So my friend The RZA lent me this book – he’s not actually in the Wu Tang Clan unfortunately but he’s a very nice man nonetheless. I wasn’t convinced I’d enjoy Fast Food Nation as I’m very partial to a cheese quarter pounder and I have no time for weak-stomached hippies who squeal: ‘but you’re eating eyelids!’ As far as I’m concerned, if it tastes good and I don’t feel like I’m eating eyelids as I swallow I’m golden. But Eric Schlosser was about to dig a bit deeper than eyelid scare-stories – and some of the things I learned in his book surprised me.
In 1998 more fast food workers were killed on the job than police officers – and the majority of those murders were committed by former (or even current) workers robbing the restaurant. The combination of low pay, poor conditions that breed little company loyalty, and deprived backgrounds means that the grisly outcome is not all that surprising.
Sad stories abound in Fast Food Nation – people who’ve given their lives and their health to their fast food industry employers (particularly in dangerous slaughterhouses) find themselves repeatedly injured, pressured to take the riskiest jobs in the workplace and finally thrown on the scrapheap, having been bullied and tricked out of their compensation. Imagine being injured at your job and then, because you no longer have the use of your arms, being pressured to sign a waiver with the pen in your mouth. Enough said.
As well as the abuse of injured and sick workers, I was shocked to hear about the lengths McDonalds have gone to in order to stop their workers unionising – to the extent of employing spies and shutting down restaurants where workers have begun to organise, only to reopen them weeks later, hiring only non-union employees.
It’s not just about the eyelids and trotters they put into the meat (although there are some quite grisly stories about animals being fed shit (as in a diet of actual faeces) and being made to cannibalise the remains of their own species). The interesting thing about Fast Food Nation is that it gives a three-dimensional image of the fast food industry. It’s not just the filth the food is made in, it’s how many workers’ arms get ripped off in machines on production lines moving way too fast, it’s how many towns have been wrecked by McDonalds pushing small independent businesses out and chaining the town’s teenagers to a life of minimum-wage, minimum-skill drudgery, it’s how dangerous it is for us to let any one corporation become too dominant. After all, how can we expect a profit-driven corporation to do anything other than seek increased profits for itself? Isn’t it madness to expect them to prioritise product quality, customer satisfaction, care for their employees? You might hope not, but that seems to be the way of it, and Schlosser argues that it is the government and, above all, the consumer, who must learn to prioritise these things.
I watched Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Super Size Me with interest but god dammit I was hungry at the end of it! And I’m not going to lie, the crispy golden fries on the front of this book had much the same effect – but so far I’ve resisted going back to McDonalds since reading the book. (OK, I did get Mr Literary Kitty to make me a faux-all-in-one breakfast wrap at the weekend – but he didn’t abuse any workers in the process.) This is largely because of my admiration for the defendants of the McLibel case – one of the most moving stories in the whole book.
The McLibel case was an English lawsuit filed by McDonald’s against five environmental activists Their organisation, the tiny ‘London Greenpeace’ (separate from Greenpeace itself) distributed pamphlets that were critical of McDonald’s. McDonald’s then took umbrage and sued them. Whilst three of the five parties sued quickly capitulated to the burger giant, former postman David Morris and gardener Helen Steel decided to take the corporation on. They were denied legal aid and represented themselves in court, against an army of McDonald’s litigators, and the case continued for twenty years. Twenty YEARS.
I won’t go into the details too deeply here as it’s a complex case, though I highly recommend reading up on it, but the upshot is that Morris and Steel fought and fought through every setback – every time the court award McDonald’s damages the pair appealed. As the case was dragged through the courts the cockiness of McDonald’s was exposed and a very bright light was shone on its practices – a PR disaster for the company, undeniably.
The British press unsurprisingly took a keen interest in this ‘David and Goliath’ case. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights finally ruled that the original case had breached Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) and ordered that the UK government pay Steel and Morris £57,000 in compensation – an incredible result given the challenges the pair faced (such as McDonalds using spies to infiltrate their organisation – to the extent of giving Morris a gift of baby clothes for his new child in order to obtain his address for surveillance!).
It made me think: if people so under-resourced are prepared to go to such lengths to fight against greedy, sinister corporate culture – can’t I abstain from eating the odd burger and chips? The example of Morris and Steel is genuinely inspiring – a beacon of hope in the bleak, homogenised and desperate future painted by Schlosser.