How the West made cheeseburgers cheap


Way back when I was in high school, kids used to snatch copies of the student newspaper right off the racks. They were literally starving for what was inside it. That doesn't mean they were interested in the content. No, what they wanted was the coupon for McDonalds that appeared in each issue. And that's all they wanted: Within a few hours after the paper came back from the printer, discarded, unread copies could be found all over the place, with one little rectangle clipped or torn out of the coupon page.

What's remarkable about this is that the coupon reduced the cost of the most basic, least interesting burger to a mere $1. Twenty years ago, that was a deep discount. Today, however, the students at my old high school don't need to clip coupons. These kids, who routinely carry around $150 iPods and wear $100 sunglasses, can get a double cheeseburger (and a vast assortment of other fast food) for just $1 any time. That works out to about a penny for every four calories. Even as the cost of everything else has increased, food costs have stayed the same, or even decreased.

In this issue's cover story, Rebecca Clarren takes us into the harrowing lives of industrial dairy workers. She describes how workers in these agricultural factories, dealing with living, unpredictable machines, get injured or even killed in accidents. Beyond all that, the story is about the tale of a huge shift in how and where milk is produced. That shift occurred in part out of a desire for higher profits, but it also happened because we, the American consumers, keep demanding (and receiving) cheaper and cheaper food.

Western dairies clearly demonstrate this interplay between producer and consumer. In order to lower their costs, the dairies had to consolidate their operations and grow larger. And so they looked to cheaper, emptier land where land-use regulations were less likely to frown on massive operations. In other words, they came West.

Over the last two decades, milk production has more than doubled in the West, accounting for almost all of the added U.S. production. The nation's biggest dairies -- the ones with 1,000 cows or more -- are now heavily concentrated out here. And at least two-thirds of the nation's milk is produced by low-wage, immigrant labor, which is also concentrated in this region. The West, a leader in so many ways, is now also a leader in the industrialization of milk production.

"The continued shift of production to larger operations," says a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, will reduce costs "leading to lower dairy prices for consumers even as it forces more small operations out. But the shift also creates increased environmental risks." Not to mention the added risks to dairy workers.

In other words, those $1 cheeseburgers cost a whole lot more than you think. And Westerners are paying the price, each day, right here at home.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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