Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The perils of plutocracy - a review of Fast Food Nation

When I read Eric Schlosser's expose of the underbelly of the fast food industry in Fast Food Nation I was not surprised to read about how fast food is unhealthy. Everyone knows that, and if that was all this book was about then it would not be worth much consideration, but, thankfully, it is not.

The book offers a detailed cultural and historical examination of the birth of the fast food industry and its growth to its present day state. The real power of the book is the way that Schlosser is able to show, in a straight forward and non-polemical fashion, how the conglomerate corporations that run the food industry exploit workers, engage in questionable business practices, and work towards the elimination of the free market. And the most disturbing aspect of the book is that these corporations do this under the protection of the federal government.

"We have a saying at this company. Our competitors are our friends, and our customers are our enemies"

That was the president of Archer Daniels Midland during a meeting with Japanese executives which was secretly recorded. Archer Daniels Midland was investigated for price-fixing in the mid to late 90's and received the largest anti-trust fine in history. What is significant about this quote is that this type of thinking seems to be indicative of the way that these companies operate.

During the 1980s, as the risks of widespread contamination increased,the meatpacking industry blocked the use of microbial testing in the federal meat inspection program. A panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences warned in 1985 that the nation's meat inspection program was hopelessly outdated, still relying on visual and olfactory clues to find disease while dangerous pathogens slipped past undetected. Three years later, another National Academy of Sciences panel warned that the nation's public health infrastructure was in serious disarray, limiting its ability to track or prevent the spread of newly emerging pathogens. Without additional funding for public health measures, outbreaks and epidemics of new diseases were virtually inevitable. "Who knows what crisis will be next?" said the chairman of the panel.

Nevertheless, the Reagan and Bush administrations cut spending on public health measures and staffed the U.S.Department of Agriculture with officials far more interested in government deregulation than in food safety. The USDA became largely indistinguishable from the industries it was meant to police. President Reagan's first secretary of agriculture was in the hog business. His second was the president of the American Meat Institute (formerly known as the American Meat Packers Association). And his choice to run the USDA's Food Marketing and Inspection Service was a vice president of the National Cattleman's Association. President Bush later appointed the president of the National Cattleman's Association to the job.

Several chapters of the book are available here for on-line reading. The most powerful story is contained in the chapter The Most Dangerous Job which details the horrendous working conditions inside cattle slaughterhouses. Scroll down to the pg 186 excerpt and you will see the deeply tragic tale of Kenny Dobbins, a man who worked for a Monfort meat packing plant nearly till the point of death and then was discarded callously by the company.

"They used me to the point where I had no body parts left to give," Kenny said, struggling to maintain his composure. "Then they just tossed me into the trash can." Once strong and powerfully built, he now walks with difficulty, tires easily, and feels useless, as though his life were over. He is forty-six years old.
And while you're reading Kenny's story remember that the meat-packing industry has fought and opposed efforts to impose safety regulations in the workplace.

The positive thing to note from Schlosser's tale is that, despite industry efforts to prevent reform and general government reluctance to regulate these industries, fast food powerhouses such as McDonald's have been able to almost overnight affect changes within the industry when they are pressured for reform by their customers. That is why this book is so invaluable, as it helps to remind people of what goes on when they quit looking. Good thing that there are still journalists like Schlosser who are willing to keep an eye out for us.

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