Millions and Millions of Fries
At the height of the potato harvest, I visited the Lamb Weston plant in American Falls, Idaho. It’s one of the biggest fry factories in the world and makes french fries for McDonald’s. It has a production capacity more than three times larger than that of the Simplot plant in Aberdeen. It is a state-of-the-art processing facility where raw commodities and man-made additives are combined to make America’s most popular food.
Lamb Weston was founded in 1950 by F. Gilbert Lamb, the inventor of a crucial piece of french fry–making technology. The Lamb Water Gun Knife uses a high-pressure hose to shoot potatoes at a speed of 117 feet per second through a grid of sharpened steel blades, thereby creating perfectly sliced french fries. After coming up with the idea, Gil Lamb tested the first Water Gun Knife in a company parking lot, shooting potatoes out of a fire hose. Lamb sold his company to ConAgra in 1988. Lamb Weston now manufactures more than 130 different types of french fries, including: Steak House Fries, CrissCut Fries, Hi-Fries, Mor-Fries, Burger Fries, Taterbabies, Taterboy Curley QQQ Fries, and Rus-Ettes Special Dry Fry Shoestrings.
Bud Mandeville, the plant manager, led me up a narrow, wooden staircase inside one of the plant’s storage buildings. On the top floor, the staircase led to a catwalk, and beneath my feet I saw a mound of potatoes that was twenty feet deep and a hundred feet wide and almost as long as two football fields. The building was cool and dark, kept year-round at a steady 46 degrees. In the dim light the potatoes looked like grains of sand on a beach. This was one of seven storage buildings on the property.
Outside, tractor-trailers arrived from the fields, carrying potatoes that had just been harvested. The trucks dumped their loads onto spinning rods that brought the larger potatoes into the building and let the small potatoes, dirt, and rocks fall to the ground. The rods led to a rock trap, a tank of water in which the potatoes floated and the rocks sank to the bottom. The plant used water systems to float potatoes gently this way and that way, guiding different sizes out of different holding bays, then flushing them into a three-foot-deep stream that ran beneath the cement floor. The interior of the processing plant was gray, massive, and well-lit, with huge pipes running along the walls, steel catwalks, workers in hardhats, and plenty of loud machinery. If there weren’t potatoes bobbing and floating past, you might think the place was an oil refinery.
Conveyer belts took the wet, clean potatoes into a machine that blasted them with steam for twelve seconds, boiled the water under their skins, and exploded their skins off. Then the potatoes were pumped into a preheat tank and shot through a Lamb Water Gun Knife. They emerged as shoestring fries. Four video cameras scrutinized them from different angles, looking for flaws. When a french fry with a blemish was detected, an optical sorting machine time-sequenced a single burst of compressed air that knocked the bad fry off the production line and onto a separate conveyer belt, which carried it to a machine with tiny automated knives that precisely removed the blemish. And then the fry was returned to the main production line.
Sprays of hot water blanched the fries, gusts of hot air dried them, and 25,000 pounds of boiling oil fried them to a slight crisp. Air cooled by compressed ammonia gas quickly froze them, a computerized sorter divided them into six-pound batches, and a device that spun like an out-of-control Lazy Susan used centrifugal force to align the french fries so that they all pointed in the same direction. The fries were sealed in brown bags, then the bags were loaded by robots into cardboard boxes, and the boxes were stacked by robots onto wooden pallets. Forklifts driven by human beings took the pallets to a freezer for storage. Inside that freezer I saw 20 million pounds of french fries, most of them destined for McDonald’s, the boxes of fries stacked thirty feet high, the stacks extending for roughly forty yards. And the freezer was half empty. Every day about a dozen railroad cars and about two dozen tractor-trailers pulled up to the freezer, loaded up with french fries, and departed for McDonald’s restaurants in Boise, Pocatello, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, Colorado Springs, and points in between.
Near the freezer was a laboratory where women in white coats analyzed french fries day and night, measuring their sugar content, their starch content, their color. During the fall, Lamb Weston added sugar to the fries; in the spring it leached sugar out of them; the goal was to maintain a uniform taste and appearance throughout the year. Every half hour, a new batch of fries was cooked in fryers identical to those used in fast food kitchens. A middle-aged woman in a lab coat handed me a paper plate full of premium extra longs, the type of french fries sold at McDonald’s, and a salt shaker, and some ketchup. The fries on the plate looked wildly out of place in this laboratory setting, this surreal food factory with its computer screens, digital readouts, shiny steel platforms, and evacuation plans in case of ammonia gas leaks. The french fries were delicious — crisp and golden brown, made from potatoes that had been in the ground that morning. I finished them and asked for more.
Eric Schlosser is an investigative journalist, best-selling author, playwright and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. In 1998, he began working on a two-part article on the fast food industry for Rolling Stone that eventually turned into the acclaimed book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal (2001). Fast Food Nation was on The New York Times bestseller list for more than two years as well as on bestseller list in Canada, Great Britain and Japan. This excerpt appears with permission from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.