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Posts tagged ‘Burger King’

Let them eat burgers

Earlier this month, Patricia de Lille – the former firebrand stalwart of the radical Pan Africanist Congresshanded over the key to Cape Town, to a man dressed up as a hamburger.

Now the mayor of the opposition-controlled City of Cape Town, De Lille met with the senior management of Grand Parade Investments, as well as the hamburger, to celebrate the opening of the first branch of Burger King in South Africa.

Since selling its first burger on 9 May, queues have snaked all the way down Heerengracht Street – not Cape Town’s loveliest quarter – as punters wait hours to try Whoppers and the chain’s other products.

So far the only controversy that the chain seems to have generated is a call from People against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) to boycott Burger King because Grant Parade Investments also owns Grand West Casino – to which Pagad is opposed on the grounds that gambling further impoverishes the poor communities which surround Grand West.

There has been a lot of chatter about the opening of a new fast food chain in South Africa: will the 120 planned Burger King outlets contribute to the country’s increasingly high instance of obesity? How will existing brands respond to this new competition? And is Burger King’s arrival part of a ‘McDonaldisation’ of South African food? In other words, is a kind of globalised junk food changing the ways in which South Africans eat?

All of these are complex questions which are impossible to answer less than a month after the opening of one branch of Burger King. But we can begin to address the last because South Africa’s experience of global Big Fast Food is fairly similar to what has happened abroad, and in the past.

In the weeks preceding the opening of Burger King, Grand Parade Investment’s CEO, CFO, and Chairman lovebombed the South African media. In the several radio interviews that I heard, they reiterated over and over again that although the product they’re bringing into South Africa is the same as that served in the US – and of the same quality – it will be produced by well-trained South African employees, and made using ingredients processed locally. (Burger King will open a factory in Philippi.)

The flagship Burger King has a mural of Table Mountain and the Grand Parade in a prominent place. For all the fact that Burger King’s appeal is based on its status as an exotic foreign product, it’s been modified to appeal specifically to South African customers.

This, however, is not unique. One of the main reasons for the incredible success of McDonald’s all over the world is that while it maintains the pretence of selling precisely the same product in India, Belgium, and Argentina, each of those countries has both a menu and a dining experience which is – more or less – tailored to the expectations and preferences of local diners.

For instance: recently, there has been some coverage of McDonald’s attempt to add pasta to its menus in Italy. Although this has been greeted with derision, the chain has done similar things elsewhere. It tried to introduce falafel to its menu in Israel, and yak burgers in Mongolia.

One of the reasons for Taco Bell’s relative lack of success outside of the United States is its inability to adjust its model to local tastes. Indeed, McDonald’s isn’t the only chain to allow its menus and, even, restaurant design to be fairly flexible: Subway, for example, sells a Chicken Tikka sandwich – flatbread optional – in the UK.

In France, despite sustained opposition from anti-globalisation activists and the food movement, McDonald’s has more than 1,200 branches. In contrast, South Africa – considered to be one of McDonald’s most successful ventures – has only 161. Why? Because it uses ingredients popular with French customers – cheese, Dijon mustard – allows for diners to stay longer in their restaurants (French customers are more likely to eat full meals at McDonald’s rather than to snack), and it opened the McCafe, which sells patisserie.

I use the example of France deliberately, because it’s usually described as having an admirably distinct and healthy food culture (whatever we may mean by ‘food culture’). McDonald’s success there not only suggests that this reputation is based, to some extent, on myth and a lot of PR, but also that the implications of the presence of Big Fast Food for people’s diets, are complex.

Although the ‘South Africanisation’ of Burger King is interesting to explore, I think it might be more useful to understand the arrival of the chain in relation to the country’s shifting demographics and economic development. Arriving almost two decades after the dawn of democratic government, Burger King has certainly taken its time to get here.

McDonald’s opened its first branch in 1995, and, initially, exerted the same appeal in South Africa as it did in Russia during the late 1980s.  Similar to South Africa’s participation in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, it symbolised the end of the country’s isolation.

In 2013, Burger King has arrived to take advantage of the growth of South Africa’s middle class. As Jonny Steinberg notes in a recent article:

It is true that our politics is increasingly corrupt, that people express discontent by throwing stones and burning things, that yawning inequalities cause much resentment. Less well known is that the income of the average black family has increased by about a third since the beginning of democracy; that 85% of homes are electrified compared with just over half on the last day of apartheid…

Despite the slowing down of economic growth – despite the fact that at the moment R10 will buy only $1 – there are still more South Africans to spend cash on fast food, and other consumer goods, than ever before. It’s telling that the malls and other locations at which the new Burger King branches will open tend towards the upper end of the market – and that the chain will focus its operations on the Western Cape and Gauteng, the country’s two wealthiest provinces.

In his study of the exponential success of McDonald’s in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, James L. Watson argues that McDonald’s took off at the same time that family structures in these countries changed: as the size of families shrunk, as women began, increasingly, to work outside the home, and as it became more common for nuclear families to live separately from grandparents, so McDonald’s found a market in these comparatively wealthy families with children to spoil. He writes:

American-style birthday parties became key to the company’s expansion policy. Prior to the arrival of McDonald’s, festivities marking youngsters’ specific birthdates were unknown in most of East Asia. … McDonald’s and its rivals now promote the birthday party – complete with cake, candles, and silly hats – in television aimed directly at kids.

