Alternativa Latinoamericana
Alberta, Julio-July 2007
ALTERNATIVA Latinoamericana
By Nora Fernández
Eric Schlosser, journalist and a
correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, published
Fast Food Nation in 2001. The book, mandated
reading for university students in North America,
has been followed by a movie with the same
name -last year. The movie, directed by Richard
Linklater and presenting the book arguments but
in a storytelling format, has received mixed
reviews. For Schlosser, the movie is just another
tool in helping people become informed about
fast food and the culture it favours. Awareness
about what we eat seems no longer sufficient, we
need to understand the complexities behind
something apparently simple, like fast food,
becoming aware of how fast food has transformed
not only what and how we eat but our economy,
values and society. We need to understand not
only fast food effects on people's health but the
totality of changes it has brought about.
Six years after the publication of Schlosser's
book, his message continues to be valuable and
his research revealing. For Schlosser the
success of his book has more to do with timing
than with anything else; people, he argues,
began to question the massive homogenizing
systems that produce, distribute and market the
food we eat everyday. The main argument, that
food is important, and that it embodies values and
helps create a specific kind of world, as well as
that food has proven to be a revolutionary force
in American life as both a commodity and a
metaphor, is increasingly sound. A nation's diet,
he says, can be far more revealing than its art or
its literature. Schlosser has stated what we now
see as obvious: the role of fast food in shaping
society. When Marx and Engels identified the
crucial role of work and money, or capital as they
call it, also two fundamental but well hidden
aspects of everyday emerged -since then we can
no longer understand life without them.
Schlosser begins his book highlighting the
majestic beauty of Cheyenne Mountain, in
Colorado; natural beauty that houses, as he
says, "one of the nation most important military
installations deep within it" including "units of the
North American Aerospace Command, the Air
Force Space Command, and the United States
Space Command." Cheyenne Mountain is natural
but what it hides is very much "man made".
Fifteen hundred people work inside this mountain,
"maintaining the facility and collecting information
from a worldwide network of radars, spy satellites,
ground-based sensors, airplanes, and blimps. It is
the heart of the nation early warning system." But,
"almost every night, a Domino's deliveryman
winds his way up the lonely Cheyenne Mountain
Road, past the ominous DEADLY FORCE
AUTHORIZED, to drop off his pizzas and collect
his tip."
Food, important enough to put at risk the
secrecy of the most secret base, delivered to
satisfy the cravings of military personnel. Ironic, in
the face of how dismissive we have been about
the importance of discussing food.
The birth of fast food in the US in the 50s,
he explains, is connected to the entry of many
women into the workforce and the need for
services that provide what housewives generally
provided until then, that is cooking, cleaning and
child care. This move of women outside of the
house favoured the development of service
industries and with it the industrialization of food
in restaurants. The birth of fast food coincided
with the Eisenhower-era and its glorification of
technology ­with optimistic slogans such us
"Better life through Chemistry." If it is true that fast
food seems ordinary enough, it conceals
extraordinary technological advances behind a
very ordinary-looking façade.
Nobody will buy fast food if it tastes bad so
efforts have been made to make it good, despite
the processing it undergoes. Its taste, smell,
aroma, has very little to do thoug with its natural
ingredients, but with chemicals -additives
designed to achieve particular flavours,
concocted in extremely secret chemical labs.
International Flavors & Fragances (IFF) is
the larger, most important, flavour company in the
world; and, the basic science behind essences,
from the smell of the shaving cream we use to the
flavour of the prepared supper we just had, is
basically the same.
Fast food started with pioneers, men like
Carl N. Karcher, Ray A. Kroc and Walt Disney,
The taste of fast food:
Selling dangerous illusions
that soon discovered the potential of children as
consumers and producers of goods. Despite this,
the fast food industry favours obedience and
uniformity, no rebels are allowed.
What they call "liquid candy", beverages, are
strongly connected to fast food and have also
become symbolic of the US around the world.
Three of the most important beverages
companies (Coca Cola, Pepsi and Cadbury-
Schweppes -Dr Pepper) control 90 per cent of
their market in the US. To these corporations the
adult market was stagnant while the children
market is full of promise; thus, they are
establishing themselves in our nations' schools.
The connection between fast food and
children is clear, to illustrate it McDonald´s
Corporation manages more than 8 thousand
playgrounds and has promotional links with the
largest toy manufacturers in the country.
Historically, McDonald´s started selling
hamburgers and French fries in the theme parks
Disney created, an association that continues to
this day; thus, we can have our "happy meal" in
"The Happiest Place on Earth", (Disneyland).
Today, toy manufacturers, theme parks owners,
chemical industries, beverage companies and
fast food producers, together are conquering the
consumer early on, while they are children.
