Fast Food Nation – a review from a corporate comms point of view

In the process of moving house, I uncovered an essay I wrote for my Corporate Communications class as part of my Graduate Diploma for Public Relations Communication. We were charged with writing a book review of a book of our choice, but to do it from the perspective of some Corporate Comms theory. I went with Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and how it relates to Triple-Bottom-Line-Reporting. Because I wrote it eight years ago, some of my sentences are overly long, and my hyphenationing is not all that swell. Nevertheless, I think my ideas are pretty sound, and you might enjoy reading it.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I got 26/30 for it, along with these comments, along with some “Cynical!” written in the margins:

Joanna – a very bright and breezy journalistic review – most enjoyable and containing good thematic links to Corp Comm. Take care not to sound too flip which lessens impact – but that’s a small quibble. Some more use of textbook would have given it that “gravitas”.

I haven’t eaten McDonalds in over a year, and I don’t intend to start now, but as I was reading descriptions of ads in Fast Food Nation, I started craving a cheeseburger – even if it was going to be a cheeseburger made by poor iterant workers who are paid below minimum wage to put together substandard meat infected with faecal matter and e-coli that would result in the entire nation becoming obese as Eric Scholsser’s Fast Food Nation suggests.

Fast Food Nation has become terribly trendy to read, this year’s version of No Logo by Naomi Klein. It picks up on current anti-globalisation sentiment, health consciousness and worker rights, and rages against the evil practices of evil companies. Essentially, Fast Food Nation is about Triple Bottom Line Reporting, although it doesn’t call it that. Its chief allegations against the fast food industry is that all they care about is profit, not the social and environmental consequences of its products. As a study of corporate practices, admittedly with a clear bias, Fast Food Nation is an essential read for any businessperson hoping to maintain a good company reputation.

To avoid falling pretty to the same kind of bad publicity generated for the fast food industry by Schlosser, corporate communicators must not only respond well to any attacks but also work to ensure that they are working for an organisation that cares about society and the environment as well as its profits. As well as the basic necessities of life, consumers want to know that the companies they are buying for are essentially good – otherwise they will take their business elsewhere (Ferell et all, page 90). In the final chapter entitled “Have it your way,” Schlosser advocates that people force companies to become ethical by only supporting companies with good social and environmental policies, and holds up a company called In-And-Out Burger that prepares all its food freshly and pays its staff at least $10 an hour as an example of a good business. In Fast Food Nation, McDonalds is the baddie, hurting people and ruining the environment.

So exactly what terrible things does the fast food industry do to the environment, according to Schlosser? In the chapter ‘On the range’ he details how beef conglomerates that have exclusive supply arrangements with McDonalds have pushed traditional free-roaming sustainable ranchers out of business, replacing them with cattle feedlots that churn through grain and other far less savoury feed. Food technology dedicated to improving profitability commands the entire technical battery of growing, preserving, processing distribution and cooking, and displaces local food culture – capital intensive feedlots and factory production of chicken chains the nature of food available for consumption (Germov and Williams 1999, page 64).

In ‘Why the fries taste so good’, Schlosser describes the large chemical plants that manufacture the ‘smell’ of fast foods, and the polluting waste that the plants create. In the ‘Your trusted friends’ chapter which outlines the origins of fast food chains, he describes the growth in disposable packaging and the increase in refuse and waste that is caused as companies moved away from reusable plates and cutlery. This is one area where Schlosser does not give enough credit to the industry for adopting better practices. McDonalds was one of the first restaurants to drop Styrofoam and use paper instead (Ferrell et all, page 94). As their Social Responsibility Report (McDonalds Corporation, 2002) states “we support environmentally sustainable practise and since 1990 we have purchased more than $4 billion worth of recycled packaging and products weighing more than 400 million pounds”. Many New Zealanders may still remember, however, that around 1990 McDonalds installed ‘recyling bins’ into its restaurants, allowing customers to separate their rubbish. This would have been both a corporate communication strategy to show that McDonalds was committed to the environment and an excellent bonus for their triple bottom line – but unfortunately, it was discovered that all the rubbish was ending up in landfills and not being recycled at all. This strategy was a public relations nightmare, and would have been good fodder for Schlosser, if he had needed to venture out of America for more horror stories.

Because Fast Food Nation is primarily about America, except for its chapters on globalisation, it doesn’t really touch on another environmental issue that would be important to New Zealanders – Genetic Engineering. In fact, GE gets a mention only in passing – a reference to Taco Bell tortillas being pulled off the shelves because they contained GE corn that was ‘only fit for livestock feed’. In the current New Zealand climate, the omission of this issue seems to almost discredit the book. Another shortcoming is that while the use of hormones and steroids is suggested a few times, there is no mention of any health risks to humans associated with this kind of animal growing. Likewise, another major theme that seems like it would fit in but wasn’t included was animal rights. Schlosser talks about the brutal conditions in the slaughterhouse, and how chicken farmers are given a poor deal by chicken-buying conglomerates, but while describing how cows are fed to other cows, he doesn’t talk about the living conditions of the cows, or the battery cages that the chickens are surely caged in.

Meanwhile the fast food industry has anticipated investigation into the treatment of the animals that will eventually end up served to their customers, and have prepared stamtes to head off criticism. Demonstrating its environmental concern, the KFC website states “as a major purchaser of food products, we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to influence the way animals are treated. We take that responsibility very seriously, and are working with our suppliers on an ongoing basis to make sure the most humane procedures for caring for and handling animals are in place” (Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc, 2002). The lesson there is that even if authors like Eric Schlosser haven’t yet got around to finding the flaws in your organisation’s environmental practices, you should still have the answers at hand. Or better yet, make sure that you have flawless environmental policy so there is no need to defend yourself.

