The Labor, Health and Cultural Costs Of ‘McWorld’ Hamburger Hegemony

Book Review of Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, with a 2012 afterword copyrighted by the author; Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (New York and Boston: 2001, 2012), paperback, 362 pp.


Any contemporary socialist or progressive position on capitalist agribusiness has to address the fast food industry.  Before World War II, ­­fast food restaurants didn’t exist, yet in the last 61 years they have radically transformed the restaurant business and changed eating habits both in the U.S. and around the world.  They’ve also played a role in the revolutionizing of meat and potato production, not to mention the work lives of millions of teenagers.

Today the McDonald’s Corporation alone, launched by Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1948 at a single restaurant in California, feeds more than 65 million people daily.  It also is the world’s largest owner of retail real estate and franchises more than 36,000 restaurants worldwide, including some *15,000 in 119 foreign countries.  In the U.S. McDonald’s operates some 8,000 playgrounds which parents frequently visit with their young children; it also bombards kids with TV ads and “free” toy giveaways to build brand loyalty at very early ages.  Partly as a result, almost as many American children now recognize the name of Ronald McDonald as that of Santa Claus.

McDonald’s and several corporate rivals that formed in the 1940s and 1950s in imitation of its business model – the list includes Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken and others – by the late 1990s were attracting up to one-quarter of U.S. adults to their doors.  They also have built a global presence, commanding significant shares of the restaurant market in Germany, where McDonald’s recently was the nation’s biggest restaurant company, and in the UK and Australia, while attracting hordes of customers in Turkey, China, Kuwait, France, Japan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia -- among other places.

In China, a survey of children in a Beijing elementary school found that most thought that Ronald McDonald is a wise and kindly person who cares about children and knows they need to eat. In Mecca in the 1990s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise set a sales record for the parent company by selling $200,000 worth of food during a single week of Ramadan. In Russia in 1997, a television ad for Pizza Hut featured an endorsement by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, although it’s not clear the ad did either Pizza Hut or Gorbachev much good.

In Marxist terms, McDonald’s and its fast-food rivals have made their industry into a corporate “hegemon” – economically, culturally and politically. The fast-food business now influences how millions of people eat, how Congress does and does not regulate the food business, how chicken, beef, pork and potatoes are grown in the U.S., and what particular chemically-derived tastes most Americans have come to associate with french fries.

Arguably, the fast food companies, through the “super-sizing” of their portions for competitive reasons, also have helped create an obesity epidemic that threatens the health of tens of millions of people worldwide.  And along with major meatpacking companies that supply them with beef, the fast food giants arguably are posing the risk of people getting sick and even dying from exposure to contaminated meat.

Erich Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, first published in 2001, is a classic account of the fast food industry’s history and impacts on society.  The book offers a sweeping account of the industry, and at times a sprawling one, with Schlosser in some chapters indulging in pet intellectual digressions that seem to have little or no connection with the industry itself, but instead feature musings on what Schlosser calls a “distinctively American way of viewing the world.”

The book’s core, however, is its account of why fast food restaurants have burgeoned so dramatically in popularity and market dominance over just six decades, and what their business model means for health, labor practices and the survival of independent restaurant owners, farmers and ranchers today.   In explaining the industry’s economic success, Schlosser focuses on several factors:

One is the entrepreneurial drive of its pioneering founders, who did not launch today’s giant fast-food firms as CEOs of big corporations, but instead began as “door-to-door salesmen, short-order cooks, orphans, and dropouts  ... eternal optimists looking for a piece of the next big thing.” In terms of enabling a few shrewd, ambitious and hard-working men from the lower classes to achieve enormous economic success, the fast food industry as it has developed since 1948 can be seen as an impressive testament to the American dream.

As it exists now, on the other hand, the industry also condemns huge numbers of its workers to low wages and minimal hopes for advancement, and its growth has coincided with a dramatic reduction in the real value of the minimum wage.  Thus in Schlosser’s words, fast food now “embodies the best and the worst of American capitalism at the start of the twenty-first century.”

