Fast Food, Globalization, and Culture (Part I)

A while back, I wrote this (rather long) essay on fast food and culture. I’ll be dividing it up over the next few days. I would appreciate your comments.  

As you travel down Mt. Erskine road in northern Penang Island and look out over the sprawling Hokkien Chinese cemetery which the road splits in two, an unmistakable symbol of Americanism rises like a golden phoenix out of the burnt ashes of incense – the golden arches of McDonald’s. Always packed with customers, the 24-hour McDonald’s seems to have perfect feng shui with its location chosen just as carefully and precisely as the grave markers on the hill above it.  Perhaps it is fitting that a further look beyond the golden arches reveals the busy shipping lanes of the Straits of Malacca with constant container ships moving global goods from Singapore to Thailand and the world beyond. McDonald’s stands as the ultimate symbol of globalization much to the chagrin of many who view this fast food franchise’s world take-over as another example of the western corporate hegemony dictating their profit-laden scheme to homogenize the world.  It may be exaggeration to use such purposefully imperialistic terms to describe fast food chains. However, it remains clear that American trans-national fast food corporations have constructed a model of consolidation and integration that has become the vanguard of corporate globalization which is drastically affecting food production, labor, and culture in the global marketplace.

Fast food’s expansion overseas has taken its cue from the changes in food production and management which affected America over the past fifty years.  During this time span, America saw a fundamental change in the production of agricultural and meat products.  As fast food franchises formed and flourished spreading their homogenized meals to every corner of every small community, these corporations began the move toward consolidation to ensure consistent quality and distribution on a national scale.  To keep up with the rising demands of the ever more powerful fast-food corporations, the agricultural and meat-packing industries became ever more concentrated in the hands of fewer people.   Where once slaughtering houses were local, they became part of huge processing conglomerates.  Four such corporations currently control nearly eighty percent of beef processing in America (Schlosser 136).  Many small farmers have been unable to survive in this new business environment and have ended up selling their farms to corporate entities who then re-hire the same famers to manage that which they had previously owned (Schlosser 118).  The majority of the agricultural system has been vertically integrated under several large corporations.  From growing the potatoes to slaughtering the animals to processing and distribution, fewer and fewer hands control an ever increasing amount of power.  As these fast food corporations began to eye new markets overseas, they continued this consolidation on a more global scale.

The overseas expansion of fast food corporations has been nothing less than staggering.  From the KFC at the northern end of Hanoi’s Returned Sword Lake, to the McDonald’s at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, to Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr. at Kuala Lumpur’s Sunway Pyramid, the urban crawl of American fast food expansionism permeates the world.  From 1990 to 2000, McDonald’s grew from 3000 restaurants outside the United States to more than 17,000 in more than 120 countries (Schlosser 229).  In Brazil, McDonald’s has become the country’s largest private employer (Schlosser 130).  This expansion has produced a seismic shift in who controls the production of food in many nations.

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