Fast Food, Globalization, and Culture (Part III)

Here’s part III (the final segment) in this series. The most interesting part (in my opinion) of this post is the fascinating way that fast food has helped change and mold certain parts of modern China. 

Read Part I HERE!

Read Part II HERE!

The new fast food culture that has been introduced into many countries over the past thirty years has also had a profound impact on society at large. Many bemoan the presence of fast-food as the homogenization of the world.  Rightly or not, these behemoths of tidy restaurants with standardized food have become the symbol of American cultural imperialism overseas.  They are often the target of activists who complain of the loss of traditional culture at the expense of corporations pushing low wage “McJobs” and low quality “McFood.”  Whether these criticisms are justified or not, these trans-national corporations have changed many countries.

China provides an interesting study of how the fast-food industry used its’ foresight, capital, and perfect timing to impact a nation.  American fast-food has done nothing less than start a consumer revolution in China which has been led by children (Watson 125).  This is not by accident.  McDonald’s took its playbook from Disney when franchise founder Ray Kroc began successfully marketing to children (Schlosser 33); the franchises in China have done the same thing but merely adapted their approach to local circumstances.   Birthday parties, which never existed a generation or two ago in most parts of East Asia, have become commonplace and the fast food industry has become at the center of it (Watson 126).  McDonald’s has become the ‘hang-out’ for grandparents and the study zone for high school students.  McDonald’s and other like-minded places have taken advantage of the changes in Chinese family life and have adapted their offerings to meet the changing needs of society.  In Hong Kong, McDonald’s has become such a part of the fabric of life there that it is difficult to see exactly where the transnational corporations ends and the local begins (Watson 134).  Chinese scholar James Watson claims that fast food did not create a new market but responded to opportunities which were presented by “the collapse of an outdated Confucian family system” (127).  Even the success of KFC in China is largely due to how it has become local in focus (Phillips 41).  Some contend that societal changes brought about by the rise of fast food is not all bad.  Watson cites cases where fast food restaurants have contributed to teaching Chinese mobs how to properly queue while encouraging other restaurants and eating establishments to raise their standards of restaurant cleanliness to match those of the big franchises (Schlosser 128-129).  Whether fast food has improved or degraded society in China and other countries is a matter of opinion.  However, what is clear is that these corporations have used their vast influence, their tax incentives, and their capital to create a fast food niche supported by a massive food production system which previously did not exist.

How should we properly evaluate these trans-national fast food corporations?  Certainly they have impacted food production, labor, and culture.  But they could not have done it all on their own.  It was a combination of government policy and consumer approval which ultimately had its way. Phillips cites various studies that show that the corporate power and impact of food related trans-national corporations is not a “given” but is a byproduct of many different stake-holders including growers, laborers, investors and marketers (41).   Watson adds that global issues must take the consumers’ perspectives into account (134).  Throwing a brick at a McDonald’s in Mumbai to protest globalization seems to be missing the point.  The corporation is just one of the stakeholders that brought it into existence.  The fast food restaurants have become the cultural domain of Muslims in Malaysia, Buddhists in China and Hindus in India.  When you attack their McDonald’s, you are attacking them, and not a foreign entity. The world has asked to have their burger their own way, and the corporations have gladly provided it.

But what ultimately can be expected from these trans-national food corporations?  Can food globalization ever be proactive to spur on competition, protect labor, and purposefully reduce poverty?  Or is production consolidation, degradation of labor, and more power in fewer hands merely the nature of the capitalistic beast which precludes it from productively contributing to a more equitable society?  It may be foolhardy to presume that profit driven corporations would willingly make the right choices concerning the vulnerability of workers and poverty at large when profit is the driving force.  These powerful corporations are the ones receiving the tax breaks, trimming labor costs and consolidating their grip over supply and distribution.  Many trans-national firms do have social responsibility policies that have been built into their corporate framework, but they have mainly come to fruition in order for them to avoid bad publicity which might ruin their name (Jenkins 528); these policies make sure the corporations are avoiding human rights violations rather than positively moving to reduce poverty in their locality (Jenkins 528).  These token gestures are more smoke screens rather than positive steps which might raise wages, ensure health coverage and safe working environments which would ultimately do a lot to help alleviate global poverty.

The fast food corporations are an easy target to criticize. They are big; they are powerful; they are slick marketers, and shrewd managers of capital.  They seem to represent the best and worst of the capitalist system.  By pushing efficiency, standardization and expansion, they create a marginalized workforce and a depleted market for competition especially in the area of food production.  They have globalized common brand names, yet have adapted the brand to suit the local environment.  Whatever the ultimate verdict on their impact will be, it is clear that there is no stopping their expansion. But the world’s governments would do well to scrutinize their food production policies and determine how “… food citizenship may be developed as a sustainable politics to include everyone, not just the privileged” (Phillips 48).

Works Cited

Jenkins, Rhys.  “Globalization, Corporate Social Responsibility and Poverty.”

International Affairs 81, 3 (2005) 525-540.

Krugman, Paul. “We Are Not the World.”  New York Times  13 February 1997, A33.

Phillips, Lynne. “Food and Globalization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35.1 (2006): 37-57.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Shari, Ishak. “Globalisation and Economic Insecurity: A Need for a New Social Policy in Malaysia.” Asian Journal of Social Science 31.2 (2003): 251-270.

Watson, James L. “China’s Big Mac Attack.” Foreign Affairs 79.3 (2000): 120-134.

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.