As in China, Burger King is a treat for South Africa’s newly-affluent middle-class families, and not (yet) associated with absolutely cut-priced eating. The association of big fast food chains with poverty seems to remain limited to wealthier nations.

My point is that the arrival of Burger King now – in 2013 – says far more about South Africa than it does about Burger King.

I think one of the best examples of the massive change which the country has experienced, is the rise and rise of the current Deputy President of the ANC – and future Deputy President (and President?) of South Africa. In 1994 he was known as a founder of the National Union of Mineworkers, arguably South Africa’s most powerful union, and as a key figure in the negotiations which ended apartheid. Now Cyril Ramaphosa is one of South Africa’s wealthiest people. And, until recently, the owner of the local franchise for McDonald’s.

Sources

Ian Brailsford, ‘US Image but NZ Venture: Americana and Fast-Food Advertising in New Zealand, 1971-1990,’ Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 22, no. 2 (December 2003), pp. 10-24.

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’
Theory and Society, vol. 24, no. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 201-243.

EU Igumbor, D. Sanders TR Puoane, L. Tsolekile, C. Schwarz C, et al., ‘“Big Food,” the Consumer Food Environment, Health, and the Policy Response in South Africa.’ PLoS Med, vol. 9, no. 7, (2012), e1001253.

John W. Traphagan and L. Keith Brown, ‘Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns,’ Ethnology, vol. 41, no. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 119-134.

James L. Watson, ‘China’s Big Mac Attack,’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 3 (May-Jun., 2000), pp. 120-134.

Jianying Zha, ‘Learning from McDonald’s,’ Transition, no. 91 (2002), pp. 18-39.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Eating Like Horses

I spent most of January in the UK, accidentally timing a rather unexpected visit to coincide with the scandal over the presence of horsemeat in some meat products sold in British and Irish supermarkets. For most of my stay I lived near The People’s Supermarket – a co-operative supermarket run on strictly ethical lines – in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Its response to the hysteria that the news seemed to provoke was to write on the sandwich board which stands outside the entrance: ‘Come in! Our meat is completely horse-free.’

Although much of the recent fuss has focussed on the presence of horse meat in some Burger King meals, and in budget burger patties and ready meals at Tesco, Iceland, and a few other supermarkets, as several reports have made the point, Irish and British inspectors also found traces of pork in the same products:

A total of 27 burger products were analysed, with 10 of them containing traces of horse DNA and 23 containing pig DNA.

In addition, 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

I’ve been interested in the fact that the furore which followed the announcement of the discovery has focussed on the fact it was horse – and not pork – found in these meat products. Considering that some religions actually ban the consumption of pork, and that, as Tesco and others have made the point, eating horsemeat poses no threat to human health, this hysteria about horse struck me as misplaced.

I know that a lot has been – and is being – written about the horse meat saga, but I’d like to draw attention to a few trends in this coverage which suggest a few interesting things about our attitudes towards what we deem to be acceptable – socially, morally, ethically – to eat, and how we judge others whose habits differ from ours.

Unsurprisingly, a number of columnists pointed out the hypocrisy of happily eating dead cows, sheep, and pigs, but of being too squeamish to eat horses. Not only was horsemeat available in Britain until the 1930s, but it is eaten in France and other parts of the world. Lisa Markwell wrote in the Independent:

If you eat meat (and my lifelong-vegetarian colleagues are feeling pretty smug right about now), why is horse less palatable than cow or sheep or pig? It’s no good hiding behind ludicrous ideas that horses are in some way cuter or more intelligent. Or that we have a special relationship with them because we ride them. If horses weren’t herbivores, I can imagine a few that would have no problem biting a lump out of their rider.

I agree: there is something fundamentally illogical about agreeing to eat one kind of animal, but being disgusted by the thought of eating another. But our ideas around what is – and what is not – acceptable to eat are socially and culturally determined. They change over time, and differ from place to place. Whereas swan and heron were considered to be delicacies during the medieval period, we now understand these as birds to be conserved and protected. Even in France, people have fairly mixed feelings about eating horse.

In other words, our definition of what is ‘disgusting’ is flexible. It’s for this reason that I’m relatively sympathetic to those who are appalled by the prospect of horsemeat. Despite having learned to ride as a child, I think I could probably bring myself to eat horse or donkey, but I know that I could never try dog, for instance. In the same way, I wouldn’t try to feed rabbit to my bunny-loving friend Isabelle.

The more important issue is that we should be able to trust the businesses that sell us our food. As Felicity Lawrence commented in the Guardian, the presence of horsemeat and pork in beef products is simply one in a long line of food safety scandals:

The scandal exposed by the Guardian in 2002 and 2003, when imported pig and beef proteins were detected in UK retail and catering chicken, started with similar attempts to reassure shoppers that there were no safety issues, that amounts detected were by and large ‘minute’, and a reluctance to admit that a large part of the food chain was probably affected. History repeated itself with the Sudan 1 food crisis, when illegal dye was found in a huge proportion of supermarket ready meals.

