This was a good read, but not entirely what I expected. I’d heard of the book, and then I saw Schlosser interviewed by Morgan Spurlock as part of the bonus features on Super Size Me, so I thought I had a pretty good idea what the book was about—an indictment of the fast food industry. And it is that. But it is also more than that. For example, it included the kind of stats that just horrify me:
Every month about 90 percent of American children between the ages of three and nine visit a McDonald’s.
Americans already drink soda at an annual rate of about fifty-six gallons per person—that’s nearly six hundred twelve-ounce cans of soda per person.
A person’s food preferences, like his or her personality, are formed during the first few years of life, through a process of socialization. Toddlers can learn to enjoy hot and spicy food, bland health food, or fast food, depending upon what the people around them eat.
Those are fun to read, self-affirming in a way that is comforting and pleasant, but the book goes far beyond that, far beyond the idea that you shouldn’t eat fast food because it ain’t good for you. The majority of the book, in fact, is dedicated to the argument that you shouldn’t eat fast food because it is evil and responsible for crimes against humanity.
The idea that the McDonald brothers had to serve hamburgers fast and cheap (The Speedee Service System) has reshaped entire industries as those that supply the fast food restaurants with their raw materials (French fries and hamburger patties) adopted the same kind of practices to meet the ever increasing demands of the fast food outlets and their billions of customers. And they have all—fast food restaurants, agriculture conglomerates, food processors and meat packers—devalued humans in the process, pursuing the holy grail of the training-less employee, the employee who needs no training because the process that they are there to facilitate is automatic and idiot proof. The meat packers, especially, have seen their employees transform from the highly-specialized, skilled tradesman with good wages and benefits to the illiterate, untrained and illegal immigrant, working for a fraction of the salary and for no benefits.
Kenny Dobbins was a Monfort employee for almost sixteen years. He was born in Keokuk, Iowa, had a tough childhood and an abusive stepfather, left home at the age of thirteen, went in and out of various schools, never learned to read, did various odd jobs, and wound up at the Monfort slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska. He started working there in 1979, right after the company bought it from Swift. He was twenty-three. He worked in the shipping department at first, hauling boxes that weighed as much as 120 pounds. Kenny could handle it, though. He was a big man, muscular and six-foot-five, and nothing in his life had ever been easy.
One day Kenny heard someone yell, “Watch out!” then turned around and saw a ninety-pound box falling from an upper level of the shipping department. Kenny caught the box with one arm, but the momentum threw him against a conveyer belt, and the metal teeth on the rim of the belt pierced his lower back. The company doctor bandaged Kenny’s back and said the pain was just a pulled muscle. Kenny never filed for worker’s comp, stayed home for a few days, then returned to work. He had a wife and three children to support. For the next few months, he was in terrible pain. “It hurt so fucking bad you wouldn’t believe it,” he told me. He saw another doctor, got a second opinion. The new doctor said Kenny had a pair of severely herniated disks. Kenny had back surgery, spent a month in the hospital, got sent to a pain clinic when the operation didn’t work. His marriage broke up amid the stress and financial difficulty. Fourteen months after the injury, Kenny returned to the slaughterhouse. “GIVE UP AFTER BACK SURGERY? NOT KENNY DOBBINS!!” a Monfort newsletter proclaimed. “Ken has learned how to handle the rigors of working in a packing plant and is trying to help others do the same. Thanks, Ken and keep up the good work.”
Kenny felt strong loyalty to Monfort. He could not read, possessed few skills other than his strength, and the company had still given him a job. When Monfort decided to reopen its Greeley plant with a non-union workforce, Kenny volunteered to go there and help. He did not think highly of labor unions. His supervisors told him that unions had been responsible for shutting down meatpacking plants all over the country. When the UFCW tried to organize the Greeley slaughterhouse, Kenny became an active and outspoken member of an anti-union group.
At the Grand Island facility, Kenny had been restricted to light duty after his injury. But his supervisor in Greeley said that old restrictions didn’t apply in this new job. Soon Kenny was doing tough, physical labor once again, wielding a knife and grabbing forty- to fifty-pound pieces of beef off a table. When the pain became unbearable, he was transferred to ground beef, then to rendering. According to a former manager at the Greeley plant, Monfort was trying to get rid of Kenny, trying to make his work so unpleasant that he’d quit. Kenny didn’t realize it. “He still believes in his heart that people are honest and good,” the former manager said about Kenny. “And he’s wrong.”
