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.
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.
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.
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.
Sprays of hot water blanched the fries, gusts of hot air dried them, and 25,000 pounds of boiling oil fried them to a slight crisp. Air cooled by compressed ammonia gas quickly froze them, a computerized sorter divided them into six-pound batches, and a device that spun like an out-of-control Lazy Susan used centrifugal force to align the french fries so that they all pointed in the same direction. The fries were sealed in brown bags, then the bags were loaded by robots into cardboard boxes, and the boxes were stacked by robots onto wooden pallets. Forklifts driven by human beings took the pallets to a freezer for storage. Inside that freezer I saw 20 million pounds of french fries, most of them destined for McDonald’s, the boxes of fries stacked thirty feet high, the stacks extending for roughly forty yards. And the freezer was half empty. Every day about a dozen railway cars and about two dozen tractor-trailers pulled up to the freezer, loaded up with french fries and departed for McDonald’s restaurants all over the West.
Near the freezer was a laboratory where men and women in white coats analyzed french fries day and night, measuring their sugar content, their starch content, their color. During the fall, Lamb Weston adds sugar to the fries; in the spring, it leaches sugar out of them; the goal is to maintain a uniform appearance throughout the year. Every half hour, a new batch of fries was cooked in fryers identical to those installed in fast-food kitchens. A middle-aged woman in a lab coat handed me a paper plate full of premium extra longs, the type of french fries sold at McDonald’s, and a salt shaker and some ketchup. The fries on the plate looked so familiar yet wildly out of place in this laboratory setting, this food factory with its computer screens, digital readouts, shiny steel platforms and evacuation plans in case of ammonia-gas leaks. Despite all that, the french fries were delicious – crisp and golden brown, made from potatoes that had been in the ground that morning.
I finished them and asked for some more.
Where the Beef Has Been
You can smell Greeley, Colorado, long before you can see it. The smell is hard to forget but not easy to describe, a combination of live animals, manure and dead animals being rendered into dog food. The smell is worst during the summer months, hanging heavy in the warm air, almost assuming a physical presence, blanketing Greeley day and night. Some people who live there no longer notice the smell; it recedes into the background, present but not present, like the sound of traffic for most New Yorkers. Others can’t stop thinking about the smell, even after years; it permeates everything, sickens them, interferes with their sleep. Greeley is a factory town, one where cattle are the units of production.
Monfort Inc., “The Complete Meat Company,” runs a beef slaughterhouse, a sheep slaughterhouse and processing plants a few miles north of Greeley. To supply the beef slaughterhouse, Monfort operates two of the nation’s largest feedlots, which together hold up to 200,000 head of cattle. One of the feed-lots stretches for almost two miles along Highway 35. At times, the animals are crowded so closely together that it looks like a Woodstock Festival for cattle, a moving mass of animals that goes on for acres. At feeding time, the cattle don’t eat blue grama and buffalo grass off the prairie; during the three months before slaughter, they eat surplus grain dumped into long concrete troughs that resemble highway dividers. The grain fattens the cattle more rapidly than grass would. Almost two-thirds of the grain produced in the U.S. is now used to feed livestock, mainly cattle.
A typical steer will consume about two tons of grain during its stay at a feedlot, just to gain 400 pounds in weight. The process involves a fair amount of waste. Each steer deposits about fifty pounds of manure every day. The two feedlots outside Greeley produced more excrement last year than the populations of Denver, Boston, Atlanta and St. Louis – combined.
More than ninety percent of American cattle were grass-fed, not grain-fed, until the years after World War II. They roamed the range, eating native grasses, or lived on farms and ate hay. Warren Monfort, who owned a farm north of Greeley, became one of the nation’s first large-scale cattle feeders, buying cheap corn, sugar beets and alfalfa from local farmers during the Depression. Monfort’s feedlot business expanded after the war. By feeding cattle year-round, he could control the timing of his livestock sales and wait for the best prices at the Chicago stockyards. The meat of grain-fed beef was fatty and tender. Unlike grass-fed beef, it did not need to be aged for a few weeks; it could be eaten within days of the slaughter. Feedlots sprang up throughout the Midwest during the 1970s. The huge American grain surpluses, largely caused by government price supports, provided cheap food for livestock and made cattle feeding a standard practice in the nation’s beef industry. The annual capacity of Warren Monfort’s feedlots in the 1950s was about 20,000 head of cattle. The three Colorado feedlots operated by Monfort Inc. now fatten almost a million cattle a year.
