Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shitburger w/ Large Lies, Part 3

In 1917, the five largest meatpacking companies - Armour, Swift, Morris, Wilson, and Cudahy - controlled about 55% of the market. They routinely fixed prices and engaged in a myriad of anti-competitive behaviors, so much so that President Woodrow Wilson, presumably having no relation to the Wilson meatpacking company, ordered the FTC to investigate the industry.

Worried that a trial would destroy them, the meat industry giants signed a consent decree in 1920 that effectively broke their monopoly. Over the next fifty years the industry became smaller and more distributed. By 1970, the top four meatpacking firms slaughtered only about 21% of the nation's cattle.

Fast forward to today. The top four meatpacking firms - ConAgra, IBP, Excel, and National Beef - slaughter about 84% of the nation's cattle. This does not raise concern in Congress or the White House. In fact, the president and key members of Congress embrace this system and are cozy with the industry's lobbyists. The USDA, OSHA, and the FDA are largely partners with these agribusiness giants. These federal agencies possess little real power to enforce regulations or punish infractions.

This massive concentration of market power is maintained in large part because there is not a widespread, open commodities exchange for cattle. As much as 80% of the cattle being grown is bought and sold at undisclosed prices by the big four, effectively rendering a small rancher powerless to compete for market share or offer his stock at an informed price.

So what happened in the last 40 years? McDonald's demand for supply chain efficiencies...

Jesus, am I still going? Are you still here? You should have slapped me long ago. But thanks for sticking with me. Damn, this is getting to be a long review. I was trying to write a narrative of one thread that runs through Fast Food Nation, but it seems to be falling apart! You'll just have to read the book.

The tale of the beef industry, as told in the chapters "On the Range", "The Most Dangerous Job," and "What's in the Meat," is the beating heart of Schlosser's opus. But as I sit here trying to organize my thoughts and include the choicest cuts, I realize again how skillfully Schlosser has presented his material.

He had opened the book with a comparative history of two of the great purveyors of Americana in the 20th century, Walt Disney and Ray Kroc. We all know uncle Walt (though maybe not some of his more nefarious deeds), but Kroc is the man who took the McDonald brothers' small California restaurant and made it into an international phenomenon.

Disney's and Kroc's desire for complete control of their own product and their single-minded strategy to sell that product to the entire family made them unique. This introduction helps to frame a context for the explosion of fast food in the last forty years. Without it, the story just doesn't quite come to life.

Next: the stunning conclusion to Shitburger: the film, the grotesque facts, and some other third thing.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Here, here! More women in heels and less shit! I'm all for it! :)