A Steady Diet of De-Skilled Food

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Now that Eric Schlosser’s classic mealtime muckraking book, Fast Food Nation, has been Hollywoodized, Americans are again talking about where those McNuggets and fries come from and how they arrive in our stomachs. It’s a teachable moment and perhaps the film will help maintain the momentum that Fast Food Nation set in motion when it was published in 2001. But too often the debate around the Fast Food Nation phenomenon centers almost exclusively around the contents of those Big Macs and Super Slurpies. That’s why we’re seeing moves to ban trans fats in restaurant foods or attempts to sue fast food restaurants for allegedly making diners fat and sassy. It should be kept in mind the real reason Schlosser’s book was so revelatory wasn’t because it alerted us to the disgusting ingredients that go into a McShake—other journalists and nutrition experts have been doing that for decades. Schlosser’s real contribution to the dialogue on our food and farming system is that he showed clearly and in an entertaining manner how the “fast food mentality” has seeped into every aspect of our lives. That means we are a fast food republic in every sense of the word, not just in terms of how we produce, process and consume food. The McDonald’s way of doing things determines how we build houses, receive medical care and educate our children. The problem isn’t McDonald’s. The problem is the McDonald’s philosophy of doing business.

That’s because the industrialized fast food system relies on removing “skill” and “creativity” at every turn. Chains like McDonald’s made a decision long ago to invest in systems, rather than skilled people. Industry leaders are constantly looking for new machines that can be run with “zero skill.” Preparing food in a typical fast food kitchen consists of responding to lights, buzzers and other signals. Almost all important decisions are made in the restaurant’s corporate headquarters.

“The management no longer depends upon the talents or skills of its workers—those things are built into the operating system and machines,” writes Schlosser, who spent a lot of time around fast food executives, managers and their employees while researching Fast Food Nation. “Jobs that have been ‘de-skilled’ can be filled cheaply. The need to retain any individual worker is greatly reduced by the ease with which he or she can be replaced.”

In fact, the typical fast food worker quits or is fired every three to four months—an annual turnover rate of 300 to 400 percent. For the fast food chains, such high turnover has several advantages. Short-timers don’t make good candidates for union membership and usually don’t qualify for insurance and other pricey benefits that kick in after a certain length of time.

The same mentality has taken over in meatpacking, which for decades was considered a highly skilled trade and a good way to make a middle class living. In 1961, the first plant featuring the “IBP System” was opened in the southwest Iowa community of Denison, just a few miles from where I grew up. That plant revolutionized meatpacking in much the same way the opening of the first McDonald’s a few years prior influenced the restaurant industry. The IBP System consists of a disassembly line where workers perform the same task thousands of times a day. “We’ve tried to take the skill out of every step,” A.D. Anderson, the co-founder of IBP, once crowed. Sound familiar?

And with lower skill comes lower pay, and, as the lines run faster and faster (during the past two decades, the number of cattle slaughtered per hour in an American packing plant has increased from 175 to 400), more injuries. What a cruel joke: at a time when meatpacking has become one of the most dangerous occupations, the industry’s high annual turnover rate—80 percent to 100 percent—has made it possible for the owners to reduce health insurance costs.

Now comes one more free-thinking link in the food chain: the farmer. The same mentality that strips away the creativity involved in preparing food, or the skill that it takes to process a hog, is being applied to food production on the land. Attempts to basically “franchise” farming through exclusive contracts that control every aspect of a family’s operation have been successful in poultry production. The de-skilling of hog production is in full-swing, although it hasn’t completely snuffed out the independent pork farmer just yet. Beef producers are next in line.

Schlosser is concerned where this will all ultimately lead. “The early Roman Republic was fed by its citizen-farmers; the Roman Empire, by its slaves,” he writes.
Remember, there’s one more link in that chain: the consumer. When we give no thought to where our food comes from, we have removed skill from our kitchens and dining tables as well. But that’s the great thing about reforms in our food system: we all eat, and therefore we can all have a hand in making changes. At an appearance in the Twin Cities, Schlosser told an audience of nervous consumers that because 70 percent of fast food purchases are impulsive, companies like McDonald’s are actually very vulnerable to the whims of the burger-eating public. The industry’s worst nightmare is for people to put some thought into their food-buying decisions, instead of obediently pulling into the drive-through at the sight of the Golden Arches.