A generation ago, meatpacking plants were located in cities across the United States. The plants were staffed by skilled union workers. Meatpacking was a difficult job but a highly paid and desirable one. It provided a stable middle-class income – a career. Live cattle were shipped from the high plains to urban packing houses, where they were slaughtered, cut into sides of beef and then sold to wholesalers. Skilled, unionized butchers reduced the sides of beef to marketable cuts or ground them into hamburger meat. But in 1966, a new company, Iowa Beef Processors (later known as IBP), launched a new meatpacking system that soon made the traditional slaughterhouse obsolete. IBP opened slaughterhouses in the high plains, placing them near the feedlots. Instead of shipping full sides of beef, IBP “fabricated” carcasses into smaller cuts within the plant and sold them as “boxed beef.” It changed production methods in order to take advantage of a deskilled work force – much like the fast-food chains – simplifying each job into a single task that could be performed again and again. And it waged a ruthless campaign against labour unions, an effort made easier by the placement of its slaughterhouses in rural states such as Iowa and Nebraska that were hostile to unions. In the mid-1970s, the average meatpacker’s wage was about fifteen dollars an hour (in today’s dollars). The workers at IBP plants were paid about half that amount.
As IBP opened a series of slaughterhouses in small rural towns, becoming the nation’s largest beef-processing company, its competitors were forced to adopt the same system of production or risk going out of business. The Monfort family had established a slaughterhouse near its feedlots in Greeley during the early 1960s, later becoming one of the leading meat-packers in the industry. The workers at Monfort be longed to a union and earned good wages. There was a waiting list for jobs at the plant. But the changes in the meatpacking industry soon reached Colorado. In 1980, Monfort shut down its slaughterhouse in Greeley and fired all the workers. When the beef plant reopened two years later, union members were not rehired and wages were cut by forty percent.
The same production system that enabled meatpacking companies to get rid of their union workers allowed supermarket chains and wholesalers to fire their skilled, highly paid butchers. More and more beef processing took place within slaughterhouses. Grinders were installed to make hamburger meat. And the growing purchasing power of the supermarket chains and the fast-food chains encouraged concentration in the meatpacking industry. In 1968, McDonald’s bought ground beef from 175 local suppliers around the country; a few years later, seeking to achieve uniformity as it expanded, McDonald’s reduced the number of its beef suppliers to five. Rival meatpackers joined forces to cut costs and wipe out their competition. In 1918, the five largest meatpackers controlled fifty-five percent of the American market. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration curtailed the power of these companies, known as the Beef Trust, using a consent decree. In 1977, the four largest meatpacking companies controlled only twenty-five percent of the market. By the end of the 1980s, however, three multinational corporations controlled more than seventy percent of the beef slaughter in the United States – the greatest degree of market concentration in the beef industry since record-keeping began in the late nineteenth century. The Justice Department during the Reagan administration did not oppose the disappearance of hundreds of small meatpacking firms. On the contrary, the Justice Department opposed using antitrust laws to stop the giant meatpackers.
In 1983, Monfort sued Excel – the nation’s second-largest beef processor, owned by Cargill – to prevent it from acquiring Spencer Beef, the nation’s third-largest beef processor. Lawyers for Monfort argued that the acquisition would allow Excel to engage in predatory pricing and to reduce competition. A panel of federal judges ruled in favor of Monfort, but Excel appealed their decision to the U.S. supreme Court. Reagan’s Justice Department submitted a brief in the case, arguing on behalf of Excel, claiming it had every right to buy a rival company. In 1986, the Supreme Court approved the merger of America’s second- and third-largest meatpacking companies. The following year, Monfort gave up its independence and agreed to a takeover by the ConAgra Corp. “It seemed to me that if the industry was going to be concentrated,” Ken Monfort said, explaining the sale of the company founded by his father, “there should be at least three large players instead of just two.”
By purchasing Monfort, ConAgra became the largest meatpacker in the world. It is now the biggest food company in the United States. In addition to being the top producer of french fries, ConAgra is the largest manufacturer of frozen food, the largest sheep processor and turkey processor, the largest flour miller, the largest distributor of agricultural chemicals, the third-largest pork processor, as well as a leading chicken processor, seed producer, feed producer and commodity-futures trader. ConAgra sells its food under dozens of retail brand names, including Hunt’s, Chun King, Swiss Miss, Orville Redenbacher’s, Reddi-wip, Knott’s Berry Farm and Healthy Choice. Twenty years ago, ConAgra – a combination of two Latin words whose intended meaning is “partnership with the land” – was an obscure Nebraska flour company with annual revenues of less than $600 million. Last year, ConAgra’s revenues were nearly $24 billion. The company’s phenomenal growth in the 1980s was driven by a vow to increase its earnings per share by at least fourteen percent every year. Top managers who fail to reach their targeted profit levels are often fired. The workers at ConAgra plants are viewed as being equally expendable. In April 1996, ConAgra closed a meatpacking plant in Des Moines, terminating the employment of 1,322 workers with just a day’s notice. ConAgra’s president once sought changes in the Nebraska tax code by warning the state legislature, “Some Friday night we (may) turn out the lights, click, click… back up the trucks, and we’ll be gone by Monday morning.”
