Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Choke on that

On Monday the Grauniad published extracts from Chew on This: Everything you don't want to know about fast food by Eric Schlosser in an article guaranteed to have soggy socialists across Britain sobbing into their cereal. You can buy the book here but I don't know why you'd want to - the article has more holes than a bag of french fries after a drive-by-shooting.

Here are the top 6 ways the article smells like fortnight old fish and chip wrappers:

1: The implication that McDonalds is a cult that turns its businesspeople into crazy brandwashed zombies:

In late August 2004, on the island of Singapore, John Pain asked a large gathering of business people from Malaysia, China, Indonesia and the Philippines to stand up. Then he asked them to raise their arms and form the shape of three letters, one after another. "Give me a Y!" Pain yelled out. "Y!" they yelled back. The auditorium was suddenly full of people looking like Ys. "Give me a U!" "U!" "Give me an M!" "M!" "What's that spell?" "YUM!" "What's that spell?" "YUM! YUM! YUM!"

When jumping about and yelling is common teambuilding practice in Asia. Ask my friend who taught in Japan for a year and started his school day by leaping about in the playground along with the rest of the teaching staff and the town mayor.

2. The 'absent parents':

At a focus group, kids are paid to sit around and discuss what they like to buy.... Advertisers study children's drawings, hire children to take part in focus groups, pay children to attend sleepover parties and then ask them questions late into the night... The latest scientific research is also being used to make kids buy things... The average American child now spends about 25 hours a week watching television. That adds up to more than 1.5 months, non-stop, of TV every year... Aside from going to school, American children now spend more time watching television than doing anything else except sleeping. The average British child spends two hours and 20 minutes every day watching television and 25 minutes playing video games. In the UK, more than half of children under the age of 16 have a television in their bedroom.

Who aren't mentioned until about half-way through the article and even then are assumed to be entirely passive: Children's meals often come with different versions of the same toy so that kids will nag their parents to keep going back to the restaurant to get a complete set. Unless McDonalds operatives kidnap 6-year old investment bankers from US malls then someone consents to children attending these sleepover sessions, someone gives them money and someone takes them to McDonalds for 3 meals a day and plonks them in front of the TV for the rest of the time. These 'someones' are in most cases the parents. They have the choice to switch the TV off when they're there, to take their children to an after-school club when they're not... and to save their kiddiewinks months of therapy caused by a yellow and red clown waking them every hour in the night to ask them their opinion on ice cream.

3. It's news that fast food is homogeneous, overprocessed and loaded with additives:

The shakes and soft drinks begin as syrup. At Taco Bell restaurants, the food is "assembled", not prepared. The avocado dip isn't freshly made by workers in the kitchen; it is made at a gigantic factory in Michoacan, Mexico, then frozen and shipped to the US. The meat at Taco Bell arrives frozen and pre-cooked in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. The beans are dehydrated and look like brownish cornflakes. The cooking process is fairly simple. "Everything's add water," a Taco Bell employee says. "Just add hot water."

No s**t, sherlock. There's a definite case for making people aware that additives are unhealthy and burgers can make you fat, just incase they don't already know. But most people don't go to McDonalds expecting a Michelin starred chef to be hand-preparing organic vol-au-vents round the back. When restaurants like McDonalds first appeared in 1948/1955, eating out was something elitist and expensive. If you wanted to eat out cheaply, especially away from home, you'd have to risk a greasy spoon where you weren't entirely convinced you wouldn't be served up rat roadkill a la carte. McDonalds gave an affordable, consistent quality product that was an occasional treat. As society became more wealthy, it became less of a treat and people could eat there regularly. Now we see the backlash.

