Book Review: Chew on This by Eric Schlosser & Charles Wilson

This is exactly like Fast Food Nation except this book is for Jr. High Students.  (Little do my students know, I’ll still use some chapters for their classes.)  Some of the chapters and wording is very similar to Fast Food Nation. This will be a short review then since I’ve already covered this in a previous post.

The book starts talking about how McDonald’s got started by Ray Kroc.  Eventually, advertisers marketed to kids and then the toys came out so that it would entice the kids to buying more food in order to get the toy.  It’s the branding of children, which almost seems like brainwashing, into mini-consumers.

Along the way, however, the jobs at fast food places aren’t that great.  One particular chapter I’ll go into detail about how they treat their workers.

These little towns thrived on their own.  But through industry, McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC came roaring in.  With this, the suburbs came in.  What’s so significant about those?  They’re all the same.  There’s no uniqueness, or special about these towns anymore.  Fast Food thrives on new suburban sprawl, and they encourage more sprawl.  Interestingly enough, McDonald’s became the world’s largest purchasers of satellite photos in order to see neighborhoods and see where a good location for the next McDonald’s should be.

A teenager wakes up at 5:30 just to go to work.  Now, fast food restaurants usually put pretty girls up on the front.  Why?  To deal with the customers.
The teens usually don’t feel really awake until about 11:00.  Indeed, the fast-food workforce thrives on teens.  Why?  They aren’t that skilled.  So

“instead of relying on a small, stable, well-paid, and well-trained workforce, the fast-food industry seeks out part-time, unskilled workers who are willing to accept low pay.”

Think about it.  Teens usually don’t have families to support, and their inexperience makes them easier to control.  The fast-food companies don’t need skilled workers.  It just needs people to do what they’re told.  They can be hired cheaply.  And you are substitutable.  You don’t want to work here?  Fine.  We can easily replace you.  Indeed, fast-food companies are the first to fight Congress that the minimum wage doesn’t need to be raised.  Between 1968 and 1990, the years in which the fast-food chains grew the fastest, the real value of the minimum wage fell almost by half.

“The real value of the US minimum wage is lower today than it was 50 years ago.  The fast-food chains earn large profits as wages fall, because it costs them less money to hire workers.”

Think about all these layoffs.  Why are there so many layoffs, yet the CEO’s get a huge disproportion of the profits?  Being on part of the “crew,” you are employed “at will.”  If business is slow, you’re sent home.  If it’s busy, you’re asked to stay longer.  The managers’ job is to basically encourage “team spirit” and to work hard.  Indeed, the word “McJob” has meant “a job that’s low-paying and offers little opportunity to get ahead.”  There’s not much of a future.

Jobs always seem fun at first.  Why not quit?  You need the money!  You work so hard at a job that pays so little.  These type of jobs become so monotonous and they don’t teach any real skills, that eventually it makes people hate jobs, and there’s skepticism that honest work will get them anywhere.  Schlosser writes:

“Studies have found that kids who work twenty hours or less a week during the school year usually benefit from the experience and gain self-confidence from their jobs.  But kids who work more than twenty hours a week are much more likely to cut classes and drop out of high school.”

On some occasions, teens have to stay until 2AM, even on school nights.  With these jobs, when your shift is over, the managers ask you to stay and work for a few more hours.  It’s because of the failure of other people not showing up.  A particular teen worked a 19 hour shift.  The manager gave her a thank-you gift: a bag of candy.

A teen gets a job in a McDonald’s in Canada.  A teen, Pascal, got the job and worked hard.  Indeed, Pascal would even show up when other workers failed to show up.  He was even employee of the month.  Later on, he got a worker evaluation.  Pascal only got a 2 out of a 4.  Why?  It turns out that the hardest workers get low grades.  That’s because a worker’s pay is increased based on the grade.  If the grades are kept low, then the company doesn’t have to pay that much.  Workers had to stay late, and the workers were being treated with disrespect.  Suddenly, Pascal and a friend decided to start a labor union.  Eventually 75% of the workers signed the cards (you must get at least 50% to have an effect).  However, one of the workers snitched.  The snitcher got a promotion.  All the sudden, McDonald’s hired 24 new crew members.  Thus, Pascal didn’t have 50% of the workers.  McDonald’s was blocking the union to form.  McDonald’s spread rumors about Pascal (it sounds so high school, doesn’t it?) and McDonald’s promised workers free meals if they left the union.
About a month before a court decision, the owner of the restaurant announced that it was going to be shut down.  He claimed that the rent for the building had grown too expensive.  The odds of a McDonald’s going out of business in Canada is 300 to 1.  Amazing coincidence?