The unprecedented degree of concentration in the meatpacking industry has helped depress the prices that ranchers receive for their cattle. In the last two decades, the rancher’s share of every retail dollar spent on beef has fallen from sixty-four cents to forty-nine cents. “If ConAgra’s my only buyer,” asked Dave Carter, head of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, “and on the day I need to be selling, they’re not buying, what kind of a market is that?” A 1996 United States Department of Agriculture investigation of packer concentration found that many ranchers were afraid to testify against the meatpacking companies, fearing retaliation and “economic ruin.” The four largest meat-packers now control perhaps twenty percent of the live cattle in the United States. When the price of cattle starts to rise, the meatpacking companies can flood the market with their own animals, driving the prices down. They can also obtain cattle through confidential agreements with large producers, never revealing the true prices being paid. “A free market requires many buyers as well as many sellers, all with equal access to accurate information, all entitled to trade on the same terms and none with a big enough share of the market to influence price,” a report by Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs concluded. “Nothing close to those conditions now exists in the cattle market.”
In Meatpackers and Beef Barons, sociologist Carol Andreas calls Greeley a “modern-day company town” and describes the changes in its work force during the 1980s. When Monfort reopened its beef plant there in 1982, after breaking the union, it began to hire recent immigrants – some of them illegal – from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia. Jobs that had once provided a solid middle-class life now trapped workers in rural poverty. Instead of a waiting list, the meatpacking plant soon had a turnover rate that approached 100 percent a year, as the company churned through its workers. Andreas suggests that the high turnover rate improved the company’s bottom line. A worker needed six months to a year of employment at the plant to get health insurance, two years of employment to earn vacation pay. “There are some economies, frankly,” one meat-industry executive admitted in 1984, “that result from hiring new employees.” Monfort’s influence extended throughout Weld County and the city of Greeley. The director for environmental protection of Weld County’s Health Department later became the vice president of ConAgra Red Meats, taking charge of its environmental operations. The doctor at the Greeley Medical Clinic who evaluated the severity of many workplace injuries – Andreas calls him “the one doctor who was most despised by workers” – later became the corporate medical director for ConAgra Red Meats. And when workers at the Monfort Portion Foods plant went on strike in 1987, inmates at a local halfway house were hired to do those jobs.
In 1992, the National Labor Relations Board found that Monfort had committed “numerous, pervasive and outrageous” violations of labor laws, including “unlawful termination of union supporters, interrogations, threats of plant closings… unilateral changes in working conditions (and) threats of discharge.” Employees who had been unfairly dismissed were awarded a $10 million settlement, and workers at the Monfort beef plant voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union. A list of the slaughterhouse job categories in the latest union contract evokes a world unfamiliar to most people, with a nomenclature all its own: knocker, sticker, shackler, rumper, tub dumpler, knuckle dropper, splitter top/bottom butt, feed kill chain.
Today, Monfort is still the largest employer in Weld County, with about 4,000 workers at its feedlots, slaughterhouses and processing facilities. The majority of the workers at Monfort’s beef plant cannot speak English. Most of them are Mexican immigrants who live in places like the River Park Mobile Court, a collection of battered old trailers just down the road from the slaughterhouse. The basic pay at the beef plant is now $9.20 an hour; health insurance is offered after six months; vacation pay after a year. Monfort refuses to disclose the current rate of turnover; a union official told me that roughly seventy percent of the workers quit or are fired every year. The high turnover rate at the slaughterhouse is made possible by the steady flow into Greeley of poor immigrants desperate for work.
Javier Ramirez is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 990, which represents employees at the Monfort beef plant in Greeley. Ramirez is in his late twenties and knows a fair amount about beef. His father is a UFCW leader in Chicago. Ramirez grew up around slaughterhouses and watched the beef industry abandon his hometown for rural plants in Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Colorado. The UFCW has given workers in Greeley the ability to challenge unfair dismissals and to file grievances against supervisors. The return of the union has led to pay raises and better working conditions. But the union’s power has been limited by the high turnover rate among Monfort workers and the aging equipment at the beef plant. Demands for higher pay could prompt ConAgra to shut the plant down. Monfort has lately tried in good faith to screen out illegal immigrants and improve the safety record at the plant. Nevertheless, one of the most pressing issues for Javier Ramirez is the danger that slaughterhouse workers face every day: the risks to their health and their lives.
The injury rate among meat-packers is the highest of any occupation in the United States. Working in a slaughterhouse is three times more dangerous about one-third of all slaughterhouse workers – roughly 50,000 men and women – suffer an injury or an illness that requires first aid on the job. Aside from the automated production lines and a variety of power tools, most of the work in American slaughterhouses is still performed by hand. Poultry plants have been largely mechanized, thanks to the breeding of chickens that are uniform in size; but cattle come in all sizes and shapes, varying in weight by hundreds of pounds and preventing the mechanization of beef plants. A sharp knife is still the most important tool in a slaughterhouse. Lacerations are the most common injury suffered by meatpackers, who often stab themselves or someone working nearby. Tendinitis and Cumulative Trauma Disorders are also quite common. Many slaughterhouse workers make a knife cut every three seconds, which adds up to about 10,000 cuts during an eight-and-a-half-hour shift. If the knife is not sharpened regularly and grows dull, additional pressure is placed on a worker’s tendons, joints and nerves. A large number of meatpackers develop shoulder problems, carpal tunnel syndrome and “trigger finger” (a disorder in which fingers become frozen in a curled position). The slippery floors in slaughterhouses, the carcasses rapidly swinging past, and the cutting tools and heavy machinery are responsible for back injuries, falls, broken bones, dismemberments and fatal accidents.
