Fast-Food Nation Part Two: Meat and Potatoes

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During the 1980s, as changes in the meatpacking industry increased the risk of widespread contamination, the federal government cut funding for meat inspections and largely dismantled the public-health infrastructure that tracked the spread of infectious diseases. The Reagan and Bush administrations staffed the USDA – the agency responsible for meat safety – with officials who were more interested in deregulation than in careful oversight. President Reagan's first secretary of agriculture was a hog farmer; his second was a former president of the American Meat Institute (an industry lobbying group). During those same years, the National Academy of Sciences issued three reports warning that the nation's meat supply could be spreading a variety of dangerous microbes undetected.

Within days of the Jack in the Box outbreak, the chain hired David M. Theno to investigate what had gone wrong and then to fix it. Theno was a scientist who had helped Foster Farms, a family-owned poultry processor in California, eliminate most of the salmonella from its chicken. He was a strong advocate of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points programs, embracing a food-safety philosophy that tried to combine rigorous scientific analysis with common sense. The essence of Haccp plans is prevention; the most vulnerable steps in a food-production system are identified and monitored; stacks of records are kept in order to follow what goes where. Theno created the fast-food industry's first Haccp plan, a "farm to fork" policy at Jack in the Box that examined the threat to food safety at every level of production and distribution. The company gave him a mandate to do whatever was necessary, whatever the cost.

Five years after the outbreak, Theno has emerged as a maverick in the fast-food business, applauded by consumer groups but considered "the Antichrist," he says, by many people in the beef industry. Theno wants the meatpacking industry to adopt a system of "performance-based grading." Regular microbial testing would encourage slaughterhouses to install the latest meat-safety equipment, the acid washes and steam vacuums. Slaughterhouses that produced consistently clean meat would receive a grade of A. Plants that performed moderately well would receive a B, and so on. Plants that earn only a C or a D would have to do better or stick to making dog food.

The meatpacking industry has not rushed to endorse a grading system based on the cleanliness of meat. Theno thinks the industry's resistance to microbial testing is a form of denial. "If you don't know about a problem," he says, "then you don't have to deal with it." He has an optimistic faith that science and reason can halt the spread of E. coli O157:H7. The companies that manufacture hamburger patties for Jack in the Box have to test their beef every fifteen minutes for a wide range of dangerous microbes. "You can fix this problem," Theno contends. "You can actually fix the whole industry in six months....This is a matter of will, not technology." The entire Jack in the Box food-safety program increases the cost of the company's ground beef by less than one penny per pound.

The Food Safety Act, passed in 1996 by Congress, requires that slaughterhouses develop some form of HACCP plan and regularly conduct microbial testing. Those tests, however, will be performed by company inspectors – not federal inspectors – and the results will not be made available to the public. Many USDA inspectors argue that the meatpacking firms have essentially been given the power to regulate them selves. These inspectors warn that under the new privately run schemes, HACCP will stand for "have a cup of coffee and pray." Ever since the Jack in the Box outbreak, the Clinton administration has sought the legal authority to issue a recall of contaminated beef and to fine the meatpacking company responsible for it. The Republican-dominated Congress, with the support of the American Meat Institute, has consistently refused to grant such powers. "We can fine circuses for mistreating elephants," Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said earlier this year, "but we can't fine companies that violate food-safety standards."

Nichols Fox, the author of Spoiled, has studied the recent outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 and interviewed the parents of its victims. Fox's research has left her "a reluctant vegetarian." She regards the rising incidence of food poisoning in the United States as a form of "just deserts," the payback for a system that allows a narrow measure of efficiency – the cheapness of food – to override much more important human values, such as a respect for animals, workers and the environment. Steven P. Bjerklie still enjoys a good steak every now and then. But he no longer eats hamburgers. The risks of E. coli O157:H7 were bad enough; the final strew for Bjerklie was learning that the Advanced Meat Recovery Systems – machines that scrape off every last piece of meat – now used at slaughterhouses have introduced pieces of spinal cord and bone marrow into ground beef. He was outraged by the health implications (spinal cord can transmit mad-cow disease) and by the greed (spinal cord should not be sold as ground beef). The meat industry has placed its faith in irradiation as a means to avoid dealing with the real flaws in the process: "I don't want to be served irradiated feces along with my meat."

Today, the safest hamburgers in the United States are probably the ones being sold at fast-food restaurants. All of the major fast-food companies have recently adopted some sort of microbial testing. More important, the buying power of the fast-food giants gives them access to the cleanest meat. Jack in the Box now has the ability to trace a shipment of beef all the way back to its source; the USDA does not. McDonald's will not purchase ground beef that has been made with Advanced Meat Recovery machines – and yet that meat is now routinely sold, unla-beled, at supermarkets throughout the country. Last year, Hudson Beef voluntarily recalled 25 million pounds of ground beef that was potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Hudson Beef was one of Burger King's largest suppliers, but an investigation later revealed that none of the contaminated meat was shipped to the fast-food company; it was shipped to supermarkets nationwide. People who bring ground beef into their kitchens must now regard it as a potential biohazard, one that may carry an extremely dangerous microbe, infectious at an extremely low dose.

