the severity of their employees’ injuries. The spiral of hell drops precipitously when Schlosser reveals that Tom Norton was the Colorado legislator who introduced this bill. Norton is a conservative Republican whose wife Kay was at the time vice president of legal and governmental affairs at ConAgra Red Meat, located in the very town that Norton represented. Schlosser’s keenly honed ability to connect the experiences of a man like Kenny with the machinations of a man like Norton underscores the depth of corruption in this “world that’s been deliberately hidden.”

From the slaughterhouse, Schlosser moves to the meatpacking plant, an especially gruesome level of hell replete with horrors including E.coli, “mad cow disease,” and Phil Gramm. “Every day in the United States,” he explains, “roughly 200,000 people are sickened by foodborne disease, 900 are hospitalized, and fourteen die.” A number of factors contribute to these figures, but one stands out: “The meatpacking system that arose to supply the nation’s fast food chains. . . has proved to be an extremely efficient system for spreading disease.” When the National Academy of Sciences warned that the nation’s meat inspection program required radical updating, the highly centralized meatpacking industry mustered its attorneys, greased the palms of the requisite representatives, and initiated a legal and political onslaught to prevent changes designed to make meat safer.

The Reagan administration responded with a program euphemistically called Streamlined Inspection System for Cattle (SIS-C), which shrunk the USDA budget by reducing the number of federal inspectors. In essence, it aimed to privatize regulation. The Clinton administration moved to replace this farce of a program with a more systematic plan of federal oversight, but in 1994 their efforts were thwarted by Commander Gingrich and the Republican Congress. Over the next several years, Senator Phil Gramm filled his coffers with more money from the meat industry that any other U.S. senator. He did so while wielding his influence, as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to prevent the modernization of the nation’s meat inspection system. Sucks for us, but not Gramm’s wife, Wendy Lee, who just so happens to sit on the board of the Iowa Beef Packers–the nation’s largest meatpacking firm.

And so on. As these few examples attest, Schlosser uncovers and connects a welter of corruption that evokes pangs of sympathy for those tear-gassed, trash-can brandishing protesters. His stories succeed where the mainstream media failed. But now what? Does Schlosser have a prescription for change? In a concluding section entitled “how to do it,” he asserts, “Congress should ban advertising that preys upon children, it should stop subsidizing dead end jobs, it should pass tougher food safety laws, it should protect American workers from serious harm, it should fight against dangerous concentrations of economic power.” Yeah, sure. In other words, no, he offers no solution. (One can hear his editor saying, “but you’ve got to suggest something!”) Nor should he necessarily be expected to have one. Schlosser is an investigative reporter. He’s done his work exceptionally well. He’s left us to do ours.

But without much of a pep talk. In fact, Schlosser’s portrayal of the American consumer leaves little hope that a genuine grass roots effort to dismantle the golden arches and just say no to McWhatevers has any chance of germinating into a mainstream movement. Schlosser’s fascination with the cultural and emotional power that something as simple as a Whopper can evoke overlooks the fact that–when you get right down to it–we as consumers ultimately keep fast food running. We can pull the plug anytime. . . If only those burgers weren’t so damn tasty.

James McWilliams is an instructor of history at Southwest Texas State University.