Perhaps the leading determinant of the injury rate at a slaughterhouse is the speed of the production line. Meatpackers often work within inches of each other, wielding large knives. As the pace increases, so does the risk of accidental cuts and stabbings. About seventy-five cattle an hour were slaughtered in the old meatpacking plants in Chicago. Twenty years ago, the Monfort plant in Greeley slaughtered about 175 cattle an hour. By the early 1990s, the Monfort plant slaughtered as many as 400 cattle an hour, about half a dozen animals every minute, sent down a single production line, carved by workers under tremendous pressure not to fall behind.
Beef slaughterhouses now operate at a low profit margin. The three giant meatpacking companies – Monfort, IBP and Excel – try to increase earnings by maximizing the volume of production at their plants. A faster pace means higher profits. Declining beef consumption in the United States has been prompted less by health concerns than by the price of beef compared with the prices of other meats. The same factors that make beef slaughterhouses inefficient (the lack of mechanization, the reliance on human labor) also encourage companies to make them even more dangerous (by speeding up the pace).
The slaughterhouse workers I met in Greeley talked about the difficulties of their jobs, as well as a few of the rewards. Felipe (not his real name) was originally from Chihuahua, Mexico. He learned about job openings at the Monfort plant in the late 1980s from a friend who was already in the United States. Felipe crossed the border illegally, made it to Greeley, applied for a job at the plant and anxiously waited to see whether Monfort would hire him. For two weeks he lived outdoors in Greeley, sleeping under bridges and working at construction sites during the day. Monfort hired Felipe, not at all concerned about his lack of English, and asked whether he knew of other people back home who might want to work at the plant. His first day at the slaughterhouse was confusing. “Nobody helped train me – no training how to use the knife,” Felipe said. “So you see how the people on either side of you do the work, and then you do it.”
Jose (not his real name) had been employed at the slaughterhouse for more than ten years. During that time many workers had lost fingers, mainly while using power saws. One man lost an arm in the box-making machine. People get cut all the time, trying to keep up with the pace. “The knives don’t know any difference between cow meat and human meat,” he said. Jose hurt one hand while operating a machine and badly injured a shoulder during a fall. A company doctor told him the shoulder was just fine; six months later an orthopedist told him surgery was necessary; years later, the shoulder still bothers him sometimes. His toughest stretch at the slaughterhouse was working a double shift. Jose didn’t want to do it but thought he’d be fired for refusing. And so he worked a double shift six days a week. He would put in seventeen hours straight, drive forty miles home, sleep for a while and then return to the slaughterhouse. He did this for four months. “I’ll remember that till the day I die,” he says. Jose now works forty-eight hours a week at the Monfort plant and about twenty-five hours a week at a local fast-food restaurant. His wife works fifty-six hours a week at two different restaurants. They still have payments to make on their trailer home, and they have two teenage children. Though he has worked at the Monfort beef plant for more than a decade, Jose earns an hourly wage that is only twenty cents higher than the starting wage. “But the whole thing is,” he tells me, as though revealing a dark secret, “if they’d just pay a decent wage so I didn’t have to pull two jobs, you know, it wouldn’t be a bad place to work.”
The speed of the production line at a slaughterhouse is largely responsible not only for the high injury rate but also for the contamination of the meat. The problem starts in the feedlots. A government health official, who prefers not to be named, compares the sanitary conditions at a modern feedlot to those of a crowded European city during the Middle Ages, when people dumped their chamber pots out the windows, raw sewage ran in the streets and epidemics raged. The cattle now packed into feedlots get little exercise and live amid pools of manure. Far removed from their natural habitats, the cattle become more prone to illnesses. And what they are fed often contributes to the spread of disease. The rise in grain prices has encouraged the feeding of less-expensive materials to cattle, especially substances with a high protein content that can accelerate growth. About eighty percent of the cattle in the United States were routinely fed slaughterhouse wastes – the rendered remains of dead sheep and dead cattle – until August 1997. The USDA banned the practice, hoping to prevent a domestic outbreak of mad-cow disease. Millions of dead cats and dead dogs, purchased from animal shelters, are being fed to cattle each year, along with dead ducks, geese, elk and deer. steven P. Bjerklie, a former editor of the trade journal Meat and Poultry, is appalled by what often winds up in cattle feed. “Goddamn it, these cattle are ruminants,” Bjerklie says. “They’re designed to eat grass and, maybe, grain. I mean, they have four stomachs for a reason: to eat products that have a high cellulose content. They are not designed to eat other animals.”
