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Fast Food Nation | Main Ideas

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Corporate Power

Corporations, or large businesses with the legal rights of individuals, have tremendous influence over American government policy. Eric Schlosser investigates the far-reaching effects of these influences in Fast Food Nation. He explores how corporations such as McDonald's, Disney, and Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) affect not only what people eat but how they live. In fact, the future celebrated at Disney's Tomorrowland in the 1950s showed a world where "every aspect of American life had a corporate sponsor."

Starting with the interstate highway system, corporate power restructured the American landscape. General Motors purchased American trolley systems in the 1920s to get more cars on the road, and fast food corporations built new restaurants for drivers. Corporate branding has led to the homogenization of retail environments, using the power of recognizable images to influence consumer choice. Corporations can even affect education. In Chapter 2 Schlosser describes how "corporate-sponsored teaching materials" give students biased information that favors the company.

Furthermore, corporations don't always play fair in the economic realm. Schlosser investigates how corporations can interfere with fair market competition by creating business "trusts" made up of the most powerful companies. These companies set and control market prices for goods such as potatoes and cattle, putting independent farmers at a disadvantage. Although corporations are frequently convicted for breaking laws, they rarely experience meaningful consequences. For example, Archer Daniels Midland violated antitrust laws, and IBP executive Currier J. Holman bribed union leaders. But Midland and Mr. Holman continued to do business successfully.

Corporate emphasis on profit means managers will frequently violate workers' rights or compromise their safety to meet sales or development goals. ConAgra employees cheated farmers and chicken growers by paying less for their products. Taco Bell cut labor costs by making employees work without pay. Subway pressures its franchisees to invest more money and time, while the corporation earns more royalties from them.

Even when the government steps in to check the power of corporations, federal reach is limited. Presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have developed friendships with and ties to corporate executives. Further, the book examines several cases in which corporations, executives, or industry groups with corporate support have lobbied Congress to oppose legislation, including these examples:

  • Ray Kroc's 1972 donation to President Nixon. Kroc advocated for the "McDonald's Bill," which allowed restaurants to pay 16 to 17-year-old workers 20 cents below minimum wage.
  • The 1981 opposition to a federal recommendation banning television ads directed at young children by the National Association of Broadcasters, the Toy Manufacturers of America, and the Association of National Advertisers.
  • Fast food executives' opposition to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) measures to prevent retail violence in the 1990s.
  • The International Franchise Association's 1999 opposition to a congressional bill aimed to make franchisors obey "fundamental business principles."

Corporate interests also limit the authority of federal agencies to make changes in slaughterhouse conditions. They have hampered the USDA's ability to ensure noncontaminated meat, and the OSHA's ability to fight for safe workplaces. Federal executives have even staffed government agencies with former corporate leaders. Despite their effects on federal legislation, corporations feel little if any loyalty to a particular country or state. Sometimes corporate decisions can have significant effects on communities. ConAgra, for instance, leveraged their position as Nebraska's largest employer to earn a state tax break. IBP moved their headquarters out of Nebraska to get a better deal on state taxes, making Nebraska's economy suffer.

The positive side to corporate power, Schlosser explains in the Epilogue and Afterword, is the power to demand meaningful change. McDonald's threatened to stop purchasing meat from companies mistreating animals, and their suppliers listened. If McDonald's requested higher wages and better working conditions for ranchers and farmers, or higher food safety standards, they could improve American lives.

Government Regulation versus Free Market

The free market, an economic system in which privately owned businesses determine prices, is at the heart of American capitalism. But businesses don't have unlimited power. Federal, state, and local governments can still regulate their actions to protect as many people as possible.

Fast Food Nation considers how government regulation and the free market seem to be opposing forces but really depend on one another. For example, the interstate highway system helped make the fast food industry possible. But the roads themselves were paid for by state and federal agencies. Schlosser offers several examples of company leaders who champion the virtues of free market competition at the same time as their companies relied on government subsidies to get started or stay afloat. Government regulation is necessary, Schlosser argues, even to those who don't think they need it. The free market encourages the biggest and savviest companies to take the most business. Disney's philosophy, "The strong shall survive," describes large companies' incentives to buy out rivals and take an uncompromising stance against laws that hurt their interests. Since The Jungle changed food legislation in 1906, the meatpacking industry has shown a "profound antipathy to any government regulation that might lower profits."