4. The hand-wringingly pretentious idea that everyone outside of the food industry does clean, self-actualising work 9 to 5:

Danielle Brent is a 17-year-old schoolgirl at Martinsburg High School in West Virginia. On Saturday mornings the alarm in her mobile phone goes off at 5.30am. It's still dark outside as she stumbles into the bathroom... Sometimes, it's really cold in the morning and it takes a while for the engine of the family's old car to start cranking out heat. There are a lot of other things she would rather be doing early on a Saturday morning - such as sleeping... Danielle soon realised that the job was different from what she had expected. Some of the customers were rude. Workers in the kitchen didn't always wash their hands... She usually doesn't feel awake until 10 or 11 o'clock, about halfway through her shift. But that grogginess never gets in the way of her job. Danielle thinks she could operate the cash register - as well as most of the other fancy machines - in her sleep.

How is this different from being a care worker in an old people's home? Or being a copy typist living a long commute from work? Or working in a call centre/on a checkout? The idea that you have a career that fulfils you, rather than a job that earns you money is the mindset of 'aghast of Islington'. Don't blame the fast food industry.

5. The suggestion that part-time/short-term McJobs full of young people are worse than full-time, life-long McJobs full of older people:

No other industry has a workforce so dominated by teens. Teenagers open the fast food outlets in the morning, close them at night and keep them going at all hours in between. Even the managers and assistant managers are sometimes in their teens... Instead of relying upon 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... The typical fast food worker quits or is fired after only three or four months. One of the reasons they leave their jobs so often is that the pay is so low. The fast food industry pays the minimum wage to more of its workers than any other industry in the US. And fast food workers are the largest group of low-income workers in the US today.

Working in fast food joints is an unskilled, dirty and smelly job. Because it's unskilled, almost anyone can do it so the pay is low. Provided they're mostly quitting and not being sacked, a rapid turnover and young workers is a good thing. It suggests older, more experienced workers can find something better. And that those using a McJob as an employment stop-gap find it easy to move on to better work.

6. The idea that all s**t happening in the world is the sole responsibility of McD's

Whenever members of Congress try to raise the minimum wage (which in 2006 is only $5.15 (£3) an hour), the fast food industry always fights hard against any increase. And the industry almost always wins...

... McDonald's Happy Meal toys are manufactured in countries where the prices are low. On the bottom of these toys you often find the phrase "Made in China"... Some of the workers at the factory said they were 14 years old and often worked 16 hours a day. Their wages were less than 20 cents (11p) an hour - almost 30 times less than the lowest amount you can pay an American worker... McDonald's now tries to ensure that children aren't employed to make its toys. But the company hasn't done much to increase the wages of the workers at Chinese toy factories.

McDonalds has some ethical responsibility. But they're not operating in a vacuum. The uber- scandals here are that the US political system is far too in thrall to lobby groups, and that working 16 hours a day manufacturing plastic toys for McDonalds is probably better than the alternative for some Chinese 14-year olds. Otherwise they wouldn't be working there.

Eric Schlosser's written a few books apart from those on fast food: he collaborated on a novel about environmental activism, and he wrote a book about migrant labour, drugs and pornography in America. I haven't read either but I'd like to make some recommendations for his next book. He could write about why US schoolkids are allowed to work until 2 am on school nights, how to make US politics less tied to special interests, how attending school can become a more economically attractive option for poor Chinese teens and how more companies can feel its in their interest to be socially responsible. Perhaps this is covered in his fast food book. Perhaps I'm overly optimistic and just have to accept the lefty intelligentsia is more interested in demonising burger joints than thinking up achieveable ways of improving the lot of our fellow man.


  • At 3:23 pm , Blogger Tristan said...

    I couldn't agree more.

    People eat at McDonalds because they like it and its cheap. It is their own choice, people are not zombies who do whatever Ronald McDonald tells them to do. I know its shocking, but some people choose to live differently to those in their ivory towers (who obviously know best)

    As for arguing against the minimum wage, they assume that it must be right to raise it (or even have one). What makes the intellectuals more qualified to judge this? They're not affected by it at all (except perhaps through broader effects on the economy, but they are less likely to affect the Guardian newspaper as its readership is overwhelmingly middle class and well off)

    If the girl who gets up so early doesn't think the rewards are big enough for that then she should look for another job. Obviously some think its worth their time so they do it.


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