Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
356 pages, 2001, Houghton Mifflin

This book is the modern-day equivalent of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and if half of what Schlosser writes about in this book is true, it ought to have the same impact as The Jungle. The fact that it won't speaks more to our political climate in this country than the facts of this book. This is a truly scary and disturbing book, and one that every person concerned about health and economic progress should read.

We all know, obviously, that fast food is bad for us. What Schlosser does is show us exactly how bad. He begins the book with a history of the fast food industry. What is ironic about the rise of McDonald's, Burger King, et al. is that the men who created fast food restaurant were true iconoclasts in the business, only to turn into conservative businessmen determined to "fix" the market their way. It's not surprising this happened, as people grow more conservative as they grow older and power corrupts, but it is interesting to note that in the 1940s and 1950s, when fast food really took off, the men who ran the businesses (Ray Kroc, Dave Thomas, Carl Karcher) were really bucking every tried-and-true business practice and revolutionizing how food was served and how people ate.

Perhaps even more disturbing than what's in the food (I'll get to that in a minute) is how the fast food companies do business. Schlosser looks at the advertising techniques of the fast food companies and how they target children. Ronald McDonald is the obvious icon for this, and Schlosser points out that a character on the McDonald's web site told children that the big clown was "the ultimate authority in everything." Yes, it's Ronald McDonald as Jesus - something the fast food companies would deny, but it is of course what they want small children to think. The fast food companies today are using psychology to get kids addicted to fast food when they are very young - two or three. Schlosser also points out that McDonald's used a lot of the same techniques as Disney to target their audience. And we all know how benign an influence Disney is on our society, right?

The other disturbing thing about the advertising of the fast food companies is how it preys on parents' fears about being good parents. Today, of course, many American couples both have to work, for any number of reasons (some their own fault - running up a credit card bill and "needing" a new car every few years; some not their own - the dollar sure sucks these days, and how about the price of gas!), and they have less time to spend with their kids. A lot of companies know this and feed into it, and McDonald's is no exception. When McDonald's and Disney came together in an advertising campaign a few years ago, a memo circulated throughout McDonald's said the unspoken message about taking your children to McDonald's is: "It's an easy way to feel like a good parent." As opposed to, you know, talking to your children.

Schlosser gets into governmental involvement with the fast food industries with the invasion of schools, who are increasingly turning to fast food for money because the government (and by extension, all of us who whine about any slight tax increase) refuses to fund them sufficiently. McDonald's, Burger King, and others now have exclusive contracts with schools to provide food and drinks to them in exchange for a cash payment. Many of these cash payments don't make much of a dent in the budget deficits of schools anyway, but the fast food companies don't care - they get what they want, a toehold in a place where kids are forced to be for seven hours a day, and are therefore a captive audience (kids could always turn the television off, after all).

The government also comes under fire when Schlosser moves on to the business practices of the fast food restaurants. These companies hire short-term employees so they don't have to offer medical benefits, pay poor wages so that people won't even want to stick around (which makes it harder for unions to organize, since there's such great turnover), collude with each other to make sure no one company tries to break this cycle, and dream of a day when they can have no training for their employees because everything will be so automated. The fact that this makes employees bitter and therefore more likely to freak out and start killing people (which Schlosser documents in the book) or simply offer horrible service to the customers (ask anyone who has ever worked in a fast food restaurant how many hamburger patties they picked off the floor) does not seem to bother the fast food companies or, more significantly, the federal government. As I pointed out a few days ago, companies have the wherewithal to lobby Congress and basically bribe politicians to ignore the plights of their employees. No one speaks for the teenagers and illegal immigrants working at fast food restaurants, because who the fuck cares about illegals and teens? They're all pot smokers anyway.

The most press that came from Schlosser's book, perhaps, is his section on the food preparation, and it is this information that has made me never want to eat fast food again. He gets into the beef extract in which the french fries are cooked (well, used to be, but Schlosser makes the point that the vegetable oil they now use isn't all that great), the horrible slaughterhouse conditions and the destruction of the highly skilled meat packers, the feces in the meat leading to E. coli infections, and the "natural" flavors that all companies put in foods that are just as artificial as "artificial" flavors. Schlosser even points out that a "natural" flavor isn't necessarily healthier than an "artificial" one - "natural" almond flavor is derived from peach and apricot pits and contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous. When it is concocted by mixing oil of clove and the banana flavor, amyl acetate, it is considered "artificial." Both natural and artificial flavors can be made in the same labs, sometimes side by side.

The awful working conditions also lead to problems with the food. As Schlosser points out, the people who clean the slaughterhouses may have the worst jobs in America. Because so many of the workers are illegals, supervisors often have sex with them at the plants, but they can't do anything about it for fear of losing their jobs. Unions are non-existent, so the companies can treat their employees however they want. Injuries often go unreported because the government gives tax breaks to factories with fewer injuries. The cows are often fed the remains of other animals, and they are also loaded up with steroids to make them bulkier. This gets passed on in the meat. Do you want to be consuming steroids the next time you head to McDonald's?

Schlosser points out that it doesn't have to be this way. Some fast food companies now police their slaughterhouses far better than the government has done, especially since Reagan and the Republican Congress of 1994-present has neutered the FDA. After an E. coli outbreak in 1997, Jack in the Box cracked down on its suppliers, instituted a company-wide policy to clean up their restaurants, and is now considered the best company in terms of health in the country - all with very little increase in the price of their food. Schlosser also points out In-n-Out Burger, which at the time of his writing was only in California and Nevada (they are now in Arizona, at least). In-n-Out Burger was family-owned, resistant to the franchising fever of other fast food companies (which often denies rights to the franchisee and sends most of the profits to the head office), and pays its employees far above minimum wage, all without significantly higher prices than the other fast food restaurants. (I don't know if this is still the case with In-n-Out Burger.) He goes over, in great detail, the libel case brought against two Brits by McDonald's in the early 1990s because they dared publish bad things about the fast food giant. McDonald's won the case but reaped reams of bad publicity when their executives were forced to admit that many of the damning things said about them were true. And Schlosser also points out that the Sherman Antitrust Act is still in force and needs to be enforced more rigorously, if the people demand it. He quotes Senator Henry M. Teller, a Republican (remember when Republicans were good?) from Colorado, who in 1890 dismissed the argument that lower consumer prices justified the ruthless exercise of monopoly power by saying: "I do not believe that the great object in life is to make everything cheap." Ah, the good old days!

Schlosser offers plenty of solutions, none of which is likely to be adopted by our government anytime soon. It may sound like he is advocating socialism, but what he is really saying is that a remnant of socialism - businesses working hand-in-glove with government to suppress innovation - is what the problem is. As I mentioned, none of his solutions are likely to be adopted by the government. One thing that can be done, however, is on the economic end. We are the consumers. Absolutely no one is holding a gun to our heads when we walk into a fast food restaurant. I'm as guilty as anyone of choosing convenience over safety and decent food. After reading this book, however, I am totally committed to never eating fast food again. We can change things for the better, but we have to be willing to work at it.

This is a very readable book and a very entertaining one, despite its subject matter. I encourage you to pick it up, even if you have to go to the library because you're poor! It just may change how you live your life. And isn't that a good thing?


Blogger N said...

Also, watch Super Size Me. Not quite as hard-hitting or as broad in scope, but food for thought nonetheless.

7/4/05 6:13 AM  

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