The food is mainly derived of chemicals.  The flavor of the fries is actually a chemical to smell (and taste) good.  Some of these chemicals were really surprising.  Methyl anthranilate is the grape flavor in Kool-Aid, for example.  A lot of these chemicals are added to Pop Tarts, Hamburger Helper, Tang, Filet-O-Fish Sandwiches and thousands of other products.  The strawberry flavor is a strawberry shake has about 64 chemicals (no strawberries).

There are Bugs in the Candy.  Adding color to foods isn’t just dye anymore.  Cochineal extract (or carmine or carminic acid) is made of dead bugs from Peru.  These bugs are collected, dried, and then ground into a coloring additive.  Dannon Strawberry yogurt gets its color from carmine, so do many candies, frozen fruit bars, fruit fillings, and Ocean Spary grapefruit juice.

Why add color?  Adding color influences how you’ll taste or drink the product.  Would you eat strawberries that weren’t red?  However, these colorings have confused people.  Kids drinking Windex for example.

Yellow #5: studies have shown that it can cause hyperactivity, headaches, rashes, and asthma.  Where is this located?  Mt. Dew, Gummy Candies, Jell-O, Lucky Charms and other foods.  It’s been banned in some countries but still used widely in the US and Great Britain.

With meat,  ranching and the cowboy life are being left behind by a new kind of ranching: factory farms.  Ranchers are facing economic problems.  McDonald’s is America’s largest beef purchaser.  A while back it bought ground beef from 175 local companies.  Today, it buys their beef from five companies.  A lot of the ranchers have argued that the corporations have used unfair tactics by strangling the market which forces the price of the cattle to go down.  Early in history, the trusts could stop these corporations from taking advantage; it was the beef trust.  The purpose of the trusts was to break up companies that had grown too large, protect small companies from unfair business tactics so that the prices were set by the free market, not by corporate executives meeting in secret.  Eventually, the beef trust was broken.  Today, the top four meatpacking companies are: Tyson, Swift & Company, Excel, and National Beef.  They control about 84% of the market.  But because the companies have grown bigger and more powerful, independent ranchers can’t make a good income anymore.

In another place, Greeley, Colorado, the smell is a combination of live animals, manure, dead animals being turned into dog food, it’s basically an invisible fog.  By gaining a profit, the meatpacking firms cut their costs by cutting the wages of the workers.  Meatpacking used to be the best-paying factory jobs in the nation; now it’s one of the lowest-paying jobs.  Usually, they hire poor immigrants.  Why?  They don’t have much power, and they’re easy to manipulate.  The cows don’t roam in pastures, but they’re in feedlots.  They’re given a special grain to fatten the cows along with growth hormones.  But with all this manure, it’s dumped into these lagoon pools which can be 15 feet deep.  Sometimes, they leak sending it to rivers and streams.  But they also emit gases which can be deadly.
With chicken, it really took off when McDonald’s invented the Chicken McNugget.  Interestingly enough, they have more fat per ounce than a hamburger does.  Through this, Tyson company became the world’s largest chicken processor.  But the farmer doesn’t get paid that much.  Usually chicken farmers quit after about three years.  Inside a chicken house, the building is as long as a football field, more than 30,000 chickens packed together.  They would never see the outdoors.  Their diet consisted of a mixture of old pretzels, cookies covered with fat, leftover meat, fat, blood and bones from chicken slaughterhouses.  Basically, the chickens become cannibals.  And chickens aren’t even meat-eaters!  Chickens prefer grass but these chickens will never see grass in their entire lives.  Chickens try to gain about 5.5 lbs. in about one month.  That’s like a child weighing 286 lbs. by the age of six.  But because these chickens get fat so quick, they can’t walk.  Their legs are filled with fluid that they’re in constant pain.  Indeed, most have heart problems.  They can’t even exercise.  Chickens are having heart attacks.  If you open up a chicken, there’s a thick layer of fat around the chicken’s heart.  The purpose is to fatten the chickens as much as possible.