Regulations, on the other hand, tend to prioritize consumer health, safety, and quality of life. Schlosser says government legislation has been the most powerful force "in shaping the economic history of the postwar era," through changes such as constructing public buildings and outlawing child labor.

The dominance of the free market means consumers have power, because they're the ones keeping competing corporations such as restaurants in business. Though McDonald's hasn't responded to government pressure for reform, it has made changes based on customer demand. Schlosser encourages readers to think of free market competition as a tool they can use to support ethical and responsible business practices.

Consequences of Industrial Mass Production

As larger companies supply more food to more restaurants and more consumers, they feel pressure to produce mass quantities at any cost. French fry companies, chicken processors, meatpacking companies, and individual restaurants have all taken their cues from the factory assembly line. The goal of "throughput," or "doing things faster in order to make more," has become an ideal approach. But the quality of the final product, the workers' environment, and the entire country have suffered in different ways because of this goal. Mass production of food has put skilled butchers and family restaurants out of business and transformed "familiar foods into commodities."

Schlosser examines the artificial nature of processed food, revealing how flavor factories bear more resemblance to science laboratories than to kitchens. A potato factory reminds him of an "oil refinery." Most taste comes from "man-made additives," and consumers grow more and more distant from the source of their food. Though Schlosser respects the knowledge, creativity, and "chemical wizardry" of flavorists and acknowledges the power of "the human craving for flavor," he notes how factory-produced food contributes to poor health and keeps consumers in the dark. Chicken McNuggets are cooked in beef tallow and beef extract, so the healthier meat loses its benefits. Even french fries include beef flavoring.

Food's industrial preparation has effects beyond the palate. Factories can devastate small towns, bringing pollution and crime, as Schlosser illustrates through Greeley, Colorado. Factory workers face debilitating illness, permanent injuries, or death. Hygiene suffers, and dangerous bacteria make their way into food, causing epidemics more widespread than ever. When fast food truly is "fast"—when production doesn't slow down to ensure worker and product safety—the consequences are dire. Mass production benefits from sameness. The idea of "consolidating and homogenizing" (bringing all fast food production under the umbrella of a few large companies and delivering identical products) may save money and time, but it ruins the lives of independent ranchers and farmers, and in the case of Colorado rancher Hank, threatens the legacy he built.

American Imperialism and Empire

The late 1940s and 1950s, after victory in World War II, were a time of American pride and faith in progress. They were also the years when fast food restaurants took hold. President Eisenhower, inspired by the highway system of fascist-era Germany, pushed for the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. The new roads led to suburban development, drive-in fast food restaurants, and more land to conquer.

The book shows how fast food chains have developed their own form of empire. They expand their reach into multiple communities through franchises. They develop noticeable architecture and compete for customer attention. Highway restaurants look at cars "the way predators view herds of prey." Military images are used in the book, too. New chains are described as "the shock troops of sprawl." McDonald's surveillance equipment employs software "once used to fight the Cold War."

In Chapter 10 Schlosser examines how McDonald's offers a symbol of American prosperity overseas. In Russia the chain represents the American Cold War victory, exemplified by the appearance of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev at an American fast food conference in Las Vegas; Gorbachev represents the losing nation, and Americans revel in their triumph. The McDonald's symbol is either welcomed or despised. To Plauen, Germany McDonald's means the arrival of Western freedom and democracy. To global protesters, McDonald's stands for American aggression and disregard for local cuisine and identity.

Science and Technology Without Morality

Schlosser says "human arrogance and the blind worship of science" have contributed to the mad cow disease epidemic and characterized the fast food industry as a whole. He believes scientific and technological progress needs to be combined with ethics and concern for human life.

Fast food began in postwar Southern California, a transformative place and time with a "limitless faith in technology." The admiration for technology was so strong, Disney executives hired prominent members of the Nazi party to develop rocket-themed exhibits and friendly videos about nuclear power. Schlosser shows how quickly the excitement of new innovations allowed both corporations and the public to cast aside fears of whom the innovations might harm. The fast food chains still use technology as a quick fix instead of solving problems through more hands-on, humane solutions. The meatpacking industry responded to food poisoning outbreaks by irradiating meat, not by increasing safety inspections. They responded to restaurant crime by investing in high-tech security measures, not by working toward better labor relations.

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