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Fast-Food Nation Part Two: Meat and Potatoes

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After the war, Simplot invested heavily in frozen-food technology. He assembled a team of chemists to develop a product that seemed to have enormous commercial potential: the frozen french fry. Americans were eating more fries than ever before, and the Russett Burbank, with its large size and high starch content, was the perfect potato for frying. Simplot wanted to create a frozen fry that was inexpensive and that tasted just as good as a fresh one. Although Thomas Jefferson brought the Parisian recipe for pommes frites to the United States in 1802, french fries did not become well known in this country until the 1920s. According to the food historian Elisabeth Rozin, Americans had traditionally eaten their potatoes boiled, mashed or baked. The french fry was popularized in the United States by World War I veterans who had enjoyed the dish in Europe and by the drive-in restaurants that subsequently arose in the 1930s and 1940s. Fries could be served without a fork or a knife; they were easy to eat behind the wheel. But they were extremely time-consuming to prepare. Simplot's chemists experimented with various techniques for the mass production of french fries. The technical problems were solved in 1953, and J.R. Simplot earned the first patent for frozen french fries. Sales of the product were initially disappointing. Although the frozen fries were precooked and could be baked in an oven, they tasted best when reheated in hot oil, which limited their appeal to busy housewives. Simplot needed to find institutional customers, restaurant owners who would recognize the tremendous advantages of using his frozen fries.

"The french fry (was)...almost sacrosanct for me," Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's Corp., wrote in his memoris, "its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously." The success of Richard and Mac McDonald's hamburger stand had been based as much on the quality of their french fries as on the taste of their burgers. The McDonald brothers had devised an elaborate system for making crisp french fries, one that was later perfected by the restaurant chain. McDonald's cooked thinly sliced Russett Burbanks in a mixture of vegetable oil and beef tallow, using special fryers designed to keep the oil temperature above 325 degrees. As their restaurant chain expanded, it became more difficult – and yet all the more important – to maintain the consistency and quality of the fries. J.R. Simplot met with Ray Kroc in 1965. Switching to frozen french fries appealed to Kroc, as a way to ensure uniformity and cut labor costs. McDonald's obtained its Fresh potatoes from almost 200 different local suppliers, and its employees spend a great deal of their time peeling potatoes. Simplot offered to build a new factory solely for the production of McDonald's french fries. Kroc agreed to try simplot's fries but made no long-term commitment. The deal was finalized with a handshake.

McDonald's began to sell J.R. Simplot's frozen french fries the following year. Customers didn't notice any difference in taste. And the reduced cost of using frozen product made french fries one of the most profitable items on the menu – far more profitable than hamburgers. Simplot quickly became the main supplier of french fries to McDonald's. At the time, McDonald's had about 725 restaurants in the United States. Within a decade, it had more than 3,000. Simplot sold his frozen fries to other restaurant chains, accelerating the growth of the fast-food industry and changing the nation's eating habits. Americans have long consumed more potatoes than any other food except dairy products and wheat flour. In 1960, the typical American ate about three and a half pounds of frozen french fries. Last year, the typical American ate about thirty pounds of frozen french fries. Most of these fries were purchased at fast-food restaurants. Indeed, french fries are ordered more frequently at American restaurants than any other dish.

Today, J.R. Simplot, an eighth-grade dropout, is one of the richest men in the United States. The privately held company that he founded grows and processes corn, peas, broccoli, avocados and carrots, as well as potatoes; feeds and processes cattle; manufactures and distributes fertilizer; mines phosphate and silica; and produces oil, ethanol and natural gas. In 1980, Simplot provided $1 million in start-up funds to a couple of engineers working in the basement of a dentist's office in Boise, Idaho. Fifteen years later, that investment in Micron Electronics – a manufacturer of computer memory chips – was worth about $4 billion. Simplot is also one of the nation's biggest landowners. "I've been a land hog all my life," Simplot told me, laughing. While still in his teens, he bought 18,000 acres along the Snake River in Idaho. He now owns 85,000 acres of irrigated farmland, more than twice that amount of ranch land and much of downtown Boise. His ZX Ranch in southern Oregon is the largest cattle ranch in the United States, measuring 65 miles wide and 163 miles long.

Though he is a multibillionaire, J.R. Simplot has few pretensions. He wears cowboy boots and bluejeans, holds business meetings at Elmer's Pancake House in Boise and drives his own car, a Lincoln Continental with license plates that say MR. SPUD. He seems to have little patience for abstractions, describing his empire with a mixture of pride and awe: "It's big, and it's real – it ain't bullshit." Bad hips forced him to give up jogging at the age of seventy-five, and a bad fall made him give up horseback riding five years later. Nevertheless, at eighty-nine, J.R. Simplot still skis. He stepped down as the chief executive of his company in 1994, but he keeps buying more land and more livestock. "Hell, I'm just an old farmer got some luck," Simplot said when I asked him about the key to his success. "The only thing I did smart, remember this – ninety-nine percent of people would have sold out when they got their first 25 or 30 million. I didn't sell out. I just hung on...."