A second key factor in the fast food business’s expansion, as Schlosser reports it, centers on the remarkable sales ability, personal charm, executive talent, driving ambition and ruthlessness of Ray Kroc, who served for years as McDonald’s CEO.  

A high school dropout who began his sales career as a teenager peddling sundaes at an uncle’s soda fountain, Kroc went on to sell a wide variety of other commodities, ranging from coffee beans to Florida real estate, before trying to sell milk shake mixing machines to the McDonalds brothers. He quickly joined their company, vigorously expanded its scope by signing up would-be restaurant operators as McDonalds franchisees, and ultimately took total control over the company by buying out (and essentially ousting) the McDonalds themselves in 1961.

It was Kroc’s special genius at selling things to children that played a pivotal role in McDonald’s success, Schlosser argues, and in this respect Kroc greatly resembled and perhaps imitated Walt Disney, another high school dropout who built a business empire around sales to children.  To attract children and their parents to restaurants, McDonald’s under Kroc’s leadership launched its Ronald McDonald mascot and associated ad campaign in the 1960s.  It also built kids’ playgrounds called Playland and McDonaldsland at thousands of restaurants across the U.S., and has employed hired talent from the movie business to produce videos and design web sites to attract their loyalty.

McDonald’s has made particularly brilliant use of toy giveaways to lure children and their parents into stores:  the Teeny Beanie Baby giveaway campaign of 1997, Schlosser indicates, helped sales of McDonald’s Happy Meals soar from about 10 million in a typical week to some 100 million in 10 days, and ranks as one of the most successful promotions in advertising history.  Other fast food companies are making similar efforts to attract children as consumers, notably by paying fees to financially strapped public schools for the privilege of selling fast food and soda to students.  What all this means for children’s brains, lifelong dietary preferences and health obviously is problematic.

Yet a third powerful factor in the fast food industry’s rise involves the economic logic of franchising -- a mode of corporate expansion that offers would-be entrepreneurs the advantages of remaining formally independent, yet still allows parent corporations to retain control over the image of franchise outlets and their products, while reducing corporate legal liabilities and their need to hire and train workers. Schlosser explains how Kroc was particularly skilled at using franchising to expand the McDonald’s brand, and what franchising has since come to mean for countless retail businesses, both inside and outside the fast food industry.

And last but also first, what initially gave the first McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif. its competitive edge and ignited the industry’s explosive growth afterwards was the McDonalds brothers’ pioneering application of assembly line methods to the cooking and selling of restaurant food.

By firing their relatively skilled and relatively well paid short-order cooks and replacing them with a primitive assembly line of kitchen workers, each performing a simple task involved in cooking burgers and fries, the McDonald brothers speeded up the delivery of restaurant food, which is why they dubbed their new business model the Speedy Service System.

Their new labor model also improved the restaurant’s labor productivity, which allowed it to lower prices.  And it reduced or eliminated their need to hire relatively skilled and often independent-minded cooks and allowed for their replacement by relatively unskilled high school students earning minimal wages.

As Marxist labor historian Harry Braverman noted long ago in Labor and Monopoly Capital, this focus on simplifying the tasks of individual workers – effectively “deskilling” formerly skilled work to enhance productivity and corporate control over the workplace – is inherent in the logic of capitalism.  Essentially, it echoes what Adam Smith, the first great political economist to study capitalist markets, wrote about a primitive assembly line he had witnessed at a Scottish pin factory that’s described in The Wealth of Nations.

As Marx later suggested in the pages of Capital, deskilling workers through an increased division of labor and increased use of machinery in the production process, by making workers cheaper and more replaceable, gives gives capitalists a powerful weapon in the class struggle over who controls the means of production.  In the early twentieth century such considerations inspired the noted efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, a pioneer in “scientific” production techniques, to develop a host of different methods for converting assembly line workers into little more than robots.

