In 1917, a pair of teenagers who had lied about their ages to join an ambulance unit destined for the Western Front found themselves in the same training camp in Sound Beach, Connecticut. One of them was Walt Disney. The other, only 15 years old, was Ray Kroc, the man who later made McDonald’s an empire. When Kroc and his comrades went off to the nearest town on furlough to look for girls, Disney stayed in camp, drawing. Disney served in France and Germany, but the First World War ended before Kroc was sent to Europe. Had he gone, it might have changed the history of fast food. The mode of operation in the trenches fascinated both Kroc and Disney: the assembly line. Everyone – the ammunition worker, the machine-gunner, the infantryman – played their small, repetitive, unskilled role with as much speed and efficiency as they could muster. The Front was, as Richard Rhodes put it in The Making of the Atom Bomb, an industrial operation for the manufacture of corpses.
Disney and Kroc were great admirers of Ford (as was Lenin) and saw assembly lines as the embodiment of efficiency, order and consistency. These lines seemed the best way to apply new technology in order to make the things people wanted at the lowest prices. The main drawback was manning: people were the most inefficient, disordered and inconsistent moving parts of the assembly line. They got sick. They had to be paid. They had to be taught what to do. The solution was to strip workers of skills and confine them to narrow, repetitive tasks.
The trenches were the ultimate assembly line: the dehumanised troops not only manned it but constituted the raw material. Would it have made any difference to Kroc if as a youngster he’d stretchered the dead and wounded into his ambulance? Perhaps not – Disney didn’t make the connection. In the 1930s, he set up a rigid assembly-line system in his studio, where stupefied artists performed repetitive sketching and inking tasks against the clock. Disney never understood why they went on strike for better conditions. He blamed Communism.
One of the best reasons to read Eric Schlosser’s blazing critique of the American fast-food industry is his bleak portrayal of the alienation of millions of low-paid employees, a reminder that mindless assembly-line jobs did not disappear in the US and Europe with the fading of smokestack industries; that low unemployment is not equivalent to good employment; and that corporate capitalism and Soviet Communism have a lot in common.
‘The organisation cannot trust the individual,’ Kroc once said. ‘The individual must trust the organisation.’
The fast-food corporations have been fanatical in their determination to make their employees conform to their technology rather than the other way around. Insta-Burger King, later to become Burger King, used to have machines which made milkshakes and burgers automatically. Prospective franchisees were told: ‘Both machines have been thoroughly perfected … are of foolproof design – can be easily operated even by a moron.’
The fools turned out to be the designers – the machines didn’t work – but faith in science and technology remains strong in the fast-food industry. It abounds with contraptions like the Lamb Water Gun Knife, which makes french fries by firing tons of potatoes out of a high-pressure hose at eighty miles an hour through a matrix of blades. At the Lamb Weston plant in Idaho, which makes fries for McDonald’s, the potatoes go from the field to the freezer – cleaned, sized, flayed with steam, blasted through the Knife, screened and trimmed for blemishes, blanched, dried, deep-fried, quick-frozen, sorted into six-pound bags and packed into boxes – with a minimum of human intervention. At McDonald’s and the other chains, everything is cooked from frozen, rehydrated from powder or reconstituted from syrup. At International Flavours & Fragrances in New Jersey, the largest company of its kind, where they design and manufacture the smells and tastes of crisps, pet food, toothpaste and Calvin Klein’s Eternity, they can mix chemicals to reproduce exactly the smell of a grilled hamburger.
A firm called the Titan Corporation offers a spin-off from Reagan-era Star Wars research in the form of a machine that kills bacteria in meat by irradiating it, which is easier and cheaper than raising and slaughtering cows in such a way that they’re not infected in the first place. A former editor of Meat & Poultry magazine, Steven Bjerklie, told Schlosser: ‘I don’t want to be served irradiated faeces along with my meat.’ Because of BSE, US cattle are no longer fed the remains of sheep, cows, cats and dogs, but pigs and horses are still put in the feed mix, along with cattle blood and chicken manure.