The reason for this failure of food regulation is both complex and devastatingly simple. On the one hand, the food chain has become increasingly difficult to regulate. It is now controlled by a handful of big supermarkets and food companies interested in cutting costs during a period of sky-high food prices. It becomes inevitable, then, that the quality of meat and other produce will be compromised:

Because supply chains are so long and processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice, it is all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality, or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted for what is specified in big abattoirs and processing plants.

And on the other hand, regulators themselves are less efficient:

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was stripped of its role as the body with sole responsibility for food composition and safety in the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos‘; shortly after the coalition was elected in 2010.

Since then responsibility for food labelling and composition has been handed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while food safety has remained the responsibility of the FSA.

There are also – justified – concerns about the FSA’s closeness to business, which has been lobbying hard for looser regulation. After all, the previous chief executive of the FSA, Tim Smith, is now Tesco’s technical director.

Unsurprisingly, this combination of unscrupulous, cost-cutting business and dysfunctional and light-touch regulation has allowed food safety to be compromised. When the first attempts to prevent food adulteration were introduced in Britain and in the United States – Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) – these were in response to concerns raised by campaigners, most of them middle-class women, about the safety of food produced by the relatively new, industrialised food producers. As we have seen over the past century or so, any loosening of those regulations has resulted in a decline in the quality of food.

And this brings me to my final point. One of the most striking features of the coverage of the horsemeat scandal has been the number of commentators who’ve asked their readers: ‘what else do you expect?’ Giles Coren was particularly withering in his scorn for consumers of cheap food:

What on earth did you think they put in them? Prime cuts of delicious free-range, organic, rare breed, heritage beef, grass-fed, Eton-educated, humanely slaughtered, dry-aged and hand-ground by fairies…?

The food products contaminated with horse and pork were in the ‘value’ ranges of cheap supermarkets. As the BBC reported, these contain considerably less meat than more expensive products:

An eight-pack of Tesco Everyday Value Beefburgers, one of the products cited as potentially containing horse flesh, contains 63% beef, 10% onion and unlisted percentages of wheat flour, water, beef fat, soya protein isolate, salt, onion powder, yeast, sugar, barley malt extract, garlic powder, white pepper extract, celery extract and onion extract.

Asda‘s Smartprice Economy Beefburgers – not among those identified by the Irish testers as containing horse or pig DNA – contain 59% beef along with other ingredients such as rusk, water, stabilisers (diphosphates and triphosphates) and beef fat.

Both products cost just £1 a box, as do similar frozen burgers sold by Iceland. The Oakhurst 100% Beef Quarter Pounders, sold by Aldi and implicated in the scandal, cost £1.39 for a box of eight.

Like Coren, other columnists and food writers argue that ordinary British people have become ‘disconnected’ from the food chain, having little knowledge of how their food travels from farm to supermarket. More interest on behalf of the public, they seem to imply, would in some way prevent these kind of scandals from occurring.

I disagree. Not only does this display an astonishingly naïve understanding of how big food businesses work, but it fails to take into account the fact that the people who tend to be most at risk of consuming adulterated food are those who are poor: those who buy cheap food – the value products – from big supermarkets. There is a vein of snobbery running through much of the argument that consumers of cheap food only have themselves to blame if they end up inadvertently eating horse, or other potentially harmful additives.

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What this debate reveals, I think, is an odd attitude towards food, particularly meat, and class. Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.

But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably.

If we are committed to the idea that everybody, regardless of wealth, should be able to eat a reasonable amount of meat – and it is true that definitions of sustainable diets do vary – then we should not ask why people are surprised to find that cheap meat is adulterated or contaminated, but, rather, why so many people can’t afford to buy better quality meat.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 18.01.2012

Why pupils at a Los Angeles rejected new, healthy school dinners.

Three utopian feasts at the School of Life.

America: the land of the free and the hungry.

Food trends that fizzled out. (I’m particularly sorry about Mupcakes.)

Bizarre: a Russian ad for Burger King.

The history of the Chinese take-away container.

A taxonomy of bread in New York.

The guerilla grafters.

Hmmm…. I’m not all that sure about this, but it’s interesting: the difference between ‘Western’ and ‘Asian’ food flavours.

Slow Food USA appears to have gone into meltdown. (Unsurprisingly: it’s based on an entirely misguided set of principles.)

Occupy the food system.

The making of Italian American cuisine. (Thanks, Mum!)

On the mallow plant.

Are supper clubs the future of the restaurant?

The shady world of sugar substitutes.

Paintings made out of spices and salt.

Kitchens from the 1950s.

January is be kind to food servers month.

The ten best non-burger fast food dishes.

The Philosophy of Food Project.

Tips for freezing stock.

In search of the endangered Melipona beecheii bee.

Introducing LUPEC, Ladies United for Preservation of Endangered Cocktails.

The most dangerous tea in the world.

This is really, really good: testing the belief that McDonald’s burgers don’t rot.

A toaster made from cinderblock.