Still, no matter how many steps fast-food chains take to ensure meat safety, no matter how highly automated the grills, the safety of the food at any restaurant ultimately depends on the workers in its kitchen. Dr. Patricia Griffin, the CDC's leading expert on E. coli O157:H7, believes that education in food safety should be mandatory for people who work in commercial kitchens. "We place our lives in their hands," she says, "in the same way we entrust our lives to the training of airline pilots." Griffin worries that a low-paid, unskilled work force composed of teenagers and recent immigrants may not always be familiar with proper food-handling procedures. She has reason to worry. In an undercover investigation last year, reporters from KCBS-TV in Los Angels video-taped local kitchen employees sneezing into their hands while preparing food, licking salad dressing off their fingers, picking their noses and smoking while cooking. The teenage fast-food workers I met in Colorado Springs told me similar stories. Many workers would not eat the food unless they prepared it themselves. A Taco Bell employee said that food dropped on the floor was often picked up and served. An Arby's employe told me that one kitchen worker never washed his hands at work after doing engine repairs on his car. And several employees at the same McDonald's told me about a cockroach infestation in the milkshake machine and about armies of mice that urinated and defecated on hamburger rolls left out to thaw in the kitchen every night.

World Domination

The reunification of Germany took place on October 3rd, 1990, eliminating the last traces of the communist regime that built the Berlin Wall. Two months later, eastern Germany had its first McDonald's. The coming of the American fast-food chain was not universally applauded. During one of the East German Parliament's last sessions, Ernst Doerfler, chairman of the environment committee, demanded a ban on "McDonald's and similar abnormal garbage-makers." The ban was never imposed. McDonald's chose the town of Plauen, located in rural Saxony, about halfway between Munich and Berlin, as the site of its first restaurant in the east. The town had been heavily bombed by the Allies during World War II, losing about seventy-five percent of its buildings. Decades after the war, unexploded bombs were still being found. Plauent seemed the quintessential East German town: sand and dreary, dirty and run-down, with aging factories, warehouses and textile mills. The McDonald's restaurant was the first new building erected there after the collapse of the Eastern bloc.

Today, hundreds of McDonald's restaurants dot the landscape of eastern Germany. In town after town, statues of Lenin have been torn down, and statues of Ronald McDonald have popped up. One of the largest is in Bitterfeld, where a three-story-high illuminated Ronald McDonald can be seen from the autobahn for miles. When I visited Plauen last month, McDonald's was the only business open in the central market square. It was Reunification Day, a national holiday, and everything else was closed – the small shops selling used clothing and furniture, the pseudo-Irish pub on one corner, the pizzeria, on another. McDonald's was packed, filled not just with children and their parents but with teenagers, seniors, young couples – a cross-section of the town. Across the street stood an abandoned building once occupied by a branch of the East German army; a few blocks away, the houses were dilapidated and covered in graffiti, looking as though the Berlin Wall had never fallen. The McDonald's was the nicest, cleanest, brightest place in all of Plauen. Children played with the Hot Wheels and Barbies that came with their Happy Meals, and smiling workers poured free refills of coffee. Outside the window, three bright-red flags bearing the golden arches fluttered in the wind.

Throughout the world, American fast-food chains have become symbol's of Western economic development, opening everywhere from Bulgaria to Western Samoa. They are often the first multinational corporations to enter a new market. As the fast-food industry has grown much more competitive in the United States, the major chains have looked to overseas markets as the source of their future growth. In 1959, McDonald's had about 100 restaurants in the United States. Today, McDonald's has about 25,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries. It now ranks as the most widely recognized brand in the world, more familiar than Coca-Cola. Last year McDonald's opened approximately five new restaurants every day; eighty-five percent of them were located outside the United States. McDonald's now earns the majority of its profits overseas, as does KFC. A McDonald's executive told Forbes magazine a few years ago that the company hoped to "dominate" the fast-food industry worldwide. McDonald's recently used a new phrase to describe its push into foreign markets: "global realization."

The expansion of American fast-food companies overseas has been accompanied by the growth of the food processors that supply them. In the last decade, Cargill, ConAgra and IBP have gained control of about eighty percent of the beef industry in Canada. ConAgra owns Australia Meat Holdings, the largest beef company in a country that exports more beef than any other in the world. Today, ConAgra, Cargill and a Japanese firm, Mitsubishi, control about three-quarters of the beef industry in Australia. ConAgra's Lamb Weston division now manufactures frozen french fries in Holland, India and Turkey. McCain, the world's biggest french-fry producer, operates more than fifty processing plants scattered across four continents. In order to supply McDonald's, J.R. Simplot began to grow Idaho potatoes in China ten years ago and opened that nation's first french-fry factory in 1993. Simplot recently bought eleven processing plants in Australia, aiming to increase sales in the east-Asian market. He also purchased a 3-million-acre ranch in Australia, where he hopes to run cattle, raise vegetables and grow potatoes. "It's a great little country," J.R. Simplot says, "and there's nobody in it."

