IN THE LAND OF FRENCH FRY, STUDY FINDS PROBLEMS
Written by Timothy Egan
The New York Times
Monday February 7 1994
SUMMARY: The quest by McDonald's to make perfect uniform french fries has
come at a big cost according to new report on the potato processing industry,
which contends that the processing plants like the one in Othello, Washington
pollute underground water supplies. The reports also asserts that the industry
is heavy on chemicals and wastes half of every potato it processes. Othello,
Wash. - More than thirty years ago , the king of fast food hamburgers and
the patriarch of potatoes came together for a meeting that would change
the American meal and create a new breed of corporate farmer.
Ray Kroc founder of the McDonald's nationwide restaurant chain, and J R
Simplot, the food processing and chemical magnate in Idaho, forged a deal
to make the perfect french fried potatoes - upright, bright, cheap and free
of moulds. They would look the same whether they were sold on Jersey shore
or in a drive through in Idaho.
The potatoes would grow in the dry volcanic soil of the inland pacific North
West, then be washed, sliced, cooked and frozen in factories in this region
before being shipped to fast food outlets from sea to shining sea. The combination
of cheap federal hydro-electrical and irrigation water made this desert
region perfect for the operation and by the mid 1980's more than 6 million
lbs of potatoes were being processed by ten big factories owned by different
companies in the Columbian river basin providing America with most of its
But the process of making one fry look exactly like another has come at
a big cost according to a new report on the potato processing industry.
The demand for uniformity has created an industry that is heavy on chemicals,
wastes half of every potato it processes and pollutes underground water
supplies, according to the Columbian Basin Institute, a research group in
Portland, Ore. It's study was financed in part by grants from the Ford foundation,
the Aspen Institute and the Bullitt Foundation of Seattle, which is concerned
with environmental issues in the North West,
"If you want to produce most of America's french fries
this way, you should have to pay the costs - social, environmental and other,"
said Bill Bean, founder of the institute and co author of the study. "We've
got a uniform french fry, but it came with a lot of hidden costs."
Industrial leaders say much of the criticism is wrong or misleading. They
say they have cleaned up many of the environmental problems, investing millions
of dollars to better dispose of the water used to wash and cook a perfect
fry. They say they provide more than 4000 year round jobs, among the best
paying in the low skill farm sector. And they say they have kept alive rural
communities that otherwise might have had severe unemployment and a declining
The french fry producers here have prospered in part because of public works
projects that provide cheap electrical power and bring water to what was
once an unpopulated desert.
More than 50 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned the Columbian
Basin as a haven for Dust Bowl refugees who could farm the desert with the
help of irrigation water provided by federal dams and reservoirs. The laws
were written so that people who own and run small farms would be the primary
beneficiaries of federal water projects coming from Grand Coulee Dam and
other big dams on the Columbian river.
But over the last 30 years, small farms in this region have all but disappeared,
replaced by large corporate operations that can afford the heavy fertilisers
and chemicals needed in growing the thick Russet potato used for making
Before the mass marketing of french fries, about 1000 farmers grew a variety
of potatoes on 20,000 acres in this area; now half as many farmers grow
mostly Russet Burbank potatoes on 115,000 acres. The irrigated farmland
in the Columbian Basin is second only to the Imperial Valley of Southern
California in size and the amount of support it receives from the federal
government. State funds from Washington and Oregon were also used to lure
the processors here.
Mr Bean contends that these subsidies are "an unnecessary and gratuitous
use of public funds." The french fry producers say they would probably
have come here even without the government enticements. But as long as the
subsidies were offered, they said, they took them.
"We would be the first to admit," said William Voss,
President of McCain Foods, a large processor that received a $5 million
dollar loan from Washington state. "But this is an industry that has
brought thousands of well paid year round jobs to this region."
Community leaders here tend to agree with Mr Voss. And indeed, what the
government has helped to produce in large part, is an industry that might
never have come into existence if Americans did not have such a love affair
with burgers and french fries. Before the perfect fry was created, most
fast food restaurants employed teenagers to wash, peel and cook fresh french
fries. Now those jobs are done in foul smelling factories here in the Columbian
Basin, where each plant uses more than 2 million gallons of water a day
and the fries are frozen when they leave the factory. A stench hangs over
the factories, a residue of cooking oil and processing. A request for a
tour was turned by industry officials, who said they did not generally allow
outsiders to see how french fries are made. Industry officials say that
if potatoes were square or rectangular they could use the entire potato
to make fries. But because of its shape, only the core is cut into fries.
What is left is used for slop, for cattle in feed lots, and the strained
waste water from the factories is spayed onto fields for irrigation and
But now the underground water supply in the Columbian basin is slowing high
levels of nitrates from fertiliser and farm and animal waste, prompting
investigations from state and environmental officials. The potato processing
industry attributes the heavy nitrate concentrations to past agricultural
practices and poor municipal treatment centres. They say their waste water
is contained in small pools near the plants and is not a threat to drinking
water, a contention challenged by some critics of the industry.
Producing most of America's french fries has created the equivalent of a
"smokestack industry" along the Columbian basin, according to
the report. At the ten plants, three shifts of workers every day produce
at the vegetable choice for fast food consumers. The pay ranges from $6
- $9 an hour, on average. About half the workers are relatively new arrivals
from Mexico or the South West, according to state labor officials. Here
in this agricultural town of about 4600 people in South Eastern Washington,
many workers live in a run down section known as Little Mexico within smelling
distance of a huge feed lot.
Sally Jamie, President of Espanos Unidos, a group representing some of the
factory workers describes it as a "barrio" and argues the industry
should take more responsibility for its condition. Tensions between the
Anglo and Latino populations in Othello are high, civic leaders say because
the area has changed so quickly with influx of factory workers. Without
the french fries, though, the town may have died. And the workers say the
pay is relatively high and the relatively stable, with benefits which include
health care. "We are proud of our Latino work force," said Craig
Smith, a vice President of the North West food processors association, which
represents the industry.
"The fact is we didn't create that neighbourhood."
Mr Smith was sitting in a McDonald's in Othello, arguably the potato capital
of the world. But the french fries sold here taste and look the same as
they do thousands of miles from the potato fields. "The consumer is
the ultimate driver of all this" Mr Smith said. "McDonald's doesn't
tell us how to grow potatoes. If those fries had brown spots, if one of
them didn't look right and people would still buy them, it would be a lot
easier for us to make french fries."