If it is true that children are buying, it is also
true that children are selling fast food behind the
counters of chain restaurants from McDonald´s to
Taco Bell. Children working for low wages is not
historically new, what is new is the specific and
profound effect of the incorporation of children's
work into the fast food industry. In terms of the
labour practices it favours ­exploitation, minimum
wages, no benefits, part time employment and
non unionized labour. In some places these
companies have used even "lie detectors" in their
fight against unionization.
Fast food enticing flavours are artificially
made. French fries, for instance, had to be
produced according to very narrow specifications
to fit the needs of fast food makers. The potato
growing industry in Idaho, which began in the 20s,
was shaped at some point to fit these needs. J. R.
Simplot was the first potato-grower who sorted
and stored potatoes and eventually transformed
himself into the main exporter of potatoes and
onions of the west ­he became "the potato
baron". At the end of Second World War, Simplot
was growing, fertilizing and processing his
potatoes and sending them in boxed all over, as
well as using potato peels to feed cattle and,
eventually, investing in frozen food technology to
sell potatoes, already cut and frozen, to be fried
in large fast food chains. The flavour of Mc
Donald´s French fries, depends in the use of
"natural" and "artificial" essences made by the
flavour industry.
IFF´s second largest plant is in New Jersey,
where this industry is concentrated from Teaneck
to South Brunswick. IFF manufactures about two
thirds of the flavour additives consumed in the
United States. In its labs, IFF manufactures not
only the taste of French fries, bread, crackers and
cookies, cereals, ice creams, candy, dentifrice
and antacids, but also the smells of six of the ten
most famous perfumes in the world ­Estée
Lauder´s "Beautiful," Clinique´s "Happy,"
Lacôme´s "Trésor" and Clavin Klein´s "Eternity,"
together with the smell of soap, shampoo,
furniture polish, floor wax and many others.
When we talk about fast food we talk about
hamburgers too; beef is in itself a matter worth
attending closely. Since fast food emerged the
processing of beef has changed much more than
people realizes. ConAgra Beef Company, which
runs the US biggest meat packing complex from
Greeley, Colorado, controls a sizeable chunk of
the beef market. In Greeley, it operates a pair of
huge feedlots where cattle is fed grain to fatten
quickly, aided by anabolic steroids implanted in
their ear. At times the animals are crowded so
closely and are so many that they look like a "sea
of cattle". Now, each animal produces 20 to 25
kilos of waste per day and these wastes are not
sent to treatment, but are dumped into pits, called
lagoons, giving the surrounding area a particular
The slaughterhouse, part of the complex,
processes about five thousand heads of cattle per
day. Workers are in fairly close proximity there
and they use sharp knives, thus, they are
vulnerable to serious accidents ­accidents which
increase with the speed of the work lines and the
low visibility inside the plant which results from its
layout, water vapour and wastes. The changes
inside the meat plants have been such that they
call it the "IBP revolution" (Iowa Beef Producers).
And, these changes do not favour the workers or
the beef consumers, although the increase the
profits of the corporations.
Tad Williams, who wrote The corruption of
American agriculture, explains that the control
over agriculture by corporations has affected rural
economies and agricultural communities in very
drastic ways, becoming one of the most
devastating events in the history of the United
States. Sixty years ago, he explains, there were
about sixty million farms in the US, but in 1998
there were only two million left. In the beef
industry, IBP, ConAgra, Cargill, Farmland National
Beef and Packerland Packing Co., control about
79 per cent of the market. Something similar is
also taking place with poultry and pork. Most of
the profits in agriculture, he argues, end in the
hands of a few super farms and corporations.
They call it "the industrialization of agriculture"
and it favours the control of most (if not all) areas
of food production by a few corporations.
In the meantime, Williams says, agricultural
communities suffer the economic, social and
environmental effects of this process. Jobs that
were decent in the past are no longer good,
salaries are low and there are no benefits, mainly
immigrants take these jobs forced to work for
minimum wages and in substandard conditions. At
the same time, he explains, the tax base is eroded
making it very difficult for these communities to
maintain proper level of services, hospitals,
schools or to maintain their small business base.
Food produced in this manner is not only
unhealthy to consumers ­as we all know by
witnessing the obesity and diabetic wave that
plagues North America, but it is also unhealthy to
people because it has transformed the social and
economic environment into toxic to them, to their
human and labour rights and to democratic
functioning. It has contributed to poison the
ecological environment ­poisoning the water, the
land and the air, and it treates animals as mere
commodities endangering the economic base too.
It puts at risk agriculture and animal growing
because it impoverishes plants and breeding
lines. In addition, it presents us with increasing
danger of food poisoning as contaminated food is
mixed with non contaminated one and it is packed
and distributed throughout the continent. The use
of antibiotics in treating animals has also favoured
the evolution of highly resistant pathogens that
Whether we become informed through
reading Schlosser's book or watching its movie,
we need to take this challenge seriously and do
something about it soon. The risks are increasing
and are mainly risks to us and to the viability of
our world.
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