As part of the job in rendering, Kenny sometimes had to climb into gigantic blood tanks and gut bins, reach to the bottom of them with his long arms, and unclog the drains. One day he was unexpectedly called to work over the weekend. There had been a problem with Salmonella contamination. The plant needed to be disinfected, and some of the maintenance workers had refused to do it. In his street clothes, Kenny began cleaning the place, climbing into tanks and spraying a liquid chlorine mix. Chlorine is a hazardous chemical that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, causing a litany of health problems. Workers who spray it need to wear protective gloves, safety goggles, a self-contained respirator, and full coveralls. Kenny’s supervisor gave him a paper dust mask to wear, but it quickly dissolved. After eight hours of working with the chlorine in unventilated areas, Kenny went home and fell ill. He was rushed to the hospital and placed in an oxygen tent. His lungs had been burned by the chemicals. His body was covered in blisters. Kenny spent a month in the hospital.
Kenny eventually recovered from the overexposure to chlorine, but it left his chest feeling raw, made him susceptible to colds and sensitive to chemical aromas. He went back to work at the Greeley plant. He had remarried, didn’t know what other kind of work to do, still felt loyal to the company. He was assigned to an early morning shift. He had to drive an old truck from one part of the slaughterhouse complex to another. The truck was filled with leftover scraps of meat. The headlights and the wipers didn’t work. The windshield was filthy and cracked. One cold, dark morning in the middle of winter, Kenny became disoriented while driving. He stopped the truck, opened the door, got out to see where he was—and was struck by a train. It knocked his glasses off, threw him up in the air, and knocked both of his work boots off. The train was moving slowly, or he would’ve been killed. Kenny somehow made it back to the plant, barefoot and bleeding from deep gashes in his back and his face. He spent two weeks at the hospital, then went back to work.
One day, Kenny was in rendering and saw a worker about to stick his head into a pre-breaker machine, a device that uses hundreds of small hammers to pulverize gristle and bone into fine powder. The worker had just turned the machine off, but Kenny knew the hammers inside were still spinning. It takes fifteen minutes for the machine to shut down completely. Kenny yelled, “Stop!” but the worker didn’t hear him. And so Kenny ran across the room, grabbed the man by the seat of his pants, and pulled him away from the machine an instant before it would have pulverized him. To honor this act of bravery, Monfort gave Kenny an award for “Outstanding Achievement in CONCERN FOR FELLOW WORKERS.” The award was a paper certificate, signed by his supervisor and the plant safety manager.
Kenny later broke his leg stepping into a hole in the slaughterhouse’s concrete floor. On another occasion he shattered an ankle, an injury that required surgery and the insertion of five steel pins. Now Kenny had to wear a metal brace on one leg in order to walk, an elaborate, spring-loaded brace that cost $2,000. Standing for long periods caused him great pain. He was given a job recycling old knives at the plant. Despite his many injuries, the job required him to climb up and down three flights of narrow stairs carrying garbage bags filled with knives. In December of 1995 Kenny felt a sharp pain in his chest while lifting some boxes. He thought it was a heart attack. His union steward took him to see the nurse, who said it was just a pulled muscle and sent Kenny home. He was indeed having a massive heart attack. A friend rushed Kenny to a nearby hospital. A stent was inserted in his heart, and the doctors told Kenny that he was lucky to be alive.
Not long afterward, Monfort fired Kenny Dobbins. Despite the fact that Kenny had been with the company for almost sixteen years, despite the fact that he was first in seniority at the Greeley plant, that he’d cleaned blood tanks with his bare hands, fought the union, done whatever the company had asked him to do, suffered injuries that would’ve killed weaker men, nobody from Monfort called him with the news. Nobody even bothered to write him. Kenny learned that he’s been fired when his payments to the company health insurance plan kept being returned by the post office. He called Monfort repeatedly to find out what was going on, and a sympathetic clerk in the claims office finally told Kenny that the checks were being returned because he was no longer a Monfort employee. When I asked company spokesmen to comment on the accuracy of Kenny’s story, they would neither confirm nor deny any of the details.
