Fast Food Nation | Study Guide

Eric Schlosser

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Fast Food Nation | Part 2, Chapter 7 : Meat and Potatoes (Cogs in the Great Machine) | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • This chapter investigates the large-scale industrialization of meatpacking and shows its effects on workers, towns, and cities.
  • Meatpacking, once a skilled trade, is now a low-paid job performed by a mostly immigrant workforce.
  • Greeley, Colorado, is one of several towns changed by a nearby ConAgra Brands Inc. meatpacking plant. "Crime, poverty, drug abuse, and homelessness" pervade the town, along with a persistent odor of "live animals, manure, and dead animals being rendered into dog food."
  • Rancher Warren Monfort became one of America's first large-scale cattle feeders, feeding his cattle grain instead of grass. He and his son Kenneth (Ken) Monfort started their slaughterhouse as pro-union Democrats, running the company with concern for the workers. Later, after labor disputes, they became pro-business Republicans, closing the slaughterhouse, firing workers, reopening as a nonunion operation, and finally selling to ConAgra in 1986.
  • Chicago, Illinois, was once the nation's meatpacking center. Now plants have moved to small rural towns in the Midwest and High Plains. Though there is still an active meatpacking union in Chicago, the industry there is dying rapidly.
  • Journalist Upton Sinclair's 1906 book The Jungle exposed the horrifying conditions in Chicago slaughterhouses. The book led to food safety legislation but not to improved conditions for workers.
  • Meatpacking executives Currier J. Holman and A.D. Anderson founded Iowa Beef Packers, Inc. (IBP) in 1960.
  • The "IBP revolution" changed the meatpacking industry to a factory-style production system, similar to McDonald's Speedee Service System. The new methods increased efficiency, slashed costs, and relied on a "cheap and powerless workforce." Anderson later claimed proudly, "We've tried to take the skill out of every step."
  • IBP located slaughterhouses near feedlots and away from large cities, relying on trucks rather than railroads; rural locations meant less union influence.
  • Holman treated business like "waging war"; to eliminate a strike at an IBP plant he became involved with organized crime, which later infiltrated the business.
  • Pressured to cut costs in any way possible, managers at meatpacking giant ConAgra cheated suppliers. The company was convicted of fraud and forced to pay damages. In another suit, they pleaded guilty to price fixing and other illegal practices.
  • Undocumented immigrants, often from Mexico, staff most meatpacking plants. They frequently leave their jobs because of low pay and poor conditions, leading to a high turnover rate, a practice that profits the owners. Slaughterhouses recruit migrant labor and often promise steady work and housing, then rely on public resources to cover the costs of their workers' needs.
  • Corporations such as ConAgra have immense power over local governments because of the labor and capital they bring to a town. The corporations have "pitted one economically depressed region against another." ConAgra moved its headquarters out of Nebraska despite the state's generous corporate and individual tax breaks.
  • An IBP meatpacking plant brought lingering odors—"burning hair and blood ... greas[e] ... and ... rotten eggs"—wastewater, and increased crime to the town of Lexington, Nebraska. IBP representatives lied to local citizens about the possible effects of the plant.
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