The slaughterhouse tasks most likely to contaminate meat are the removal of an animal’s hide and the evisceration of its digestive system. The hides are now removed by machine; but if a hide has not been adequately cleaned first, pieces of dirt and manure may fall from it onto the meat. Stomachs and intestines are still pulled out of cattle by hand; if the job is not performed carefully, the contents of the digestive system may spill everywhere. Workers being rushed are bound to make mistakes. The consequences of one error are quickly multiplied. Knives are supposed to be cleaned and disinfected every few minutes, something that workers in a hurry tend to forget. “If a knife gets contaminated,” Bjerklie says, “then it’s just going to spread that contamination to everything it touches.” The literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: fecal coliform levels, food-borne pathogens, total plate counts, et al. behind them all lies a simple explanation for why most people get sick: There is shit on the meat.
One night I visit a slaughterhouse somewhere in the high plains. The slaughterhouse is one of the nation’s largest. About 5,000 head of cattle enter it every day, single file, and leave in a different form. Someone who has access to the plant, who is upset by its working conditions, offers to give me a tour. The slaughterhouse is an immense building, gray and square, about three stories high with no windows on the front and no architectural clues to what’s happening inside. My friend gives me a chain-mail apron and gloves, suggesting I try them on. Workers on the line wear about eight pounds of chain mail beneath their white coats – shiny steel armor that covers their hands, wrists, stomach and back. The chain mail is designed to protect workers from cutting themselves and from being cut by other workers. But knives somehow manage to get around it. My host hands me some Wellingtons, the kind of knee-high rubber boots that English gentlemen wear in the countryside. “Tuck your pants into the boots,” he says. “We’ll be walking through some blood.”
I put on a hard hat and climb a stairway. The sounds get louder – factory sounds, the noise of power tools and machinery, bursts of compressed air. We start at the end of the line, the fabricating room. Workers call it “fab.” When we step inside, fab seems familiar: steel catwalks, pipes along the walls, a vast room, a maze of conveyor belts. This could be the Lamb Wenston plant, except hunks of red meat ride the belts instead of french fries. Some machines assemble cardboard boxes, others vacuum-seal subprimals of beef in clear plastic. The workers look extremely busy, but there’s nothing unsettling about this part of the plant. You see meat like this all the time in the back of your local supermarket.
The fab room is refrigerated, kept at about forty degrees. As you head up the line, the feel of the place starts to change. The pieces of meat get bigger. Workers – about half of them women, almost all of them young and Latino – slice meat with long, slender knives. They stand at a table that is chest high, grab meat off a conveyor belt, trim away fat, throw meat back on the belt, toss the scraps onto a conveyor belt above them and then grab more meat, all in a matter of seconds. I’m now struck by how many workers there are, hundreds of them, pressed close together, constantly moving, slicing. You see hard hats, white coats, flashes of steel. Nobody is smiling or chatting; they’re too busy, anxiously trying not to fall behind. An old man walks past me, pushing a blue plastic barrel filled with scraps. A few workers carve the meat with Whiz-ards, small electric knives that have spinning round blades. The Whizzards look like the Norelco razors that Santa rides in the TV ads. I notice that a few of the women near me are sweating, even though the place is freezing cold.
Sides of beef suspended from an overhead trolley swing toward a group of men. Each worker has a large knife in one hand and a steel hook in the other. They grab the meat with their hooks and attack it fiercely with their knives. As they hack away, using all their strength, grunting, the place suddenly feels different, primordial. The machinery seems beside the point, and what’s going on here has been going on for thousands of years – the meat, the hook, the knife, men straining to cut more meat.
On the kill floor, what I see no longer unfolds in a logical manner. It’s one surreal image after another. A worker with a power saw slices cattle into halves as though they were two-by-fours, and then the halves swing by me into the cooler. Dozens of cattle, stripped of their skins, dangle on chains from their hind legs. My host stops and asks how I feel, whether I want to go any farther. This is where some people get sick. The kill floor is hot and humid. Cattle have a body temperature of about 101 degrees, and there are a lot of them in the room. It stinks of manure. Carcasses swing so fast along the rail that you have to keep an eye on them constantly, dodge them, watch your step, or one will slam you and throw you onto the bloody concrete floor. It happens to workers all the time.
I see: a man reach inside cattle and pull out their kidneys with his bare hands, then drop the kidneys down a metal chute, over and over again, as each animal passes by him; a stainless-steel rack of tongues; Whizzards peeling meat off decapitated heads, picking them almost as clean as the white skulls painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. We wade through blood that’s ankle deep and that pours down drains into vats below us. As we approach the start of the line, for the first time I hear the steady pop, pop, pop of live animals being stunned.
The cattle suspended above me look just like the cattle I’ve seen on ranches for years, but these ones are upside down, swinging on hooks. For a moment, the sight seems unreal; there are so many of them, a herd of them, lifeless. And then I see a few hind legs still kicking, a final reflex action, and the reality comes hard and clear.