Schlosser says nothing about the McDonald brothers taking their cues from “Taylorism” and its motion-study methodology, much less from Marx.  But the greater division of labor that the McDonalds introduced in their kitchens, coupled with their radically simplified menu and replacement of silverware and glassware in the business with paper packages and plastic utensils, accomplished what Taylor had set out to achieve in the way of lower labor costs and higher productivity.

Accordingly, a host of different fast-food entrepreneurs quickly adopted the McDonald’s model in building up their own enterprises, and the lower prices and higher convenience that they could offer customers helped drive many independent rivals using traditional methods out of the restaurant business.  The result is that by the late 20th century, the fast food workforce in places like Greeley, Colo.  -- which Schlosser visited in doing research for his book – had grown enormously and was heavily dependent on the labor of teenagers.

Wages for Greeley fast food workers were low when Schlosser visited the place, and turnover rates were high.  By the late 1990s, Schlosser notes, the typical worker in the fast food industry either quit or was fired within three or four months.  The shifts that individual teens were working, including on school nights, could be lengthy. One Greeley teen that Schlosser interviewed reported sometimes putting in 12 hours in a day.  The teenagers Schlosser talked were mostly quite cheerful about working such hours, which violated both Colorado and federal labor laws.

Schlosser suggests, although he does not specifically demonstrate, that such exploitative labor practices in the fast food industry are one big reason why teenage workers in the U.S. by the late 1990s had twice the rates of workplace injuries as adults, with some 200,000 teens being hurt on the job annually.  Burns, strained muscles, and slips and falls were the most common workplace injuries at fast food outlets, Schlosser reports, but a growing number of fast food workers were being hurt in workplace violence – including robberies.  In fact, in 1998 more restaurant workers than police officers were murdered on the job, perhaps because the fast food industry’s continued reliance on cash rather than credit had made the industry’s restaurants more attractive to armed robbers, especially late at night, than gas stations or banks.

The same capitalist job deskilling that has fueled the fast food industry’s rise to global influence, Schlosser notes, also has transformed a closely related industry – meatpacking, especially in the beef processing business.  Although meatpacking as an industry was already the site of horrible labor abuses in 1906, when socialist writer Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, reforms instituted by Teddy Roosevelt and other Progressives and the growth of strong meatpackers’ unions had brought important reforms to the industry by the 1950s.  Consequently, meatpackers by that era enjoyed relatively high pay, although the work was still hard and dangerous.

In 1960, though, the founders of a new meatpacking company, Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), opened a new plant in the remote, largely union-free city of Denison, IA, far from big cities like Chicago and Kansas City where older meatpacking operations were located.  IBP applied the same assembly line techniques to meatpacking that fast-food companies were already applying to restaurant food.

The company also pioneered the “boxed beef” revolution – sending pre-butchered cuts of meat to supermarkets in the place of half-carcasses, in this way enabling the supermarkets to fire skilled and relatively well-paid butchers.  The IBP and boxed beef revolutions together significantly reduced market prices for beef, which also were being affected at the time by increasing consumer preferences for chicken.

One result has been the rapid consolidation of the meatpacking business under the auspices of a few huge corporations, along with reduced prices that individual cattle ranchers can command for their animals – a factor that has helped to drive large numbers of them out of business.

Another side effect of the IBP revolution and meat industry consolidation has been the growing use of giant feedlots to fatten cattle for slaughter by feeding them an unnatural diet of corn and soybeans.  And the growth of big feedlots, Schlosser indicates, has helped make hamburger meat more susceptible than before to contamination with E. coli 0157:H57, which unlike some other kinds of E. coli, such as the strains found in your own intestines, may kill you.

As Schlosser notes, researchers in the late 1990s were beginning to suspect that cattle fattened on corn and soybean diets are more likely to harbor this particular E. coli strain than grass-fed cattle, a point that Michael Pollan explores at greater length in his 2009 book Omnivore’s Dilemma.

In addition, the overcrowding of cattle in big feedlots means the animals are often standing in their own shit; this makes it more likely that bits of contaminated manure will get stuck to their hides. When such cattle are shipped to a meatpacking plant with relatively unskilled workers on a speeded-up slaughter line, it’s more likely that hurried workers stripping off the hides may accidentally let bits of manure contaminated with E. coli come into contact with the meat.