Today Kenny is in poor health. His heart is permanently damaged. His immune systems seems shot. His back hurts, his ankle hurts, and every so often he coughs up blood. He is unable to work at any job. His wife, Clara—who’s half-Latina and half-Cheyenne, and looks like a younger sister of Cher’s—was working as a nursing home attendant when Kenny had the heart attack. Amid the stress of his illness, she developed a serious kidney ailment. She is unemployed and recuperating from a kidney transplant.
As I sat in the living room of their Greeley home, its walls decorated with paintings of wolves, Denver Broncos memorabilia, and an American flag, Kenny and Clara told me about their financial condition. After almost sixteen years on the job, Kenny did not get any pension from Monfort. The company challenged his workers’ comp claim and finally agreed—three years after the initial filing—to pay him a settlement of $35,000. Fifteen percent of that money went to Kenny’s lawyer, and the rest is long gone. Some months Kenny has to hock things to get money for Clara’s medicine. They have two teenage children and live on Social Security payments. Kenny’s health insurance, which costs more than $600 a month, is about to run out. His anger at Monfort, his feelings of betrayal, are of truly biblical proportions.
“They used me to the point where I had no body parts left to give,” Kenny said, struggling to maintain his composure. “Then they just tossed me into the trash can.” Once strong and powerfully built, he now walks with difficulty, tires easily, and feels useless, as though his life were over. He is forty-five years old.
Why did I bother typing that all out? Because there’s a novel in that story, and someday when I’m looking for my next challenging project I’ll stumble across this entry and there it will be, the outline of my new novel. Did it really happen? It’s purported to have, but it doesn’t really matter. Factual or not, there’s human truth in that story and it’s waiting for the right author to bring it out. Before embarking on that journey, I should probably read The Jungle. For all I know, Upton Sinclair may already be that author.
Children under the age of five, the elderly, and people with impaired immune systems are the most likely to suffer from illnesses caused by E. coli 0157:H7. The pathogen is now the leading cause of kidney failure among children in the United States. Nancy Donley, the president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), an organization devoted to food safety, says it is hard to convey the suffering that E. coli 0157:H7 causes children. Her six-year-old son, Alex, was infected with the bug in July of 1993 after eating a tainted hamburger. His illness began with abdominal cramps that seemed as severe as labor pains. It progressed to diarrhea that filled a hospital toilet with blood. Doctors frantically tried to save Alex’s life, drilling holes in his skull to relieve pressure, inserting tubes in his chest to keep him breathing, as the Shiga toxins destroyed internal organs. “I would have done anything to save my son’s life,” Donley says. “I would have run in front of a bus to save Alex.” Instead, she stood and watched helplessly as he called out for her, terrified and in pain. He became ill on a Tuesday night, the night after his mother’s birthday, and was dead by Sunday afternoon. Toward the end, Alex suffered hallucinations and dementia, no longer recognizing his mother or father. Portions of his brain had been liquefied. “The sheer brutality of his death was horrifying,” Donley says.
Hard to convey the suffering? I don’t know, ask a parent to spend a few hours mulling over this paragraph and I think you’d do a pretty good job conveying the suffering. It makes you cry. You have to physically walk away from the paragraph and block it out of your mind to keep it from overwhelming you. And that’s just the paragraph. What would it be like if Alex was your son? Or your daughter? How could you live with that?
The war on foodborne pathogens deserves the sort of national attention and resources that has been devoted to the war on drugs. Far more Americans are severly harmed every year by food poisoning than by illegal drug use. And the harms caused by food poisoning are usually inadvertent and unanticipated. People who smoke crack know the potential dangers; most people who eat hamburgers don’t. Eating in the United States should no longer be a form of high-risk behavior.
This is from Schlosser’s epilogue, where he addresses what to do and how to do it in response to the evils he has spent the previous 260 pages detailing. It’s a good takeaway to illustrate what I was talking about before. Fast food is not just unhealthy in Fast Food Nation, it’s dangerous and deadly in ways most of us don’t even realize.