CRANK, CRAP & CRUELTY, ERIC SCHLOSSER'S FAST FOOD NATION
by Charles Carreon
7:42pm, September 11, 2005
Crank, Crap & Cruelty
A Review of Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation”
It may only take a village to raise a child, but it takes an entire planet to build a Big Mac. That’s the message of Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction thriller, “Fast Food Nation.” Nonfiction, as in every line of it is true. Thriller, as in, money, power, drugs, oceans of spilled blood and shit, and a runaway train loaded with biological weapons set to destroy the entire planet. It’s a cliffhanger, a role-playing story for all humanity. It turns out that, a couple of million years after we left the trees and conquered the savannahs with our omnivorous appetites and tool-making ways, it’s time to return to eating like gorillas.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Schlosser is a big magazine writer, but don’t let that turn you off. He writes like a good cop thinks. His style is tuned liked a Kawasaki 1000 police motorcycle and he investigates like he’s got a grudge against corporate evil. He chases down the bad actors other reporters call boss for the same reason every muckraker rakes muck – he hates what he sees because what he sees is ugly as hell. But he’s a diligent professional. He doesn’t babble jargon like a zealot. He builds his case. He bags and tags his evidence meticulously, unobtrusively footnoting his extensive sources. Then he presents it all in a very detailed and convincing exposition that reveals a complex criminal conspiracy operating an ongoing criminal enterprise. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to issue indictments.
We’re a long way even from defunding the fast food industry, much less indicting it for its crimes. Our parents didn’t eat the way we do. We don’t know why we’re eating corporate burgers, munching oil-soaked fries, and downing vats of iced sugar soda. We don’t know why we eat in plastic environments built like school cafeterias, attached to plastic playgrounds. We don’t know why we don’t find fresh foods attractive, why antacids are the most popular over-the-counter medicine.
Knowledge is power, and knowledge is often difficult to acquire, which may be why so few people have any power. This book makes acquiring vital knowledge easy, with crisp chapter titles and a story that starts at the beginning, studying the deeds of four old white guys — Walt Disney, Ray Kroc of McDonalds, Carl Karcher of Carl’s Junior, and Colonel Sanders of KFC. These four men each streamlined their products, automated production, marketed uniformity, and anonymized their employees to proselytize their visions of life and commerce. Although Kroc approached Disney solicitously with a plan to operate McDonalds restaurants in Disneyland, and was painfully rebuffed, Ronald McDonald is now far better known than Mickey Mouse. Indeed, the surrealistic purveyor of Happy Meals is giving Santa Claus, the number one imaginary being, a run for the money.
The Mechanization of Food Production
Kroc didn’t invent Ronald McDonald out of whole cloth. The original McDonald brothers operated a massive drive-in burger joint in San Bernardino, complete with young waitresses bringing trays of food to those enormous rolling fortresses they called cars. The cars were filled either with families or young men looking to hit on the carhops. The business was very successful, but the brothers tired of hiring platoons of carhops and replacing broken glasses and stolen silverware. So they closed the place for retooling, installing bigger grills and a burger production line, so skilled cooks were no longer needed. They threw away all the glasses and silverware, and henceforth served only foods that could be wrapped in wax paper or sucked through a straw. They ditched the carhops and made everybody line up at the window, but the burgers were cheap and business took off like a rocket. Kroc, then a traveling salesman in his early fifties, admired the McDonalds operation because they bought enough mixers to make forty milkshakes at one time.
The formula that Kroc bought from the McDonalds and franchised to the masses was a hit, and others followed the trend toward assembly-line food preparation. Carl Karcher copied McDonalds because they were just twenty miles away from his successful barbeque restaurant down in Anaheim, and Karcher knew the future when he saw it. Harland Sanders reinvented himself as a Southern gentleman, adopting the string tie and white suit as a marketing gimmick, and achieved his goal of putting at least two drumsticks in every bucket by adopting the new method of mass-produced cooking pioneered by the McDonalds brothers. Southern California loved the new way of eating, that fit perfectly into the seventy-mile an hour lifestyle, and soon the era of monumental sign architecture began to mark the landscape. Kroc built Golden Arches so big they dwarfed the stores, but they could be seen from a distance in time to let freeway drivers maneuver to the next exit. Eventually, the profile of the fast food industry has come to loom equally large over our entire civilization. Schlosser summarizes the numbers: “In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2001, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music – combined.”
The mechanization of food production turned people called cooks and waitresses into something much less dignified – burgerflippers. Burgerflippers are underpaid, and generally work a job less than six months. Small wonder. The job is statistically incredibly dangerous, like late night cashiering in a gas station or liquor store. Bet you didn’t know that the largest cause of employment death today is homicide. That’s because security at your average McDonalds sucks, because the money handling system is as uniform as the food, and sometimes angry employees come back to take their share of the loot they used to count, and sometimes decide to even the score with an assistant manager or two. Schlosser interviews one McDonalds employee who matter of factly packed a pistol to work and expressed no concern about a possible holdup, since he intended to act proactively in any armed encounter.
The Cruelest Business
The philosophy and method of manufacturing fast food turned into a machine with such tremendous money-moving power that today, when McDonalds says “jump,” the meat industry says “how high?” For years the USDA has been unable to obtain clean ground beef for the school lunch program, and it still can’t. But when McDonalds saw European store sales falling off the chart, and Jack In The Box demanded clean meat for its restaurants, the meat packers fell into line. Fast food ground beef at Jack and Mac’s are much cleaner than the cow crap laden meat that the nation feeds to its schoolchildren. And it make them sick, by the thousands. Food poisoning is far more common and deadly than you would think, afflicting 200,000 Americans every day, sending 900 to the hospital, and 14 to the morgue. For those whose eyes glaze over when they see latin names like Salmonella, Listeria, Staphylococcus, Clostridium or E Coli, Schlosser boils it down into “a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat.”