Other line workers who rip the entrails out of the carcasses also are more susceptible to being contaminated with bacteria from cow stomachs.  It’s arguable, therefore, that hamburger from feedlot animals processed by high-speed meatpackers is more likely than meat from grass-fed cattle slaughtered at slower packing plants to cause E. coli infections (and deaths) among fast food customers.

As Schlosser reports, there have been some 500,000 Americans sickened by E. coli 0157:H7 since the 1980s.  Among those exposed, “hundreds” have been killed by the Shiga toxins that this E. coli strain releases into the body.  Not all exposures have been from consumption of contaminated meat, but many have been.  And food contamination under modern meat production conditions also can cause exposures to other noxious substances, including residues of the extensive antibiotics used to curb epidemics among feedlot animals.

During the 1980s, two separate National Academy of Sciences studies warned that the U.S. meat inspection system was inadequate to prevent possible disease outbreaks.  Nevertheless, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, in the name of deregulation, reduced spending on USDA food inspection programs.  When a newly elected Clinton administration tried to mandate what Schlosser calls a “tough, science-based food inspection system,” the Republican takeover of the House in 1995 forced the White House to water down the proposed reforms.

Schlosser seems to be a liberal, not a socialist, and in Fast Food Nation he outlines more than half a dozen seemingly practical reforms of laws, regulations and government policies that Congress and/or the White House could adopt to cure some of the worst labor and health problems posed by fast food.

He also urges public support for our society’s rapidly disappearing population of independent ranchers growing grass-fed beef, and likewise extols independent restaurant chains offering hamburgers and fries made by relatively well paid cooks in a traditional fashion.

Finally, Schlosser calls on consumers to pressure the fast food companies for needed change.

“Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food,” he wrote in the first edition of Fast Food Nation.  “The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest:  stop buying it.  The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men.  They are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it.  They will sell whatever sells at a profit.”

In his 2012 afterword to the book, however, Schlosser expands his vision of what may be needed to reform the industry.  Between the publication of his first edition and the publication of his second, he notes, there was spate of books on food-industry abuses, a dozen of which he names for future reference by activists.

A diverse movement of different grassroots groups also has emerged to tackle many different aspects of food production since 2001, Schlosser observes.  Members include the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to combat wage theft, abuse of farmworkers, and low wages in the food industry; a Slow Food movement to create better food-buying alternatives in the food deserts of major cities, and many middle-class organizations also.

Now, Schlosser adds in his 2012 afterword, this still-emerging food movement “needs to become part of a larger movement – a movement that opposes unchecked corporate power, that demands not only healthy food but also a living wage and a safe workplace for every single American.”

Again, Schlosser doesn’t seem to be a socialist.  But food activists within DSA should find it useful to read his book and examine his exhaustive reporting and his lists of possible reforms with care.  His text might offer us a framework we can use in formulating our own proposals for a safer, healthier, less exploitive and far more sustainable food system than the one existing today.

Fast Food Nation also offers fascinating glimpses of other facets of fast food capitalism that can’t be easily described in the space available for this article.  They include how fast food contracts have transformed the Idaho potato industry and how a handful of specialty chemical producers in New Jersey employ sophisticated scientific analyses and professional artistry to synthesize both the “artificial” and “natural” flavors that give most processed foods (including those on supermarket aisles) their characteristic tastes.

This is the second in a series of book review/essays on the impact of capitalist food production on the planet, our health and our economy. A previous installment, “Eating the Future,” appeared Feb. 7. Future books to be reviewed in this exploration of the literature of capitalist food production and consumption include The Meat Racket, a powerful expose by the former chief agribusiness reporter of the Associated Press covering the growth of Tyson Foods, and  A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, an essentially Marxist and anti-imperialist analysis of U.S. and global agribusiness by Eric Holt-Gimenez of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as “Food First.”

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