Possibly Schlosser limited his exploration of the environmental impact of fast food in order to focus even more on the social repercussions of its business. According to Ferrell, Fraedrich and Ferrell (1999), there are four steps of social responsibility – legal, ethical, economic and philanthropic. Different parts of Fast Food Nation state that the greater majority of the fast food industry doesn’t act philanthropically at all. When he writes about Fast Food Literacy programmes that organisations such as Pizza Hutt have started, Schlosser focuses on the free pizza vouchers that provide the incentive for children learning to read, which are, in his opinion, dooming the children to a lifelong habit of poor nutrition, rather than the fact that the children have now learnt to read. This is the kind of cynicism that much corporate sponsorship is greeted with. In her book Making Fast Food (1996), which could be a companion novel to Fast Food Nation, Ester Reiter writes “Many companies become involved in community activity in order to create a benign image of themselves”. Corporate communicators need to be aware that this may be the reaction their community initiatives receive, unless they are presented properly. The idea of small children being taught early in life that fast food is a great, exciting option does seem a little insidious, admittedly. A key message that should accompany any corporate sponsorship is that corporations are made up of people too – there isn’t just a money-hungry robot at the centre of the organisation that intentionally wants to harm people.

But, as Schlosser lists over and over again, many people are hurt by fast food. In ‘The Most Dangerous Job’ he describes the brutal conditions in slaughterhouses and lists various decapitations, chemical burns and loss of limbs that workers in them have suffered. In ‘Behind the counter’ he relates stories of injuries to staff in the actual fast food outlets. Although he is basing his writing entirely on anecdotes, there are plenty of studies that have been done, such as Youth at Work (Tannock 2001) and Making Fast Food (Reiter 1996) that can back up his claims. One of the main causes of injuries, according to Schlosser, is that as fast food outlets often employ the cheapest labour possible, resulting in a workforce who have English as a second language and who don’t understand safety procedures, and who are given inadequate training. This obvious lack of internal communication is something that socially responsible organisations would fix. Schlosser also claims that many workers are encouraged not to report injuries, and that those who do are severely penalised, signs of a troubled human resources department. Fast food workers are also very unlikely to belong to a union, and are unlikely to have job security or employee benefits. Despite this, McDonalds was voted 1999 Employer of the Year in Australia (McDonalds Corporation 2002), so either they have different practices in Australia than they do in the USA, or the Public Relations Department in Australia is doing a much better job.

It isn’t just those who work for the fast food companies are suffering health problems as a result. Recently newspapers have been full of stories in America who are suing fast food companies for making them fat (Gumball 2002). Schlosser backs their claims, listing statistics like that 25% of the vegetables in American children’s diets come from French fries, and tying the rise of obesity to the availability of fast food – using statistics from countries such as Japan, who are fairly new to the fast food market. Many food companies will state that by providing the nutritional information about their products, they are enabling customers to make nutritious choices (Germo and Williams, 1999, page 86).

Fast Food Nation meanwhile maintains that with advertising campaigns pitched at three year olds, no one is getting to make a choice. Certainly any socially responsible company would let its consumers know what they were eating, not just so they knew how many grams of fat was in their burger, but also in case it contained anything they were allergic to. The fast food industry is particularly vulnerable to charges that it contributes to the obesity epidemic by actively seeking to increase consumption of foods on which profits depend regardless of nutritional consequences (Germov and Williams 1999, page 86). Schlosser credits the Subway franchise with dedicating itself to producing lower fat sandwiches, while chastising all other fast food industries for the increasing of supersizes and the addition of bacon to almost everything.

Providing full information to buyers is one step towards social responsibility, but McDonalds France has taken social concern one step further and actually ran an advertising campaign advocating that McDonalds should only be eaten once a week or less (Field 2002). In India and other places with large Hindu populations, McDonalds no longer uses a formula to coat its fries that involves beef tallow, out of respect for the holy place of the cow in Hindu religion. However, Schlosser writes about the lack of internal communication at McDonalds whereby the organisation issued a statement that said it had never claimed its fries were entirely vegetarian, while customer service people wrote letters to individuals letting them know about the vegetarian options in their restaurants – including the tallow-coated fries. This illustrates the need for consistency in message throughout an organisation, as well as highlighting the need for honesty and responsibility for its actions.

The fact that McDonalds, the most recognised brand in the world that has been in operation for nearly 40 years has only published its first Social Responsibility Report this year, a year after Fast Food Nation was first written, speaks volumes in itself. Although the fast food industry continues to grow, so does the anti-globalisation movement. With stories such as the McLibel case hitting the spotlight, the industry is becoming aware that it needs to start looking at its environment and social impacts as well as its profit. There is much evidence that social responsibility, including business ethics, is associated with increased profits, due employee commitment and customer loyalty (Ferrell et all 2000, page 82). Schlosser states in his introduction “I do not mean to suggest that fast food is solely responsible for every social problem now facing the United States”, but he goes on to explain in great detail about the problems that it does cause. While the book is clearly intended as a call to arms for consumers – and an effective one at that, as evidenced by reading any amateur reviews of it on Amazon.com or other such web site – it can also be viewed by businesses as a “what not to do” manual. Fast Food Nation may put you off takeaway food for a while, but it is well written and very readable. Place it comfortably on your bookshelf between your well-thumbed copy of No Logo and next to the novel My Year of Meat for maximum street credibility.

One comment

  1. Robin Patterson

    Jamie Oliver seems to have found that USA is not changing much. Have you watched any of his series about how he tried to improve children’s diets in Huntington, WV? French fries definitely counted as a vegetable on the official menus.

    My son Johnny managed to learn and work enough to become a food service manager with Macca’s in Porirua but is now a co-pilot for Eagle Air.

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