Excerpt: In Food We Trust

ThomasAn excerpt from In Food We Trust: The Politics of Purity in American Food Regulation by Courtney I. P. Thomas

Chapter 2: The Cranberry Crisis

Advances in food science and technology that occurred during the twentieth century have made it possible for food systems to be organized, configured, and structured in ways that promote food safety. But if that is the case, why are there so many food safety crises in the United States? The answer is not that an industrialized food system cannot be made safe but that large and powerful corporations have perpetuated the regulatory focus on adulteration and misbranding that anchored the 1906 food safety framework because it has been in their best interest to do so.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century the U.S. food system under-went industrial modernization. Innovations in food technologies and the application of industrial logics associated with Fordism transformed food production. Whereas the U.S. food system at the end of the nineteenth century was characterized by small food producers, processors, and retailers and short food distribution lines, a hundred years later it was associated with economies of scale, vertical integration, assembly-line manufacturing, and the concentration of food production and processing activities in the hands of a few large agribusinesses with national (and international) distribution networks. At the same time, conceptions of food itself changed. The industrialization of the food system and the rise of the fast-food culture transformed food into a set of highly processed, greatly homogenized, and heavily enhanced commodities. As the History Channel documents, food and its production have become “modern marvels” of industrial innovation and design. As part of an effort to cut costs, add value, enhance efficiency, and increase profits, food producers worked to guarantee that end products would taste, look, smell, and feel the same all the time, every time. In modern America food is produced quickly and cheaply in large quantities for widespread distribution.

Food production systems in the United States operate on the basis of efficiency standards grounded in Fordism, including the internalization of specialization, assembly-line production, mass production and distribution, and the standardization of product lines. Today’s large food processors, for example, control every step of the production process, through either vertical integration or a complex system of subcontracted production chains. They provide the inputs, including seeds, immature livestock, fertilizers, and pesticides. They establish their own sets of best practices and standards for production. And they control marketing, advertising, and distribution.

Mass production in industrial economies led to the rise of corporations, which, as Jeffery Frieden writes, “grouped independent operations into one integrated multiplant corporation in order to address complicated problems of coordination. They brought together in one enterprise disparate activities— research, design, production, distribution, advertising—that had previously been carried out separately.”1 As agriculture became transformed by technology, assembly lines, which reduced both the time necessary to produce economic outputs as well as the costs of consumer goods across the economic spectrum, became the foundation of modern food production. Assembly-line divisions of labor are efficient because they break large production projects into specialized component steps. These efficiencies, first explained in Adam Smith’s description of the pin factory, were the foundation of the Industrial Revolution but have since been extended across economic sectors, from agriculture to manufacturing to services. Perfected by Ford’s automobile factories, assembly lines enhance worker productivity and thus reduce costs. The consequence is often that former luxury items, including, in the case of food, for example, butter, bread, and canned vegetables, become accessible to middle- and working-class consumers.

Repetition and the de-skilling of labor are central to assembly-line production. Because assembly lines break complex tasks, such as the assembly of an automobile or the slaughter of an animal, into a series of manageable steps, they eliminate the need for a skilled workforce. In this sense the journalist Eric Schlosser is correct when he refers to industrial meat packers as cogs in the great machine. For more than a century corporate agribusinesses have applied the logic of the assembly line to the slaughter of animals for human consumption, a production model Schlosser calls the “disassembly line.” Like their counterparts in manufacturing, these industrial food producers stand “in one spot along the line, performing the simple task over and over again, making the same knife cut thousands of times during an eight- hour shift.”2 This application of Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management creates standardized products and increases throughput, but it also gives the producers a great deal of control over their employees and makes those employees, especially those that work on the line, disposable. As the sociologist Robin Liedner notes, “When management determines exactly how every task is to be done . . . and can impose its own rules about pace, output, quality, and technique [it] makes workers increasingly inter-changeable.”3 Thus “the management no longer depends upon the talents or skills of its workers—those things are built into the operating system and machines.”4 Warren Belasco explains that industrial food processors “perfected the ultra-Taylorist principles of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), which also guided the convenience food cuisine that would supposedly free women from effort and stress.”5

As a consequence small- scale producers that remained dependent upon specialized labor simply could not compete with mass- produced commodities. Just as England’s textile factories eliminated small spinning enterprises and Ford’s automobile plants rendered entrepreneurial automakers obsolete, disassembly lines in animal slaughter decimated small, less efficient slaughterhouses and processing plants. But while complex divisions of labor promote macroeconomic efficiency, they also generate risks of promissory failure, opportunism, and defection from standards, and, in a food safety context, they create the possibility of catastrophic foodborne crisis.