The US fast-food paradigm, born of Ford and the Speedee Service System developed by Richard and ‘Mac’ McDonald in San Bernardino, California, makes allowances for the need to employ human beings. McDonald’s alone hires a million people a year, and in the US one worker in eight has been on its payroll at some time. But fast food aims to constrain rather than to train its employees, to protect the technology and the assembly line from them. They are the soft components in the machine. The software used to programme them will be something like the McDonald’s instruction book, known as the ‘Bible’, 750 pages long, weighing four pounds. In 1999, John Reckert, a senior executive of Burger King, explained at a conference the relationship between technology and employees. ‘We can develop equipment that only works one way,’ he said. ‘There are many different ways today that employees can abuse our product, mess up the flow … If the equipment only allows one process, there’s very little to train.’
Behind the front counters of the fast-food chains, the familiar menus and logos of McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried Chicken (the last two owned by the same corporation, Tricon Global Restaurants), lie other assembly-line operations, ownership of which is concentrated in ever fewer hands, allowing even greater economies of scale. Thirteen large slaughterhouses, or meat-packing houses in US terminology, now supply most of America’s beef. Three companies, Simplot, McCain and Lamb Weston (which is owned by the even larger conglomerate ConAgra), control 80 per cent of the US market for frozen french fries. In the wake of the launch of the Chicken McNugget – made from reconstituted chicken, flavoured with beef additives and containing twice as much fat for its weight as a hamburger – eight chicken processors ended up with about two thirds of the US market. They too are wary of their employees. A.D. Anderson, one of the founders of the slaughterhouse giant Iowa Beef Packers (IBP), said of the new assembly-line slaughter and carcass-dismembering system he helped pioneer: ‘We’ve tried to take the skill out of every step.’
One night Schlosser makes a clandestine visit to one of America’s biggest slaughterhouses, which butchers five thousand cattle a day. He walks ankle-deep through blood and sees people sawing cows in half, a stainless-steel rack of tongues, skulls being scraped of flesh. But an abattoir is never going to be pretty and more shocking than all this is the remorseless speed of the line, with low-paid workers, many of them immigrants, performing the same task over and over again, under pressure not to fall behind and at enormous risk of injury. The jobs have names like knocker, sticker, shackler, rumper, first legger, knuckle dropper and navel boner. Every ten seconds, over an eight and a half hour shift, the knocker stuns a cow with a bolt gun. Every ten seconds, the sticker kills a cow by slitting its carotid artery. Each year one in three of America’s 43,000 meat-packing workers goes to a doctor with an injury or work-related illness.
At ConAgra’s slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, where hundreds of thousands of cattle with anabolic steroid implants are fattened on grain in vast feed-lots before being slaughtered, the workers are paid a third less in real terms than they were forty years ago. Two thirds can’t speak English. They have to be on the job for six months before they get health insurance, a year before they are entitled to holiday pay. Many leave before they get the first, most before the second.
Amid Schlosser’s chronicles of union-bashing and injury-log falsification by the big companies and feeble regulation by the US Government, two stories stand out. In 1994, GFI America, a frozen hamburger supplier, hired 39 people in southern Texas to work at a plant in Minneapolis. The company bused them from the Mexican border all the way up to Minnesota and dumped them outside a homeless shelter. Once the shelter had agreed to take them – they had no money and nowhere else to live – GFI America offered to pay the shelter $17 per worker, with some free hamburgers thrown in.
Kenny Dobbins started at the Monfort slaughterhouse company when he was 23. Working in Nebraska, he was hit by a heavy box and thrown against a conveyer-belt, whose metal teeth pierced his lower back. After more than a year of painful surgery, he went back to work. He moved to another slaughterhouse in Colorado and helped Monfort by campaigning against attempts to set up a union (having been told by the company that the union was responsible for shutting down slaughterhouses across the country). By giving him successively worse jobs, Monfort tried to send him a message that he should quit, but he didn’t get it. He was poisoned by chlorine while disinfecting a blood tank without safety clothing. He was hit by a train while driving a truck at night in the rain despite the fact that its headlights and windscreen-wipers didn’t work. He saved a fellow worker from getting his head pulverised in a machine, and was given a certificate as a reward. He broke his leg in a hole in the slaughterhouse floor. He shattered an ankle, and was given a job carrying heavy bags of knives up and down three flights of stairs. In December 1995, he had a heart attack. Soon afterwards, without telling him, Monfort took him off the payroll. Dobbins, who had worked for the company for 16 years, only found out he had been sacked when Monfort stopped accepting his health-plan cheques. He didn’t get a pension and the company fought his claim for compensation for three years before finally giving him $35,000. Dobbins and his wife are ill and unemployed, the compensation payment is spent, and, as Schlosser finished his book, their health insurance was about to run out.
