Fast food is indeed factory food, perhaps the most heavily processed food on the planet, and the low-paid workers who defrost, reheat and reconstitute it have jobs as boring, highly regimented and strictly supervised as the workers in a 19th century textile mill would have had. Moreover, the founding fathers of the industry probably wouldn’t have minded the manufacturing label at all. Bringing the philosophy of the assembly line to the commercial restaurant kitchen was the simple innovation responsible for Ronald McDonald’s global conquest.
The fast-food industry began in 1948. Richard and Maurice McDonald were growing tired of running their successful drive-in restaurant in San Bernadino, California. They were tired of constantly hiring new car-hops, the teenaged girls who took food to customers waiting in parked automobiles. They were tired of replacing the dishes and glasses broken by their adolescent customers. But most of all, they were tired of paying the high wages demanded by skilled short-order cooks. So the McDonalds decided to shut down their drive-in and replace it with a revolutionary new form of restaurant. The McDonald brothers started by firing all their car-hops and short-order cooks. They simplified the menu, hired unskilled workers and made each worker perform the same task again and again. One person only made French fries. Another only made shakes. Another only flipped burgers. By ending getting rid of skilled workers, by serving food and drinks in paper cups and plates, by demanding that customers wait on line for their own meals, the new ‘Speedee Service System’ allowed the brothers to serve fast, cheap food. The new restaurant was an instant success. It fitted perfectly with the new culture emerging in post-war southern California – a car culture that worshipped speed, convenience and the latest technology. Ray Kroc, the milk shake machine salesman who bought out the McDonald brothers in the early 1960s and later exported their Speedee system around the world, embraced a blind faith in science: a Disneyesque vision of society transformed through chemistry and families living happily in plastic homes and travelling in sleek, nuclear-powered cars. Kroc also believed fervently in the ethic of mass production. A philosophy of uniformity, conformity and total control that had long dictated the manufacture of steel wire was now applied not only to food, but to the people who prepared the food.
‘We have found out... that we cannot trust some people who are non-conformists,’ Kroc declared. ‘We will make conformists out of them in a hurry... The organisation cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organisation.’ For the first two decades of its existence, the McDonald’s operating system had little impact on the way people lived and ate. In 1968 there were only 1,000 McDonald’s restaurants, all of them in the US. The chain bought fresh ground beef and potatoes from hundreds of local suppliers. But the desire for rapid growth – and the desire for everything to taste exactly the same at thousands of different locations – transformed not only the McDonald’s supply system, but also the agricultural economy of the entire US. McDonald’s switched entirely to frozen hamburger patties and frozen fries, relying on a handful of large companies to manufacture them. Other fast food chains spread nationwide at the same time, helping to drive local restaurants, small suppliers, independent ranchers and farmers out of business. And by the 1970s McDonald’s began to expand overseas, taking with it a mentality perfectly expressed years later in one of the company’s slogans – ‘one taste worldwide’.
Half a century after Richard and Maurice McDonald decided to fire their car-hops, the world’s food supply is dominated by an agro-industrial complex in which the fast-food chains occupy the highest rung. Monsanto developed genetically-modified potatoes to supply McDonald’s with perfectly uniform French fries – and then halted production of the ‘New Leaf’ GM potato when McDonald’s decided, for publicity reasons, not to buy it. When the fast-food industry wants something, the major food processors rush to supply it. Although many of the foods we eat look the same as the ones we ate a generation ago, they have been fundamentally changed. They have become industrial commodities, with various components (flavour, colour, fats) manufactured and assembled at different facilities. If you bought a hamburger in the US 30 years ago, it would most probably have contained meat from one steer or cow, which would have been processed at a local butcher shop or small meat-packing plant. Today a typical fast-food hamburger patty contains meat from more than 1,000 different cattle, raised in as many as five different countries. It looks like an old-fashioned hamburger, but is a fundamentally different thing. Here is a partial list of what fast food and the fast-food mentality have recently brought us: the homogenisation of culture, both regionally and worldwide; the malling and sprawling of the landscape; the feeling that everywhere looks and feels the same; a low-wage, alienated service-sector workforce; a low-wage, terribly exploited meat-packing workforce; a widening gap between rich and poor; concentration of economic power; the control of local and national governments by agribusiness; an eagerness to aim sophisticated mass marketing at children; a view of farm animals as industrial commodities; unspeakable cruelty toward those animals; the spread of factory farms; extraordinary air and water pollution; the rise of food-borne illnesses; antibiotic resistance; BSE; soaring obesity rates that have caused soaring rates of asthma, heart disease and early-onset diabetes; reduced life-expectancy; a cloying, fake, manipulative, disposable, plastic worldview, the sole aim of which is to make a buck.
None of this was inevitable. The triumph of the fast-food system was aided at almost every step by government subsidies, lack of proper regulation, misleading advertisements, and a widespread ignorance of how fast, cheap food is actually produced. This system is not sustainable. In less than three decades it has already done extraordinary harm. When the fast-food industry is made to bear the costs it is now imposing on the rest of society, it will collapse. The alternative to fast food now seems obvious: slow food. By ‘slow food’ I do not mean precious, gourmet food, sold by celebrity chefs and prepared according to recipes in glossy cookbooks. I mean food that is authentic, that has been grown and prepared using methods that are local, organic and sustainable. Most slow foods are peasant foods. Somehow mankind existed for thousands of years without Chicken McNuggets. And I’d argue that our future survival depends on living without them.
What’s the difference between fast food and slow food? Here are the ingredients you need to make a strawberry milk shake the old-fashioned, slow-food way: milk, cream, sugar, ice, vanilla beans and strawberries. And here are the ingredients you need to make a fast-food strawberry milk shake: milk-fat, non-fat milk, sugar, sweet whey, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, guar gum, mono- and diglycerides, cellulose gum, sodium phosphate, carrageenan, citric acid, sodium benzoate, red colouring #40 and artificial strawberry flavour (amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl kentone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amylketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone, x-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, y-undecalactone, vannilin and solvent). Which one would you rather drink?
Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal Is Doing to the World
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2004