That may be a good way to bring about some short-term reforms. But why not put our food savvy to use at truly revolutionizing the system? Let’s support farmers we know are producing food in a manner that treats people and the land as if they are going to be around for a while. Community Supported Agriculture, farmer-owned marketing co-ops, eco-labeling systems, and plain old face-to-face direct marketing are just a few of the avenues now available for connecting consumers with food that’s produced and processed with skill and creativity. There’s no drive-up window involved, and it certainly isn’t fast. But for an increasing number of consumers here in Minnesota and around the country, supporting such a food system gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “have it your way.”

Schlosser knows it’s not just health-conscious baby boomers that need to get hip to the insidious nature of the fast food mentality. When I went to the bookstore store recently and asked for a copy of his 2006 follow-up to Fast Food Nation, I was sent to the children’s section. There, among the oversized picture books about funky fairies and malicious monkeys was Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food.

Schlosser, along with his co-author Charles Wilson, is aiming this book straight at the demographic that can perhaps have the greatest impact on our fast food economy. Whereas Fast Food Nation targeted the moms and dads that buy Happy Meals for their young children, Chew On This is directed at those millions of young people, teenagers, tweens, whatever you want to call them, that have enough expendable income to buy their own burgers, fries and Cokes. These are also the people who are working in fast-food restaurants, pumping out high-fat, high-energy, often great-tasting, slop utilizing the “skill less” system Schlosser so skillfully described in Fast Food Nation.

This audience of younger people is powerful, and the fast food industry knows it. That’s why it’s taken great pains to take Schlosser and Wilson down. According to the Wall Street Journal, earlier this year McDonald’s distributed a memo about Chew on This to franchisees, alluding to plans to “discredit the message and the messenger.” That’s a classic corporate PR strategy: instead of directly addressing the criticisms being raised, aim your rhetorical guns at the source of the bad publicity.

After reading Chew, I see why Ronald Striped-Stockings, that creepy plastic-faced Burger King guy and Wendy Pigtails are so concerned: it does a good job of telling young people that the fast food industry is taking them for chumps, much as the tobacco industry did. There’s nothing a teenager hates worse than being manipulated by adults.
Using short, punchy sentences, a combination of history, statistics and good old-fashioned reporting, Schlosser and Wilson’s book does make many of the points Fast Food Nation made: places like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell represent more than a type of food—they are a state of mind, a way of doing business that relies on cheap inputs and a view of people (both workers and customers) as just commodities.

But the authors know that churning out a bunch of statistics won’t turn the iPod generation. So as much as possible Chew gets its message across through the eyes of young people themselves—kids who have had to have surgery to control obesity, or who are working under bizarre conditions in fast-food restaurants. They also write about young people who are striving to make a difference by pointing out the dangers of our fast food culture. Chew also resorts to a little bit of the yuck factor to get the attention of young readers—describing in graphic detail the conditions in feedlots, restaurant kitchens and food processing plants.

In the end, Chew On This leaves young people with a powerful, and empowering message: “A hundred books could be written about the problems of the fast-food industry. But the solution starts with you….It’s not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way.”

One Response to “A Steady Diet of De-Skilled Food”

  1. Katie

    Excellent entry, Brian. It feeds into what I mentioned in an earlier entry: the importance of culture in effecting change. Changing something as complex as the food system requires that we look at food production as operating in a broader cultural system; heck, it even requires a broader understanding that food is produced in a system, and doesn’t just appear at the grocery store.

    Changing the “McDonald’s culture,” as you put it, requires understanding the current system and then systematically examining how to change the culture that produced that system. No small task. Take a look at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s framing documents, if you haven’t already, they’re an interesting read: http://www.foodandsociety.org