In person, the late Ray Kroc – who went into partnership with the McDonald brothers and eventually bought them out – could be charming and funny, a champion salesman. But it is in the nature of global capitalism that few customers ever get to meet the entrepreneur, and they are, to him, an ideal at best, only numbers at worst. Things seem clearer from a distance, and in the 1950s Kroc flew over America in a Cessna, looking for schools to build restaurants near. Schoolchildren are fast food’s client base, as well as providing a pool of cheap labour. Schlosser sees another similarity here between Kroc and Disney: both men were ahead of their time in the art of selling things to children. Nowadays, Madison Avenue has three trade magazines devoted to the juvenile consumer: Youth Market Alert, Selling to Kids and Marketing to Kids Report.
For the companies, it pays to start early. Market research suggests that children often recognise a brand logo before they can recognise their own name. Much child-directed advertising aims to turn kids into fifth columnists within their families, nagging their parents to the checkout. The marketing guru James U. McNeal, in his 1992 book Kids as Customers, identifies the Seven Major Nags used by children to get what they want. There’s the repetitive Pleading Nag (‘Oh please, please, please’); the Persistent Nag, where the child doggedly lobbies for the prize for days on end; the aggressive, knowing Forceful Nag (‘You have to buy me those jeans, I’m your only daughter’); the Demonstrative Nag, involving active protest in the form of public rage, tears, huffs; the Sugar-Coated Nag (‘I love you, Daddy. Can we go to Pizza Hut?’); the Threatening Nag (‘If you don’t buy the Barbie house, I’ll hate you for the rest of my life’) and the Pity Nag (‘They’ll bully me at school, they’ll say we’re too poor for Nikes’).
McNeal advocates a subtle approach: make children see the firm as a wise, benign parent-figure, he advises. McDonald’s have taken this message to heart in their current ad shown on British children’s TV in the mornings. Ronald McDonald is wandering round a family home in full clown gear, telling the children that they should love their mother. To the tune of the Crystals’ hit, the bright-eyed cherubs chant back: ‘We do Ron Ron Ron, we do Ron Ron!’ There is no mention of hamburgers and french fries, or of food of any kind. The ad ends with Ronald McDonald cradling a baby in his arms. In the US, a typical child will watch more than 30,000 TV ads like this every year, many made by the fast-food industry, which has an annual American TV advertising budget of about $3 billion. About a quarter of children in the US aged between two and five have televisions in their bedrooms.
Since 1978, when US legislators failed to ban TV advertising aimed at the under-sevens, resistance to the bombardment of children with consumer propaganda has collapsed on all fronts. In 1997, a study in the American Journal of Dentistry for Children reported on the use of a range of baby-feeding bottles made by a firm called Munchkin. The bottles carried logos from Pepsi, Dr Pepper and Seven-Up. The study showed that a significant number of parents were feeding their babies fizzy drinks from the bottles instead of milk. American teenage boys now drink twice as much fizz as milk, whereas twenty years ago it was the opposite. Many drink five cans a day, the equivalent of fifty teaspoons of sugar. Advertising in schools by soft-drink and fast-food companies is rampant. In 1998, Mike Cameron, a senior student at Greenbrier High School in Georgia, was suspended after disrupting a stunt by 1200 schoolmates who were spelling out the word ‘Coke’ in the carpark for the delight of a dozen Coca-Cola executives on Coke in Education Day. He was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Pepsi’. The school principal said Cameron had got off lightly, with just one day’s suspension.
