Fast Food Nation Study Guide

Chapter 7 - "Cogs in the Great Machine"

This chapter opens in Greeley, Colorado--a small meatpacking town, home to a migrant industrial workforce. Greeley, named after the well-known newspaper editor Horace Greeley, began in 1870 as a utopian community dedicated to agriculture, education, mutual aid, and high moral values. However, the prosperity and labor peace that were for so long central to Greeley, were destroyed by the IBP revolution.


The IBP revolution began in Denison, Iowa when Currier J. Holman and A.D. Anderson began Iowa Beef Packers (IBP), applying the same labor principles to meat packing that the McDonald brothers applied to making hamburgers. This system required very little skill from its human operators. Moreover, IBP placed its slaughterhouses in rural areas—far away from the strong unions established in the cities (where slaughterhouses had traditionally been located). IBP began to fabricate slaughtered cattle into smaller cuts— which drove supermarkets to fire many unionized butchers. IBP also began turning leftover bones and scraps into byproducts, such as dog food; IBP also installed grinders in its plants to make hamburger meat on site. These developments transformed the entire beef industry.

Currier J. Holman took pride in being tough—and acted this way with his employees. He even became involved with the New York mafia in order to beat the butcher union, which refused to sell IBP’s meat products. Moreover, Holman gave members of organized crime important positions within IBP.

The changes resulting from the IBP revolution were present in Greeley as well. Ken Monfort, owner of the Greeley slaughterhouse founded by his father, turned from a liberal Democrat to a pro-business Republican. After a series of issues with his employees propelled by wage disagreements, strikes, and poor union representation—Monfort’s company was taken over by ConAgra, but not before the Supreme Court made a decision opposing use of antitrust laws to stop giant meatpackers.

Today, ConAgra is the biggest meatpacker in the world. It is the largest food-service supplier in North America. It is the nation’s largest turkey and sheep processor, largest distributor of agricultural chemicals, and a leading producer of numerous other food products.

The meatpacking industry, which used to provide a middle-class lifestyle for its employees, has a largely immigrant, non-English speaking low-wage workforce. Because of the high turnover rate—due to low pay and poor working conditions--it is difficult for these workers to unionize and easy for them to be controlled.

Notes - Schlosser does a nice job in this chapter of taking a large, confusion change within the beef industry and giving his reader a concrete location to observe the specific outcomes. In this chapter, Greeley, CO is important, not because it is extraordinary (although it is a rich source due to the way it was founded and Ken Monfort’s presence) but because it is typical of how the IBP revolution changed the lives of those employed by the beef industry.

Schlosser continues to highlight the role of politics in his investigation—making it clear that he sympathizes with liberal Democrats and not with pro-business Republicans. The reader should be aware that all writers, regardless of the way they present their argument, have bias. In a work such as this, which has an exposé feel, it is acceptable, even necessary, for the writer to make his or her opinions clear. The reader should continue to engage this material critically, considering what arguments could be made by those who support conservative economic and social policies.

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