Fast food nation

Fast food nation

A damning report on the fast food industry, this book has some interesting trivia. For example, did you know that McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and Walt Disney served together in the same World War I ambulance corp before they went on to set up two of America’s corporate giants? Both from Illinois, they were masterful salesmen who perfected the art of selling to children.

Another gold nugget is the story behind J. R. Simplot – the coolest guy you’ve never heard of. Simplot was an Idaho billionaire who made his money shipping potatoes to companies like McDonald’s. Born in 1909, he left home at 15 and got a job sorting potatoes ten hours a day for 30 cents an hour. He bought interest-bearing scrip from school teachers for 50 cents and sold it on to a local bank for 90 cents on the dollar. With his earnings he picked up a rifle, an old truck, and 600 hogs for $1 a head. He built a cooker in the desert, stoked it with sagebrush, shot wild horses, skinned them, sold their hides for $2 each, cooked their meat, and fed the horse meat to his hogs through the winter. That spring, J. R. Simplot sold the hogs for $12.50 a head and became a potato farmer. As a multi-billionaire in his nineties, he wore cowboy boots and blue jeans, and ate at McDonald’s. His car, a Lincoln Continental, had a license plate that read “MR. SPUD”. When asked about the key to his success, he replied: “The only thing I did smart, and just remember this – ninety-nine percent of people would have sold out when they got their first twenty-five or thirty million. I didn’t sell out. I just hung on.”

The book is good, which is probably why it set off an avalanche of imitators in the early noughties. It looks at the hidden cost of fast food, such as food poisoning from E. Coli and worker safety problems in meatpacking plants. What I like is that rather than point the finger at the consumer, it looks right at the industry itself. It also addresses Congress, which should ban ads to children, stop subsidizing dead-end jobs, create tougher food laws, protect American workers from serious harm, and fight against dangerous concentrations of economic power. Twenty years later, I’m sad to say that this hasn’t happen.

Fast food nation predicts that just like the twentieth century was dominated by the totalitarian systems in state power, the twenty-first would be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power. Instead, we ended up admiring the mega-rich corporations that suck the life out of our economies, use overseas slave-labor, and pay workers peanuts. How did this happen? Already in the 1970’s the fast food industry lobbied Congress so they could pay sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds wages that were twenty percent lower than the national minimum wage in what became known as the “McDonald’s bill”. It was supported by the Nixon administration after Ray Kroc donated $250 000 to his re-election campaign in 1972. Things haven’t gotten any better since then. According to this article not even the company themselves can figure out how anyone can survive on their minimum wage, and assume that even if you work full-time you need a second job to make ends meet. Where is our Congress that protects worker rights and fights corporate power? We need you now more than ever.

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