We Do Ron Ron Ron, We Do Ron Ron

James Meek

  • Fast-Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
    Allen Lane, 356 pp, £9.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 7139 9602 1

In 1917, a pair of teenagers who had lied about their ages to join an ambulance unit destined for the Western Front found themselves in the same training camp in Sound Beach, Connecticut. One of them was Walt Disney. The other, only 15 years old, was Ray Kroc, the man who later made McDonald’s an empire. When Kroc and his comrades went off to the nearest town on furlough to look for girls, Disney stayed in camp, drawing. Disney served in France and Germany, but the First World War ended before Kroc was sent to Europe. Had he gone, it might have changed the history of fast food. The mode of operation in the trenches fascinated both Kroc and Disney: the assembly line. Everyone – the ammunition worker, the machine-gunner, the infantryman – played their small, repetitive, unskilled role with as much speed and efficiency as they could muster. The Front was, as Richard Rhodes put it in The Making of the Atom Bomb, an industrial operation for the manufacture of corpses.

Disney and Kroc were great admirers of Ford (as was Lenin) and saw assembly lines as the embodiment of efficiency, order and consistency. These lines seemed the best way to apply new technology in order to make the things people wanted at the lowest prices. The main drawback was manning: people were the most inefficient, disordered and inconsistent moving parts of the assembly line. They got sick. They had to be paid. They had to be taught what to do. The solution was to strip workers of skills and confine them to narrow, repetitive tasks.

The trenches were the ultimate assembly line: the dehumanised troops not only manned it but constituted the raw material. Would it have made any difference to Kroc if as a youngster he’d stretchered the dead and wounded into his ambulance? Perhaps not – Disney didn’t make the connection. In the 1930s, he set up a rigid assembly-line system in his studio, where stupefied artists performed repetitive sketching and inking tasks against the clock. Disney never understood why they went on strike for better conditions. He blamed Communism.

One of the best reasons to read Eric Schlosser’s blazing critique of the American fast-food industry is his bleak portrayal of the alienation of millions of low-paid employees, a reminder that mindless assembly-line jobs did not disappear in the US and Europe with the fading of smokestack industries; that low unemployment is not equivalent to good employment; and that corporate capitalism and Soviet Communism have a lot in common.

‘The organisation cannot trust the individual,’ Kroc once said. ‘The individual must trust the organisation.’

The fast-food corporations have been fanatical in their determination to make their employees conform to their technology rather than the other way around. Insta-Burger King, later to become Burger King, used to have machines which made milkshakes and burgers automatically. Prospective franchisees were told: ‘Both machines have been thoroughly perfected … are of foolproof design – can be easily operated even by a moron.’

The fools turned out to be the designers – the machines didn’t work – but faith in science and technology remains strong in the fast-food industry. It abounds with contraptions like the Lamb Water Gun Knife, which makes french fries by firing tons of potatoes out of a high-pressure hose at eighty miles an hour through a matrix of blades. At the Lamb Weston plant in Idaho, which makes fries for McDonald’s, the potatoes go from the field to the freezer – cleaned, sized, flayed with steam, blasted through the Knife, screened and trimmed for blemishes, blanched, dried, deep-fried, quick-frozen, sorted into six-pound bags and packed into boxes – with a minimum of human intervention. At McDonald’s and the other chains, everything is cooked from frozen, rehydrated from powder or reconstituted from syrup. At International Flavours & Fragrances in New Jersey, the largest company of its kind, where they design and manufacture the smells and tastes of crisps, pet food, toothpaste and Calvin Klein’s Eternity, they can mix chemicals to reproduce exactly the smell of a grilled hamburger.

A firm called the Titan Corporation offers a spin-off from Reagan-era Star Wars research in the form of a machine that kills bacteria in meat by irradiating it, which is easier and cheaper than raising and slaughtering cows in such a way that they’re not infected in the first place. A former editor of Meat & Poultry magazine, Steven Bjerklie, told Schlosser: ‘I don’t want to be served irradiated faeces along with my meat.’ Because of BSE, US cattle are no longer fed the remains of sheep, cows, cats and dogs, but pigs and horses are still put in the feed mix, along with cattle blood and chicken manure.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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