The meat is full of crap and the meatcutters are tweaking on methamphetamine, aka “crank.” Crank is the drug of choice for immigrant slaughterhouse workers that have to “make a knife cut every two or three seconds, which adds up to about 10,000 cuts during an eight hour shift.” The pace of production is insane, surpassing any prior known levels of cattle butchering: “The old meatpacking plants in Chicago slaughtered about 50 cattle an hour. Twenty years ago, new plants in the High Plains slaughtered about 175 cattle an hour. Today some plants slaughter up to 400 cattle an hour – about half a dozen animals every minute, sent down a single production line, carved by workers desperate not to fall behind.” No matter how much meth you do, though, there is no way to gut and extract the gastrointestinal system of a cow that fast and not make a regular mess of it, spraying shit all over the beef that is destined for America’s dinner table.
What’s A Prion?
In an afterword entitled “The Meaning of Mad Cow,” Schlosser updated his first edition of Fast Food Nation. In the afterword, Schlosser establishes that the destructive power of the meat machine has not been fully unleashed, because the truth about mad cow disease – its causes, vectors of transmission, and incubation period, are still unknown. Similarly unknown is how many people in the USA have in fact eaten meat infected with “prions,” the nearly-indestructible protein-based agents for the transmission of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (“BSE”). The answers to these unknowns will determine the number of victims and the scope of the cattle-destruction effort that the USA will have to undertake. The answers are lacking of course, for the same reason we don’t know how many Iraqi civilians have been killed in our liberation operation – bureaucrats aren’t good with big numbers.
Since the date of Schlosser’s afterword, published in 2002, we have been treated to a continuing coverup by the USDA about the extent to which BSE has afflicted the American cattle population. In case you thought your meat was cleaner because you live in the Pacific Northwest, where everything is better, it’s time to take a reality check. On August 20, 2005, the Associated Press reported that “slaughterhouses in Oregon and Washington have been cited at least eight times for breaking federal rules to protect against mad cow disease, putting the Northwest above average for violations.” The federal rules to protect against mad cow disease don’t require testing to be sure that BSE-prions aren’t in the meat, they just forbid the meatpackers from feeding people any “tonsils or small intestines,” or if the cows are over thirty months old, “the ban extended to the brain, skull, eyes and parts of the spinal column,” because these parts are “the most prone to mad cow infections.”
Are you surprised that the USDA tells you there’s no risk of BSE turning your brain into a mass of spongiform encephalopathy, but it still doesn’t test to see if cows have it? Well don’t be! It would be way too much trouble to test every one of those cows for mad cow disease. What’s a priority with our current President, as he made clear in one of his “State of the Union” addresses, was testing athletes for drugs, because an athlete on drugs would be far more dangerous than a hamburger full of BSE. Hmmm, now that I think about it, “athlete on drugs” describes California governor Schwarzennegger pretty well, and may be a good description of Bush himself. It just goes to show, politicians often know what they’re talking about.
More Than The Meat Is Rotten
Speaking of politicians, it’s not just the food supply that’s contaminated, my friends. The consolidation of food production forced by the fast food industry’s demand for uniform goods has turned potato production, beef production, chicken farming, and flavoring production into highly concentrated industries, each dominated by a handful of corporations that fix prices, suppress wages, and jointly wage a pitched battle against government regulation. But for the European ban on “Frankenfoods,” genetically engineered potatoes would be in every bag of French fries, and Taco Bell would still be feeding people corn that was meant for animal feed only. We know more about the industry’s insane drive to act as a law unto itself due to the heroic efforts of a couple of London Greenpeace activists who defended themselves, with almost complete success, against a libel suit McDonalds filed in England, by proving the truth of their harshest accusations. After eight years of litigation and a trial, Justice Rodger Bell concluded, in an 800 page judgment, that McDonalds advertising exploited children, McDonalds food endangered diners, McDonalds wages were unreasonably low, and McDonalds was to blame for animal cruelty violations by its suppliers. Through the litigation, the Greenpeace activists learned that their London group had been infiltrated by at least seven private detectives hired by McDonalds, so many that sometimes half the people at Greenpeace meetings were working for the Big Clown. At trial, Sidney Nicholson, a former South African policeman who supervised the Greenpeace spying, testified that McDonalds enlisted Scotland Yard’s Special Branch to track Greenpeace as a subversise organization, who then passed the information on to McDonalds.
Time To Take ‘Em Down
Like cancer, the fast food industry has taken over the productive capacity of the planet, and is busy reproducing its own cells at the expense of the entire organism. Like the tobacco companies, the fast food industry has been attacked for its policies, but has more successfully controlled the media and obtained government protection. Of course, when you can get a fat pig like Limbaugh to ridicule lawsuits filed by obese people, you’ve got a pretty good weapon. The fast food industry and its minions, agribusiness and the cattle and chicken tycoons, contribute disproportionately to publican candidates, seeking and obtaining the deregulation that makes the assembly lines move faster, keeps the crap in the meat, the grease in the fries, and all of their workers underpaid, uninsured, and at risk of violent death. Fortunately, Schlosser notes, we can vote with our feet. Here in Ashland, the voting has already started. A&W shut down a decade ago, McDonalds closed last year, and last week, we bid adieu to Dairy Queen. Perhaps 2005 will mark the high-water point for the industry that currently sits astride the world’s population like a huge, gross parasite. Do your part. Eat beans.