Fast-Food Nation Part Two: Meat and Potatoes

From slaughterhouse to Styrofoam, the dark side of the American diet

Ground beef, french fries.
Eric Anthony Johnson/Getty Images; Kenneth Wiedemann/Getty Images
November 26, 1998

A generation ago, three – quarters of the meals consumed in the United States were made at home. Today, most of the meals that Americans eat are prepared outside the home, mainly at fast-food restaurants. The rise of the fast-food industry has changed not only what Americans eat but also how their meals are made – at every step, from the farm to the ovens in a commercial kitchen. Aside from the salad greens, tomatoes and some toppings, most fast food arrives at the restaurant frozen, canned, dehydrated or freeze-dried. A fast-food kitchen is merely the final stage in a vast system of mass production. America's favorite foods, like its automobiles and television sets, are now manufactured by computerized, highly automated machines.

Read The First Part of Fast-Food Nation

In much the same way that the fast-food industry changed the nation's retail economy, eliminating small businesses, encouraging the spread of chains and uniformity, fast food has transformed American agriculture. The centralized purchasing decisions of large restaurant chains and their demand for standardized products have given a handful of multinational corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation's food supply. During the 1980s, while the virtues of the free market were being proclaimed, giant agribusiness companies – such as Cargill, ConAgra and IBP – gained control of one agricultural market after another. The concentration of power in the food-processing industry has driven down the prices offered to American farmers. In 1980, about thirty-seven cents of every consumer dollar spent on food went to the farmer. Today, only twenty three cents goes to the farmer – a decline of forty percent. Family farms are now being replaced by gigantic corporate farms with absentee owners. Rural communities are losing their middle class and becoming socially stratified, divided among a small wealthy elite and large numbers of the working poor. The hardy, independent farmers whom Thomas Jefferson considered the bedrock of democracy are truly a vanishing breed. The United States now has more prison inmates than full-time farmers.

In the potato fields and processing plants of Idaho, in the ranch lands of Colorado, in the feedlots and slaughterhouses of the high plains, you can see the effects of fast food on the nation's rural life, its environment, its workers – and its health. Farmers and ranchers, the icons of the American West, are losing their independence, essentially becoming hired hands for the giant multinationals, or being forced off the land entirely. Recent changes in the beef industry have made meatpacking the most dangerous job in the United States and have introduced a deadly pathogen, E. coli O157:H7, into hamburger meat, a food mass-marketed to children. And the values, the culture and the industrial arrangements of our fast-food nation are more and more being exported to the rest of the world.

A hamburger and french fries are an inexpensive, convenient meal. But the real cost of America's love affair with fast food is not always reflected in the price on the menu. After all, you are what you eat.

Mr. Spud

To reach the J.R. Simplot plant in Aberdeen, Idaho, you drive through downtown Aberdeen (population 1,400), past the modest shops on Main Street. Then turn right at the Tiger Hut, a hamburger stand named for the local high school football team, cross the railroad tracks where the freight cars are loaded with sugar beets, drive about a quarter of a mile and you're there. It smells like someone is cooking potatoes. The Simplot plant is low and square, clean and neat, with a big American flag flying out front. Steam rises from a narrow chimney on the roof. Aberdeen sits in the heart of Bingham County, which grows more potatoes than any other county in the United States; the Simplot plant runs twenty-four hours a day, 310 days a year, turning potatoes into french fries. It's a small facility by industry standards, built in the late 1950s. It processes about a half-million pounds of potatoes a day.

Inside the building, a maze of red conveyor belts crisscrosses in and out of machines that wash, sort, peel, slice, blanch, blow-dry, fry and flash freeze potatoes. Workers in white coats and hard hats keep everything running smoothly, monitoring the controls, checking the fries for imperfections. The place has a cheery, Eisenhower-era feelings, as though a fantasy of technological progress, of better living through frozen food, has come to life. Looming over the whole enterprise is the spirit of one man: John Richard Simplot, America's great potato baron, whose willingness to take risks and seemingly inexhaustible energy built an empire based on french fries. In many ways, Simplot embodies the contradictory traits that have guided the development of the American West, an odd mix of rugged individualism and dependence on public land and resources. In a portrait that hangs above the reception desk at the Aberdeen plant, J.R. Simplot has the sly grin of a gambler who has scored big.

Simplot was born in 1909. His family left Dubuque, Iowa, the following year and eventually settled in Idaho. The Snake River Reclamation Project promised cheap water for irrigation, funded by the government, that would convert the desert of southern Idaho into lush farmland. Simplot's father became a homesteader, obtaining land for free and clearing it with a steel rail dragged between two teams of horses. Simplot grew up working hard on the farm. He rebelled against his domineering father, dropped out of school at the age of fifteen and left home. He found work at a potato warehouse in the small town of Declo, Idaho. He sorted potatoes with a "shaker sorter," a hand-held device, nine to ten hours a day for thirty cents an hour. At the boarding house where he rented a room, simplot met a group of public-school teachers who were being paid not in cash but in interest-bearing scrip. Simplot bought the scrip from the teachers for fifty cents on the dollar – and then sold the scrip to a local bank for ninety cents on the dollar. With his earnings, Simplot bought a rifle, an old truck and 600 hogs for one dollar a head. He built a cooker in the desert, stoked it with sagebrush, shot wild horses, skinned them, sold their hides for two dollars each, cooked their meat and fed it to his hogs through the winter. That spring, J.R. simplot sold the hogs for $7,500 and became a potato farmer.

The Idaho potato industry was just getting started in the 1920s. The state's altitude, warm days, cool nights, light volcanic soil and abundance of irrigated water made it an ideal setting to grow Russett Burbank potatoes. Simplot leased 160 acres, then bought farm equipment and a team of horses. He learned how to grow potatoes from his landlord, Lindsey Maggert. In 1928, Simplot and Maggert purchased an electric potato sorter, a remarkable new labor-saving device. Simplot began sorting potatoes for his friends and neighbors, but Maggert did not want to share the new sorter with anyone else. The two men fought over the machine and then agreed to settle who owned it with the flip of a silver dollar. J.R. Simplot won the coin toss, got to keep the sorter, sold all his farm equipment and started his own business in a Declo potato cellar. He traveled the countryside, sorting potatoes for farmers, plugging the rudimentary machine into the nearest available light socket. Soon he was buying and selling potatoes, opening warehouses and forming relationships with commodities brokers nationwide. When J.R. simplot needed timber for a new warehouse, he and his men would head to Yellowstone Park and chop down some trees. Within a decade, simplot was the largest shipper of potatoes in the West, maintaining thirty-three warehouses in Oregon and Idaho.

Simplot also shipped onions. In 1941, he started to wonder why a company in California, the Burbank Corp., was ordering so many of his onions. Simplot went to California and followed one of the company's trucks to a prune orchard in Vacaville, where the Burbank Corp. was using prune dryers to make dehydrated onions. Simplot immediately bought a six-tunnel prune dryer and set up his own dehydration plant west of Caldwell, Idaho. Three months later, the United States entered World War II. Simplot's company sold dehydrated onions to the U.S. Army and then perfected a technique for drying potatoes. The Simplot Dehydrating Co. quickly became one of the principal suppliers of food to the American military, operating the largest dehydration plant in the world. J.R. Simplot used the profits earned in wartime to buy potato farms and cattle ranches, to build fertilizer plants and lumber mills, to stake mining claims and open a huge phosphate mine on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. By the end of World War II, Simplot was growing his own potatoes, fertilizing them with his own phosphate, processing them at his factories, shipping them in boxes from his lumberyards and feeding the leftover potato waste to his cattle. He was thirty-six years old.

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