Schlosser is not a wild-eyed eco-warrior, seeking to raze all fast-food outlets. His ideal is not that discerning diners should eat at the River Café and those who can’t afford it should grub in allotments. He praises a small US hamburger chain called In-N-Out, where the workers are well paid and get full health benefits, the prices are at McDonald’s levels, and the food is made from fresh ingredients. Schlosser’s description of the way the industry uses teenagers – two thirds of US fast-food workers are under 20, and some as young as 15 work 12-hour shifts – is tempered by the admission that most of the high-school kids he talked to seem to like it, and leave when they get fed up. It’s fun shooting at people with guacamole guns in the kitchen at eleven o’clock at night, even though your course work, and in some cases your health, might have been screwed up by the fast-food work experience. Schlosser acknowledges that some Americans slaving away out back in burger chains would probably not find work anywhere else. He is angry, but he is not a militant vegetarian, an anarchist or a food snob, and the legislative solutions he proposes for his own country are menacing to the fast-food barons not because they are extreme but because they are reasonable.
They include banning the advertisement of unhealthy food to children, an end to tax breaks for jobs which don’t train workers, tighter enforcement of health and safety rules, better funding for public schools to enable them to replace income from corporate advertising, a compulsory slowing of slaughterhouse butchering lines, and a new food safety agency. Right now the US Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat safety, does not have the power to order a meat distributor to recall tainted batches, no matter how many people fall ill.
Above all, Schlosser urges us not to buy fast food as it is currently made and sold by the big chains. ‘The executives who run the fast-food industry are not bad men. They are businessmen,’ he writes. ‘They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it … The usefulness of the market, its effectiveness as a tool, cuts both ways.’ In the US, a consumer boycott seems like the only route. With George W. Bush and his corporate cabinet in charge, regulatory change is likely only in favour of the deep-pocketed industry lobbyists, not the other way round.
Since Ray Kroc came across the Speedee Service System in San Bernardino almost half a century ago, the US fast-food model has gone global. McDonald’s now gets most of its profits from outside the US, as does Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonald’s is the largest private employer in Brazil. In the mid-1990s a KFC restaurant in Mecca took $200,000 in a single week during Ramadan. In some towns in the former East Germany the McDonald’s franchisees are the people who used to control food distribution in Communist times. In 1997, McDonald’s opened a branch near Dachau. For a short time the restaurant distributed flyers in the carpark of the concentration-camp museum. The leaflets said: ‘Welcome to Dachau, and welcome to McDonald’s.’
In Britain, where McDonald’s hired so many spies to gather evidence in its libel case against London Greenpeace that sometimes there were as many agents as activists at the organisation’s meetings, the number of fast-food restaurants roughly doubled between 1984 and 1993. We eat more fast food than any other European country, and we are fatter than any other. That may be a coincidence. It seems unlikely, although British food didn’t exactly sparkle before McDonald’s came along.
It would be wrong to portray Schlosser’s book as just another anti-McDonald’s diatribe. It is deeper and broader than that. McDonald’s itself is a transient phenomenon. It is dependent on fashion. It may already have peaked, or be about to metamorphose, as its recent acquisition of a stake in the upmarket sandwich-shop chain Prêt-à-Manger indicates. McDonald’s is not the point. Through its portrayal of the US fast-food chains and their suppliers – their exploitation of workers, their advertising aimed at children, their lobbying power, their pressure to standardise, automate, agglomerate and internationalise the growing and distribution of food – Fast-Food Nation is a tool for understanding the nature of corporate capitalism in the 21st century. Multinational corporations are political entities, with the power to change lives, laws and landscapes. Voters and the media can, to an extent, call politicians to account, but the activities of corporations are as opaque as they were in the 19th century. They make propaganda, and call it advertising. They tax citizens through high mark-ups in order to finance mergers, acquisitions and dividends. Their strength is such that they stand in opposition now not just to their traditional political opponents on the Left and in the Green movement, but to those on the Right who cherish the local and the individual, from small ranchers in Colorado to William Hague’s naive, jingoistic Save the Pound foot-soldiers. It would be good to think that Fast Food Nation might be sticking out of a few political pockets this British electiontide, as an admission of the true ideological split cutting through Labour, Conservatives and the rest: whether to be dictated to by corporate gigantism, or to challenge it.
In his acknowledgments, Schlosser apologises to his children for ‘all the Happy Meals they’ve been denied’. When they grow up, they’ll forgive him.