Report attacks 'hidden cost' of the perfect french fry

February 07, 1994|By New York Times News Service

OTHELLO, Wash. -- More than 30 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 McDonald's nationwide restaurant chain, and J. R. Simplot, the food processing and chemical magnate in Idaho, forged a deal to make perfect french-fried potatoes -- upright, bright, cheap and free of molds.

They would look the same whether they were sold on the Jersey shore or in a drive-through in Idaho.

The potatoes would grow in the dry, volcanic soil of the inland Pacific Northwest, 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 hydroelectric power and irrigation water made this desert region perfect for the operation, and by the mid-1980s, more than 6 billion pounds of potatoes were being processed by 10 big factories owned by different companies in the Columbia River Basin, providing the United States 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 relies heavily on chemicals, wastes half of every potato it processes and pollutes underground water supplies, according to the Columbia Basin Institute, a research group in Portland, Ore.

Its 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 Northwest.

"If you want to produce most of America's french fries this way, you should have to pay the costs -- social, environmental and other," says Bill Bean, the 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."

Industry leaders say much of the criticism is wrong or misleading. They say they have cleaned up many of the water 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 4,000 year-round jobs, among the best-paying in the low-skill farm sector, mainly to Mexican immigrants.

And they say they have kept alive rural communities that otherwise might have had severe unemployment and a declining tax base.

The french fry production industry here has prospered in part because of public works projects that produce cheap electrical power and bring water to what was once an unpopulated desert.

More than 50 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned the Columbia 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.

But over the past 30 years, small farms in this region have all but disappeared, replaced by large corporate farms that have the necessary capital to pay for the large amounts of fertilizers and chemicals needed in growing the thick Russet potato that is used for making french fries.

Before the mass marketing of frozen fries, about 1,000 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 Columbia Basin is second only to the Imperial Valley of Southern California in size and in 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 says these subsidies are "an unnecessary and gratuitous use of public funds."

The french fry producers say they probably would have come here even without the government enticements. But since the subsidies were offered, they say, they took them.

"We would be the first to admit that we're not perfect," says William Voss, president of McCain Foods, a large processor that received a $5 million loan from the state of Washington. "But this is an industry that has brought thousands of well-paying, year-round jobs to this region."

Community leaders tend to agree with Mr. Voss.

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 teen-agers to wash, peel and cook fresh french fries.

Now those jobs are done in foul-smelling factories here in the Columbia Basin, where each plant uses more than two million gallons of water a day and the fries are frozen when they leave the factory.

The windowless factories belch huge clouds of steam, and a stench hangs over the air, a residue of cooking oil and processing.

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 as slop for cattle in feed-lots, and the strained waste water from the factories is sprayed onto fields for irrigation and fertilization.

But now the underground water supply in the Columbia Basin is showing high levels of nitrates from fertilizers and from farm and animal waste, prompting investigations by state and federal officials.

The potato processing industry attributes the heavy nitrate concentrations to past agricultural practices and poor municipal treatment centers. They say their most polluted waste water is contained in smaller pools near the plants and is not a threat to drinking water, a contention challenged by some critics of the industry.

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