In a recent essay on McDonald's in China, the anthropologist Yunziang Yan notes that in the eyes of Beijing consumers, the fast-food chain represents "Americana and the promise of modernization." As in the U.S., the fast-food companies have targeted those consumers with the fewest attachments to tradition: young children. A few years ago, the U.K. director of marketing for McDonald's acknowledged that its advertising was aimed at children ages two to eight, the age group most likely to become brand loyal. At a primary school in Beijing, Yunxiang Yan found that all of the children recognized Ronald McDonald. The children told Yan they liked "Uncle McDonald" because he was "funny, gentle, kind, and...he understood children's hearts."

Unlike movies, bluejeans and pop music, fast food is the only form of American mass culture that people literally consume. By embracing an American diet, other countries are bound to experience many of the health problems that go with it. Perhaps a third of the American people are now overweight, a proportion that has greatly increased over the last quarter-century along with the consumption of fast food. Since 1980, the rate of obesity among American children has risen by forty-two percent. Belated attempts by fast-food companies to introduce healthy meals – such as the McLean Deluxe, a hamburger partly composed of seaweed – have proved unsuccessful. A taste for fat that is developed in childhood is difficult to lose as an adult. The typical fast-food meal is low in fiber and high in saturated fats. An order of Griss-Cut Fries and a Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger at Carl's Jr. boasts ninety-one grams of fat – more fat than a dozen milkshakes. Diets low in fiber and high in animal fat have been linked to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, colon cancer and breast cancer. These "diseases of affluence" are now commonplace in the United States, but until recently they were rare in Asia. The growing popularity of American fast food in China, Japan and Hong Kong will no doubt affect their morbidity rates. A study of Japanese men who moved to the United States and switched to an American diet found that in doing so, the men tripled their consumption of fat and doubled their rate of heart disease.

The dishes served at traditional German restaurants – schnitzel, bratwurst, knackwurst and sauerbraten – are hardly the stuff of a heart-healthy diet. The rapid disappearance of such restaurants, however, has been prompted more by their high labor costs than by their menus. German restaurants now account for only about thirty percent of the food-service market in Germany. McDonald's Deutschland is by far the largest restaurant company in the nation. It opened the first German McDonald's in 1971; twenty years later, it had 400 restaurants; today it has about 850. The company's main dish happens to be named after a German city, Hamburg, where ground-beef steaks were popular in the early nineteenth century; the hamburger was born when Americans added the bun. For years, Germany has been McDonald's most profitable market outside the United States. But there are signs that the German infatuation with American fast food may have peaked. McDonald's annual revenues per restaurant have slowly been declining in Germany since 1993. The rapid expansion of fast-food chains there coincided with the conservative rule of Helmut Kohl, a period that celebrated order, discipline and a narrow vision of who could be considered German. The Social Democrats were voted into power in September for the first time in sixteen years; the new government vows to strengthen environmental laws, reduce unemployment, broaden the rights of immigrants and restore a sense of community. The mood of the nation seems to have shifted, and the move of the German capital to Berlin, a city renowned for its diversity and nonconformity, may signify that a new, progressive era has begun.

The opposition to American fast-food chains voiced by German environmentalists and left-wing groups is not always shared by organizations on the far right. About a third of the young people in eastern Germany now express support for various nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. The unemployment rate in the east exceeds twenty percent, and recent immigrants are being blamed for the joblessness. Extremist groups have declared large parts of eastern Germany to be "foreigner-free" zones where immigrants are not welcome. The roads leading to Plauen are decorated with signs posted by the Deutsche Volksunion, the nation's leading neo-Nazi party. "Germany for the Germans," the signs say; "Jobs for Germans, Not Foreigners." When I asked one of the employees at the local McDonald's whether the restaurant had ever been the target of neo-Nazis, she said there hadn't been any problems or threats of that kind. People in the area did not consider McDonald's to be "foreign."

One of the most controversial McDonald's restaurants in Germany is on a nondescript street in a new shopping complex not far from Dachau, the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis. The shopping complex was built on fields where inmates once did forced labor. Although the architecture of the buildings looks German and futuristic, their haphazard placement on the land seems distinctly American. The complex would not seem out of place near an interstate offramp in Tucson, Arizona. The McDonald's is across the street from a discount supermarket; an auto-parts store stands some distance from the other buildings, separated by fields that have not yet vanished beneath concrete. Last year, a Holocaust group staged protests against the opening of a McDonald's so close to a concentration camp where Nazi scientists performed medical experiments on living people and at least 30,000 inmates died. The McDonald's Corp. denied that it was trying to profit from the Holocaust and said that the restaurant was at least a mile away from the camp. After the curator of the Dachau Museum complained that McDonald's was distributing leaflets among tourists in the camp's parking lot, giving them directions to the restaurant, the company halted the practice.

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