For eight and a half hours, a worker called a sticker does nothing but stand in a river of blood, being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten seconds or so, severing its carotid artery. He uses a long knife and must hit exactly the right spot to kill the animal humanely. He hits that spot again and again. We walk up a slippery metal stairway and reach a small platform, where the production line begins. A man turns and smiles at me. He wears safety goggles and a hard hat. His face is splattered with gray matter and blood. He is the knocker, the man who welcomes cattle to the building. Cattle walk down a narrow chute and pause in front of him, blocked by a gate, and then he shoots them in the head with a captive bolt stunner – a gun attached to the ceiling by a long hose – which fires a column of compressed air that knocks the cattle unconscious. the animals keep strolling up, oblivious to what comes next, and he stands over them and shoots. For eight and a half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses a few times and shoots the same animal twice. As soon as the steer falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs and shackles it to a chain, and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air.
I watch the knocker knock cattle for a couple of minutes. The animals are powerful and strong one moment and then gone in an instant, suspended from a rail, ready to have their necks slit. A steer slips from its chain, falls to the ground, and gets its head caught in a conveyor belt. The line stops as workers struggle to free the steer, stunned but alive, from the machinery. I’ve seen enough.
I step out of the building into the cool night air and follow the path that leads cattle into the slaughterhouse. They pass me, driven toward the building by workers with long white sticks that seem to glow in the dark. One steer turns and tries to run. But workers drive him back to join the rest. The cattle lazily walk single file toward the muffled sounds, pop, pop, pop, coming from the open door.
The path has hairpin turns that prevent cattle from seeing what’s in store, keeping them relaxed. As the ramp gently slopes upward, the animals may think they’re headed for another truck, another road trip – and they are, in unexpected ways. The ramp widens as it reaches ground level and then leads to a large cattle pen with wooden fences, a corral that belongs in a meadow, not here. As I walk along the fence, a group of cattle approaches me, looking me straight in the eye, like dogs hoping for a treat, and follow me, out of some mysterious impulse. I stop and try to absorb the whole scene: the cool breeze, the cattle and their gentle lowing, a cloudless sky, steam rising from the plant in the moonlight. And then I notice that the building does have one window, a small square of light on the second floor. It offers a glimpse of what’s hidden behind this huge, blank facade. Through the little window you can see bright-red carcasses on hooks, going round and round.
In the Early Part of this Century, hamburgers had a bad reputation. According to the historian David Gerard Hogan, the hamburger was considered “a food for the poor,” tainted, unsafe to eat. Restaurants rarely served hamburgers; they were sold at lunch carts parked near factories, at circuses, carnivals and state fairs. Ground beef was rumored to contain old, putrid meat heavily laced with chemical preservatives. “The hamburger habit is just about as safe,” one food critic warned, “as getting your meat out of a garbage can….” White Castle, the nation’s first hamburger chain, worked hard in the 1920s to dispel the hamburger’s tawdry image. As Hogan notes in his history of the chain, Selling ’em by the Sack, the founders of White Castle placed their grills in the direct view of customers, claimed that fresh ground beef was delivered two to four times a day, chose a name with connotations of purity and even sponsored an experiment in which a University of Minnesota medical student lived for thirteen weeks on “nothing but White Castle hamburgers and water.”
The success of White Castle in the East and the Midwest helped to popularize hamburgers and to remove much of their social stigma. The chain did not attract a broad range of people, however; most of its customers were urban, working-class and male. The rise of drive-ins and fast-food restaurants in Southern California elevated the once-lowly hamburger to the status of America’s national dish during the 1950s. Ray Kroc set out to attract families to McDonald’s. Hamburgers seemed an ideal food for children: convenient, inexpensive, handheld and easy to chew. Prior to World War II, pork was the most widely consumed meat in the United States. Rising incomes, the growth of the fast-food industry and the mass appeal of the hamburger pushed American consumption of beef higher than that of pork. By the early 1990s, beef production was responsible for almost half of the employment in American agriculture, and the annual revenues generated by beef, nearly $50 billion, were the highest of any agricultural commodity in the United States. Every day, about one-third of the American people ate a hamburger. Roughly seventy percent of those hamburgers were bought at fast-food restaurants. And children between the ages of seven and thirteen ate more hamburgers than anyone else – an average of six a week.
In January 1993, doctors at a hospital in Seattle noticed that a large number of children were being admitted with bloody diarrhea. Some were suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome, a disorder that often causes kidney failure. Health officials soon traced the outbreak of food poisoning to under-cooked hamburgers served at Jack in the Box restaurants. The hamburgers contained a potentially lethal microbe: Escherichia coli O157:H7. Jack in the Box issued an immediate recall of the contaminated ground beef, which had been supplied by the Vons Co. in Los Angels. Nevertheless, more than 700 people in five different states were sickened by Jack in the Box hamburgers, about 195 were hospitalized, and four died. Most of the victims were children; Jack in the Box accepted responsibility for their medical costs, and the chain was nearly destroyed by the publicity surrounding the outbreak. But this was not the first outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 linked to fast-food hamburgers. As Nichols Fox reveals in her book on food-borne pathogens,Spoiled, dozens of children were sickened in 1982 by contaminated McDonald’s hamburgers in Oregon and Michigan. McDonald’s had quietly cooperated with investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, providing ground-beef samples [Cont. on page 136] that proved to be tainted with E. coli O157:H7. In public, however, the McDonald’s Corp. denied that its hamburgers were responsible for any illnesses. Reports on the outbreak never mentioned McDonald’s, referring to the chain simply as “Restaurant A.”