How were chickens killed in the old days?  The farmers just grabbed them and chopped their heads off with an ax.  Nowadays, you hang their legs from an overhead chain. The chickens try to wriggle free that they sometimes break their legs. What happens is that the chain moves and then it dips the chickens in water that’s charged with electricity?  This is supposed to knock the chickens unconscious. However, there are some chickens that aren’t knocked out.  So what happens next means that they feel it. Even McDonald’s has admitted that one or two out of every hundred chickens aren’t knocked out. The chain moves to a sharp rotating blade that cuts their throats.  Now if the chickens aren’t stunned, they’re going to feel it. However, there are still some chickens that can avoid the blade, which means what happens next is even more painful. The chain then dunks the chickens into boiling hot water so that the feathers can be removed.  This isn’t just boiling water, it’s scalding hot.  Indeed, no chicken has been known to survive it.  So the chickens who are still alive are basically boiled to death. A video was released showing what happens inside this chicken factory farm. Some of the workers would throw the chickens (like a football) against the wall.  In other cases, the workers would jump on the birds or throwing them up against the wall again.  One has said, “I like to hear the popping sound they make.” Why this cruelty?  The production line is moving too quickly.

Now you might say, “but that’s the only way to get the meat out quick.” Well, in Europe, they don’t have this process.  They are kept in crates, then placed in a sealed chamber, then forced to breathe a gas that painlessly kills them unconsciously.  So chickens never get boiled alive. A study has shown that this was more efficient than the electrified water, better welfare for the birds, and better for the workers in the plant, without affecting the quality of meat.  However, it’s more expensive.  Going back to Pollan, he checks out McDonald’s and was surprised with some of the foundings.  (I was too.)  For example, a chicken McNugget contains dimethylpolysiloxene.  It’s a carcinogen.  The McNugget also contains tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHG).  It’s lighter fluid!  Ingesting five grams of lighter fluid and kill.  About 0.02 percent of TBHG is in the McNugget.  With fast food, it’s doesn’t have that great savoring moment.  After all, which would you rather have: fast food or a home-cooked meal?  A home-cooked meal just feels (and tastes) more satisfying.  Thus, people eat more and more fast food to try and get that “savory” feeling (and taste) that they once had.

So much cattle comes in that human error can cause unnecessary pain for the animals, injure workers, and contaminate the meat.  The workers are basically cogs. In the 1950s, unions had a lot of influence: they were the highest-paid jobs, got good medical care, they could speak their mind, and it provided a good wage. In the 1970s, fast-food became popular, so wages had to be cut, moved the companies to rural places to weaken the unions, and mainly hired immigrants (usually illegal).  The production line was sped up. Nowadays, meatpacking is one of the lowest-paid jobs in the US.  It’s now become the most dangerous. The line moves so fast that the workers who cut the cattle from an overhead chain sometimes accidentally stab another co-worker or themselves with the knives and hooks. In the old days, plants slaughtered about 50 cattle an hour.  Thirty years ago, it was 175 cattle an hour.  Nowadays, it’s about 400 cattle an hour.  That’s about 7 cattle per minute.  With the increase in pace, the chances of injuries goes up. Faster pace means higher profits. If a worker dies on the job, the maximum fine is $70,000.  But these companies make billions every year. An executive has a better chance of winning the lottery than facing criminal charges for causing injury of a worker. However, the workers can’t complain.  Why not?  They’re illegal immigrants. If workers are injured, usually, you let them go.  They usually quit, become injured, or cannot do manual labor.  Thus, these workers often become trapped in poverty.

In 1993, nearly 200 people were hospitalized, 4 people died from contaminated meat from Jack in the Box.  Most of them were children. Other fast-food places were contaminated.  McDonald’s in 1982. About 200,000 people are sick from something they eat everyday, 900 are hospitalized, 14 die. These increases in sickness is due to the way American food is produced. Usually, food poisoning was from a small outbreak: church gathering, family picnic, wedding receptions.  Only one area of people got sick.  But now, food is produced en mass that millions can get sick.