Though initially applied to meat processing in the new slaughterhouses of the late nineteenth century, assembly line methodologies were soon applied to the production of other food commodities. By the dawn of the twenty- first century mechanized food processing was the norm rather than the exception for nearly every food commodity. As Schlosser writes of potato processing in the late 1990s, inside the production facility “a maze of red conveyer belts crisscrosses in and out of machines that wash, sort, peel, slice, blanch, blow- dry, fry, and flash- freeze potatoes. Workers in white coats and hard hats keep everything running smoothly, monitoring the controls, checking the fries for imperfections,” all for less than 30 cents a pound.6 Similar production processes give the modern consumer 1.9 million Hershey bars a day from the plant in Hershey, Pennsylvania; 96 million pounds of mozzarella cheese each year from the Alto Dairy in Black Creek, Wisconsin; and two thousand pounds of pretzels an hour from the Snyder’s of Hanover plant in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Everything from butter to potato chips to tomato sauce to ice- cream is now mass- produced according to similar industrial logics. Factories complete with stainless steel machines, conveyer belts, and complex computers with commodity- specific software have automated food processing from the moment raw materials arrive from the farm to the moment finished commodities are packaged for distribution to wholesale or retail distributors.

Alongside the industrialization of food processing came the tendency toward monocropping. Small, diversified family farms were transformed into specialized units producing one or two commercial crops, such as corn, potatoes, or wheat, the staples of the modern food system. Today nearly all U.S. farmers vend the products of their labor in oligopolistic markets. Others have sold their lands to corporate agribusinesses. Many of these farmers are encouraged to stay on the land as paid managers but are prohibited from farming according to traditional techniques. They are instead required to follow detailed corporate manuals so that their outputs are guaranteed to be homogenized agricultural commodities. This intensification dynamic led to a reduction in genetic diversity, not to mention the number of producers, as agribusinesses searched for greater efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

As the United States became a more urban, industrialized society, fewer individuals and families lived off the land. During the mid- nineteenth century 64 to 69 percent of American laborers were farmers. By the turn of the twenty- first century, only 1 percent of Americans claimed farming as an occupation, and only about 2 percent of the general population actually lived on farms. And because of the rise of monocropping over the course of the twentieth century, very few of those farmers can be considered self- sufficient. Even individuals and families who farm buy most of their food from the same corporate retailers that feed the rest of the country.

Dominated by machines, controlled by computers, and dedicated to the production of a predictable product, industrialized processing plants depend upon uniform agricultural products in order to function efficiently. All commodities—chickens, potatoes, milk, beans, corn, and so on—must adhere to specific size and shape parameters for the mechanized processing system to maximize productivity. For this reason, chicken farmers contract with corporate agribusinesses that provide chicks, feed, and infrastructure along with detailed care instructions and timetables designed to guarantee that every chicken from every farmer satisfies the corporate demand for homogeneous inputs into the industrialized food processing system. Similarly French fry producers J. R. Simplot, Lamb Weston, and McCain insist that their suppliers provide them with starchy Russet potatoes of specific dimensions, perfectly designed to create crisp, flavorful fries. For this reason, nearly all potatoes grown in the United States are identical. Biodiversity has been sacrificed on the altars of consistency and efficiency standards. As Belasco writes, this modernist revolution in food celebrated “shortcuts, simplification, automation, and mass production while dismissing soil, sweat, labor, craftsmanship, and ornament. Its favorite forms [were] tubes, beakers, buttons, domes, dials, and tunnels—the tools of engineering.”7


  1. Frieden, Global Capitalism, 160.
  2. Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 153.
  3. Quoted in Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 70.
  4. Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 70.
  5. Belasco, Meals to Come, 197.
  6. Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 111.
  7. Belasco, Meals to Come, 166.

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