In recent years, the production of frozen french fries has become an intensely competitive business. Although the J.R. Simplot Co. supplies about half of the french fries that McDonald's sells in the United States, two other fry companies are now larger: Lamb Weston, the nation's leading producer of fries, and McCain, a Canadian firm that became the second-largest fry company after buying Ore-Ida last year. Simplot, Lamb Weston and McCain now control about eighty percent of the American market for frozen french fries, having eliminated or acquired most of their smaller rivals. The three french-fry giants compete for valuable contracts to supply the fast-food chains. Frozen french fries have become a bulk commodity, manufactured in high volumes at a low profit margin. Price differences of just a few pennies a pound can mean the difference between winning or losing a major contract. All of this has greatly benefited the fast-food chains, lowering their wholesale costs and making their retail sales of french fries ever more profitable. The fast-food companies purchase frozen fries for about thirty cents a pound, reheat them in oil and then sell them for about six dollars a pound.

During the 1960s, Idaho's potato output surpassed that of Maine, the previous leader, due to the rise of the french-fry industry and the productivity gains made by Idaho farmers. Since 1980, the tonnage of potatoes grown in Idaho has almost doubled, while the average yield per acre has risen by thirty percent. But the extraordinary profits being made through the sale of french fries have hardly trickled down to the farmers. Paul Patterson, an extension professor of agricultural economics at the University of Idaho, describes the current market for potatoes as an "oligopsony" – a market in which a small number of buyers exert power over a large number of sellers. The giant processing companies do their best to drive down the prices offered to potato farmers. The increased productivity of Idaho farmers has lowered prices even further, shifting more of the profits to the processors and the fast-food chains. Out of every $1.50 spent on a large order of fries at a fast-food restaurant, perhaps two cents goes to the farmer who grew the potatoes.

In the past twenty-five years, Idaho has lost half of its potato farmers. During the same period, the amount of Idaho land devoted to potatoes has increased by one-third. Family farms are giving way to corporate farms that stretch for thousands of acres. These immense corporate farms are divided into smaller holdings for administrative purposes, and farmers who have been driven off the land are often hired to manage them. The patterns of land ownership in the American West are beginning to resemble those of rural England. "We're coming full circle," says Patterson. "One day you may find two classes of people in rural Idaho: the people who run the farms and the people who own them."

Long regarded as the aristocrats of rural Idaho, potato farmers remain stubbornly independent and unwilling to join forces. "Some of them are independent to the point of poverty," says Bert Moulton, a staff member at the Potato Growers of Idaho. The multinational food companies operate french-fry plants in a number of different regions, constantly shifting production to take advantage of the lowest potato prices, pitting one group of farmers against another. The economic fortunes of individual farmers and local communities matter little in the grand scheme. Today there are only 1,200 independent potato farmers left in Idaho – few enough to fit in a high school auditorium. The PGI recently tried to organize potato farmers into a cooperative, hoping to gain them more bargaining power. The effort was undermined by the big processors, who signed long-term deals with a handful of growers. The "joint ventures" being offered by french-fry companies provide farmers with the potato seed and financing for their crop, an arrangement that should dispel any illusions about their independence. "If potato farmers don't band together," Moulton warns, "they'll wind up sharecroppers."

At the peak of the fall harvest, I visited the Lamb Weston plant in American Falls, Idaho. It's one of the biggest fry factories in the nation and produces french fries for McDonald's. It has a production capacity nearly six times larger than that of the Simplot plant in Aberdeen. Lamb Weston was founded in 1950 by F. Gilbert Lamb, the inventor of a crucial piece of french-fry-mak-ing technology. The Lamb Water Gun Knife uses a high-pressure system to shoot potatoes at a speed of 117 feet per second through a grid of sharpened steel blades, thereby creating perfectly sliced french fries. After coming up with the idea, Gilbert Lamb tested the first Water Gun Knife in a company parking lot, shooting potatoes out of a fire hose. The company was bought by ConAgra in 1986. Lamb Weston now manufactures more than 130 different types of french fries, including steak house Fries, CrissCut Fries, Hi-Fries, Mor-Fries, Burger Fries, Taterboy Crispy QQQ Fries, TaterBabies, Mini Bakers, MunchSkins, Twister Fries, Rus-ettes and Special Dry Fry Shoestrings.

Bud Mandeville, the production manager, led me up a narrow wooden staircase inside one of the plant's storage buildings. On the top floor, the staircase led to a catwalk, and beneath my feet I saw a mound of potatoes that was twenty feet deep, a hundred feet wide, and almost as long as two football fields. The building was kept at forty-six degrees year-round. In the dim light, the potatoes looked like grains of sand on a beach. This was one of seven storage buildings on the property.

Outside, tractor-trailers arrived from the fields, carrying potatoes that had just been harvested. The trucks dumped their loads onto spinning rods that brought the larger potatoes into the building and let the small potatoes, dirt and rocks fall to the ground. The rods led to a rock trap, a tank of water in which the potatoes floated and the rocks sank to the bottom. The plant used water systems to float potatoes gently this way and that way, guiding different sizes out of different holding bays, then flushing them into a three-foot-deep stream that ran beneath the cement floor. The interior of the processing plant was gray, massive and well-lighted, with huge pipes running along walls, steel catwalks, workers in hard hats and plenty of loud machinery. If there weren't potatoes bobbing and floating past, you might think the place was an oil refinery. Conveyor belts took the wet, clean potatoes into a machine that blasted them with steam for twelve seconds, boiled the water under their skins and exploded the skins off. Then the potatoes were pumped into a preheat tank and shot through a Lamb Water Gun Knife. They emerged as shoestring fries. Four video cameras scrutinized them from different angles, looking for flaws. When a french fry with a blemish was detected, an optical sorting machine time-sequenced a single burst of compressed air that knocked the bad fry off the production line and onto a separate conveyor belt, which carried it to a machine with tiny automated knives that precisely removed the blemish. And then the fry was returned to the main production line.

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