What’s interesting is that if toys causes major harms to children, the government can demand that all of those toys be removed.  But the government cannot order a meatpacking company to remove contaminated beef.  The government can’t even fine the companies. Lobbyists are close to Congress. Cattle don’t get much exercise.  They mainly stay in a certain place and live among their own manure. To slaughter the cow, you have to really careful about cutting the hide off.  But because everything is moving so fast, sometime the job isn’t the efficient. The digestive system is pulled out by hand.  A single worker pulls the guts out of sixty cattle every hour.  That’s one cattle per minute.  Doing it right takes a lot of skill; doing it wrong means you spill all of the contents everywhere.  But we’ve already learned what the meatpacking companies hire?  Are these skilled workers?  No.  Therefore, meat gets contaminated a lot. With ground beef, it’s usually old dairy cows, cows which are already sick and diseased in the first place. Cows can live up to forty years.  Guess when they get slaughtered?  Around the age of four.  That’s when their milk production begins to fall. One patty at a fast-food restaurant can come from hundreds or even thousands of cattle.  However, germs can easily spread.  And E. Coli gets spread too because it mainly comes from one source: poop. That’s right.  There’s poop in the meat!

How many of you would eat dog?  Why not?  Pigs are actually more intelligent than dogs.  The sows are confined in crates that they can’t turn around. Once the piglets are born, it’s even more crowded.  The piglets, who are friendly by nature, start to bite and they bite off each other’s tails.  Thus, the farmer chops off their tails. At the slaughterhouses, the ramps are really high and the path curves.  Why?  It’s so that the cattle doesn’t see what’s coming up.

There has also been talks about gaining massive weight.  The authors talk to two kids who have gained weight by eating fast food.  One has already had gastric bypass surgery, the other was contemplating it.  In high school, these kids usually go across the street and eat fast-food.  Indeed, most fast-food companies have an “80-20 rule.”  About 80 percent of their money that McDonald’s earns comes from just 20 percent of its customers.  With this, the industry encourages people to eat bigger portions.  Along with the health problems, the heart is full of fat, arteries are clogged, the spine isn’t as strong (because of osteoprosis) and the blood vessels in the brain is constricted.  High schoolers are more likely to break their bones if they drink soda constantly.  With sodas, some cities have their soda cheaper than water.  Their teeth aren’t that great though.

It seems like a great idea, but at the same time, the major critique has been: isn’t the individual in charge of whether s/he goes to a fast food place.  If you don’t like fast-food, don’t go!  So where’s individual responsibility in all this?  The authors reply that while individuals should have the responsibility, it’s a different story when it revolves around children.  With so much fast food around, and with the advertisements, it’s considered exploitation of children.  Marketing to kids by bringing only fast-food and soda to schools doesn’t give the kids the full details about the problems behind these things.

“But won’t McDonald’s go out of business if their whole system changes?” you might ask.  No.  The authors contend that there are a few places that treat their workers fairly, animals without suffering, and without the whole marketing campaign.  In-N-Out Burger is one example.

Finally, it talks about the globalization of fast food.  When Iraq fell to the Americans, guess what was the first thing installed in Iraq?  A Burger King.  Imagine that.  You bring democracy and freedom to a state, and you’d probably want the first thing there to symbolize the struggle, but it’s a fast-food joint.  Throughout the world, everything is becoming part of the fast-food industry that political scientist Benjamin Barber has called it a “McWorld.”

In the end, I think it’s a good book even though it’s written to a younger generation.  There’s still some questions that can be brought up to the table, but I’ll let this review pass as is.  Wow, I thought this would be a short review but it’s longer than I thought.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Economics, Health. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Chew on This by Eric Schlosser & Charles Wilson

  1. Fare says:

    I read the part about carmine to Farrah the other day. I wonder producers will have to ever reveal where the “natural flavors” come from.. I know vegetarians will always complain about this. SOunds reasonable. Stupid fast food places are having a hay day over the high unemployment rates. Hire lots of people so their employees only get around 30 hours a week. Like they’d ever pay people overtime.. pshhh.

    Just got done with the meatpacking business. I will never buy Tyson chicken again. I love how they put all the risks on the companies who raise the chickens.. and these companies never get out of debt. Sure Tyson will breed, slaughter, and process the chickens, but they will not raise them.. which is where all the costs are.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    It’s incredible how these fast food places operate without the public knowing about it.

  3. Pingback: Demi-Vegetarianism « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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