In the five years since the Jack in the Box outbreak, perhaps 100,000 Americans, the majority of them children, have been made seriously ill by E. coli O157:H7. Every week, on the average, a few Americans die from eating hamburgers. E. coli O157:H7 is a mutated version of a bacterium found abundantly in the human digestive system. The E. coli bacteria in our digestive system help the body synthesize vitamins and ward off dangerous organisms. E. coli O157:H7, on the other hand, releases a powerful toxin that can destroy the lining of the intestine. In most cases, the ensuing bloody diarrhea subsides within a week or so. In about six percent of the cases, however, the toxins produced by E. coli O157:H7 enter the bloodstream, interfering with kidney function and causing hemolytic uremic syndrome. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to developing HUS – although perfectly healthy adults can develop it, as well. The illness can cause kidney failure, anemia, internal bleeding and the destruction of vital organs. It can cause anyone to suffer seizures or strokes, or to lapse into a come. The painfull and debilitating symptoms of the illness may last for weeks. About five percent of the people who develop HUS are killed by it. Those who survive often have permanent disabilities, such as blindness or brain damage. E. coli O157:H7 is now the leading cause of kidney failure among American children.
Antibiotics have proven ineffective in treating illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7. Some evidence indicates that treatment with antibiotics actually makes these illnesses worse. At the moment, little can be done for people with HUS, aside from the provision of fluids, transfusions and dialysis. E. coli O157:H7 infections are extraordinarily easy to transmit. To be infected by most food-borne pathogens, such as salmonella, you have to consume a fairly large dose – thousands or even millions of organisms. An infection with E. coli O157:H7 can be caused by as few as ten organisms. The microbe can survive on counter tops for days and in moist environments for weeks. Children have been infected by hand-to-mouth contact, by swimming in a contaminated water park and by crawling on contaminated carpeting at a day-care center. A microscopic particle of uncooked hamburger tainted with the bug is enough to kill you.
Although outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been linked to lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and apple cider, cattle manure has ultimately been the cause of most infections. Cattle seem to be the primary host for the microbe; it thrives in their digestive systems without making the animals sick. A recent study of cattle manure at one feedlot found that about 1.6 percent of the samples carried E. coli O157:H7. Given that rate of infection, perhaps five cattle bearing the microbe are eviscerated at a large slaughterhouse every hour. The centralization and concentration of beef processing has spread E. coli O157:H7 far and wide. Steven P. Bjerklie, the former editor of Meat and Poultry, believes that “the structure of this industry is just beautifully conducive to massive contamination of ground beef.” A single large plant can produce 800,000 pounds of hamburger meat daily – and just one animal infected with E. coli O157:H7 can contaminate 32,000 pounds of that meat because of the way ground beef is made today. A single fast-food hamburger now contains the meat of anywhere from forty to one hundred different cattle, raised in as many as half a dozen different countries.
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.
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.
The first inmates at Dachau were political prisoners: socialists, communists, religious opponents of the Nazi regime. In later years, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses – people considered abnormal and “degenerate” – were sent there. Upon arriving at Dachau, new inmates were greeted by a sign painted in huge white letters on the roof. It said, “The way to freedom is to follow one’s orders….” The McDonald’s at Dachau is one-third of a mile from the entrance to the camp. The day I went there, the restaurant was staging a Western Big Mac promotion. It was decorated in a Wild West theme, with paper place mats featuring a wanted poster of Butch Essidy. The McDonald’s was full of mothers and small children. Teenagers in Nikes and Levi’s sat in groups smoking cigarettes. Turkish immigrants worked in the kitchen, disco music played, and the red paper cups on everyone’s tray said, Always Coca-Cola. The most notable thing about the place was its total and utter banality. This McDonald’s was in Dachau, but it could have been anywhere – anywhere in the United States, anywhere in the world. Millions of other people at that very moment were ordering the same food from the same menu in a hundred different languages, in almost every time zone, every longitude and latitude, food that tasted everywhere the same.
