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 french fries.

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 tax base.

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 french fries.

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 fertilisation.

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."