In the demonology of vegetarians and environmentalists, cattle ranchers have long ranked near the top. As Dale Lasater stands in a corral full of huge bulls, feeding them treats from his hand, the stereotype doesn’t quite fit. Lasater is in his early fifties, with a handlebar mustache and wire-rim glasses. He wears worn-out jeans and boots, and a well-ironed button-down shirt, looking part cowboy, part Ivy Leaguer. The bulls that crowd around him seem almost sweet, acting more like a bunch of Ferdinands than like fierce symbols of machismo. They were bred to be gentle, never dehorned and never roped. The Lasater Ranch occupies about 30,000 acres of short-grass prairie near the town of Matheson, Colorado, fifty miles northeast of Colorado Springs. It is a profitable working ranch that for half a century has not used pesticides, herbicides, poison or commercial fertilizers on the land, has not killed local predators such as coyotes, and has not administered growth hormones, anabolic steroids or antibiotics to the cattle. The Lasaters are by no means typical, but they have worked hard to change how American beef is produced. Despite years of experimentation and careful refinement, the Lasater philosophy of cattle ranching relies on a simple faith: “Nature is smart as hell.”
Before taking over the family ranch, Lasater spent a year in Argentina as a Fullbright scholar, ran a feedlot company in Kansas and managed cattle ranches in Texas, Florida and New Mexico. His experiences persuaded him that the current system of agricultural production in the United States cannot be sustained. Rising grain prices will someday hit ranches and feedlots hard. More important, Lasater finds it difficult to justify feeding millions of tons of grain to American cattle, while elsewhere in the world millions of people starve. He respects a person’s decision to become a vegetarian but has little patience for the air of moral superiority that often accompanies it. Growing up on the prairie gave him a view of nature that is some what different from the Disney version. Cattle that are not eaten by people, that are simply allowed to grow old and weak, still get eaten – by coyotes and turkey buzzards, and it’s not a pretty sight.
Dale Lasater recently set up a company to sell free-range, organic, grass-fed beef. None of the cattle used in Lasater Grasslands Beef spend any time at a feedlot. The meat is much lower in fat than grain-fed beef and has a stronger, more distinctive flavor. Laster says that most Americans have forgotten what real beef tasts like. Argentine beef is now considered a gourment item, and almost all of the cattle in Argentina are grass-fed. The current system of beef production, relying on huge feedlots, arose during a period of low-priced, government-subsidized grain. Recent findings that E. coli O157:H7 may not survive in the intestines of grass-fed cattle have strengthened Las-ater’s determination to follow a different path. Lasater doesn’t think that his little company will revolutionize the American beef industry; but it’s a start.
Fifty miles away, on South Nevada Avenue in Colorado Springs, Rich Conway operates a family business that’s also bucking the trend. Conway’s Red Top Restaurant occupies a modest brick building on a street full of funky old Western motels, the kind with animated neon Indian chiefs on their signs, the kind where the U in the 4-U Motel is a golden horseshoe. Rich Conway has been through a lot. He has had a motor-cycle accident and a bad car accident, and he later slipped on some ice and broke his back. Now in his late forties, Conway walks slowly with a cane but has a handsome, weathered face, a Zen-like calm and a tough, independent streak that keeps him going against the odds, the sort of qualities an American small-business man needs these days. He’s a survivor. When I asked what made him provide health insurance to all his workers – a benefit fast-food restaurants rarely offer – Conway smiled politely, as though the answer was obvious, and said, “We want healthy employees.”
Rich Conway’s parent bought the restaurant in 1962 and began serving large oval hamburgers. He grew up working there alongside his nine brothers and sisters. Conway’s Red Top – with a little spinning top on its yellow sign – became a local favorite, thanks to its burgers and fries. A few years ago, the food critics Jane and Michael Stern, the authors of Road Food, wrote that Conway’s Red Top sold some of the best hamburgers in the U.S. The restaurant thrived during the 1970s, despite an invasion by national fast-food chains that landed up and down South Nevada Avenue. But Conway’s almost shut down in the early 1980s, after the death of Rich’s father. The restaurant’s local suppliers helped keep it afloat until new financing could be arranged. Conway’s Red Top now has three locations in Colorado Springs. Rich Conway’s younger brother Dan serves as finance director, and his sister Mary Kaye is the marketing director.
In the kitchen at Conway’s, the hamburger patties are still formed every day by hand, using fresh ground beef. The beef is obtained from a small, family-owned grinder in Denver; Rich Conway hopes to offer Lasater beef soon. The hamburger buns come from a family-owned bakery in nearby Pueblo. Two hundred pounds of potatoes are peeled every morning in the kitchen and then are sliced into fries with an old contraption attached to the wall. The burgers and fries are made to order by cooks who earn up to ten dollars an hour and wear baseball caps that say CONWAY’S RED TOP: ONE’S A MEAL. The kitchen is not operated by fancy computer software, there’s takeout but no drive-through, and the food is only slightly more expensive than what’s served at the half-empty Wendy’s across the street. In a completely un-staged encounter, I met a customer at Conway’s who has regularly been having lunch there for fifty years.
The last hamburger I ate was prepared at Conway’s Red Top. It arrived on a plate with a pile of crisp fries. And it looked so damn good – big and oval, smothered in mushrooms and cheese – that I wanted to take a picture of it and keep the picture as proof. Not everyone has bought into this fast-food nation; there are still grounds for hope.
This story is from the November 26th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.