KFC: Corporate Fetishism and Fecal Soup

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Purnima Bose and Laura Lyons

IN CAPITAL, KARL Marx describes commodity fetishism, the process by which the commodity acquires a “mysterious character” that embodies it with “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”  A similar process of fetishism attaches to the contemporary transnational corporation [TNC].

The commodity’s quasi-mystical aura serves to dislocate it from social relations, naturalizing the “social characteristics” of human labor as “objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves.” (See note 1)  Today’s giant corporation has become severed, in our collective unconscious, from its constitutive social relations and has acquired an inviolable aura obscuring its various operations in particular geographical sites.

Corporation fetishism can be demystified by analyzing corporate-produced narratives about the transformation of local companies into transnational entities, and by mapping commodity chains.  What follows is an attempt to sketch a corporate genealogy and commodity chain for Kentucky Fried Chicken [KFC], founded by Colonel Harland D. Sanders in 1939.

The Colonel’s “secret blend of eleven herbs and spices,” along with his astute business acumen, helped to transform this single outpost into a finger-licking empire with some 10,826 restaurants around the world. (See note 2)

We start with a genealogy of the corporation’s development from a single restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky to its present manifestation as a mega chicken conglomerate.

The Colonel maintained KFC as an independent company until its acquisition by Heublein Incorporated in 1971.  Two years after the demise of the hoary patriarch in 1980, KFC became a subsidiary of the tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds Industries.

In 1986, RJR sold KFC to PepsiCo Inc. for $840 million.  By 1996, the company employed some 206,828 people and boasted retail sales worldwide of $8.2 billion.

Yet worried that its restaurant subsidiaries would divert too many resources from its ongoing cola wars, PepsiCo spun off its fast food chains—KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut—into an independent restaurant company, Tricon Global Restaurants, which is now the world’s largest restaurant system with more than 30,000 KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut eateries in more than 100 countries and territories.

From Crispy Strips to Prisons

In fact, KFC’s self-representation foregrounds a narrative of spatial expansion and territorialization.  According to the KFC 1999 website, for example, “Laid end to end, the nearly 37 million Colonel’s Crispy Chicken Strips sold in the US in 1996 would march in four lines from Washington, D.C. to Hong Kong.”

Figured in the military metaphors of marching formations and military rank, the Colonel leads his breaded platoons into new territorial markets for culinary consumption.

But the globe itself represents inadequate market opportunities for growth; and so we are also told that “Laid head to claw, KFC chickens consumed worldwide would stretch some 284,000 miles.”  Space seems to be the final frontier for KFC as those same chicken carcasses “would circle the Earth at the equator 11 times or stretch from the Earth approximately 59,000 miles past the moon.”

Not content with the staggering profits available through fried chicken sales, in 1983 KFC executives expanded their entrepreneurial ventures by providing the capital for Corrections Corporation of America [CCA], one of the first companies to build and run private prisons.

Cashing in on incarceration, CCA like its parent KFC is going global by building and managing for-profit prisons in the United States and Europe with plans to develop the untapped Asian markets.  Thomas Beasley, co-founder of CCA, commented that once people realize that “the government can’t do anything very well .  .  .  At that point you just sell [prisons] like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.” (See note 3)

The possibilities for articulating these two business interests are frightening: perhaps, CCA will replace the already diminished rehabilitation programs with workshops on poultry processing techniques; or reentry of prisoners will involve working KFC pressure cookers to repay the state for the cost of their incarceration.

The Founding Myths of KFC

Corporations, like nations, develop their own mythologies of origin and engage in the “invention of traditions.”  The avuncular, quintessential Southern gent whose image beams down on us from thousands of KFC outlets was, ironically, neither from Kentucky nor a military man. Instead, the native Hoosier received the honorary title in 1935 from then Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon in recognition of his charitable works.

Although Colonel Sanders remains one of the advertising industry’s most recognized icons, in 1991 Pepsico decided to replace the name Kentucky Fried Chicken with the KFC logo, ostensibly to “emphasize chicken variety” and to downplay to an increasingly health-conscious public the fact that their menu consisted almost entirely of fat-laden, calorie-rich fried items.  (For instance, a single original recipe chicken breast contains 400 calories, 220 of which come from fat.)

This move also enabled them to develop a flock of new products such as the “rotisserie chicken” and the “chunky chicken pot pie.”  Just as the name change to KFC de-emphasized the manner of food preparation, so too it erased the national origins of the company at a time when KFC’s expansion worldwide was at its height.

In 1995, the chicken giant launched its current retail slogan, “Everybody needs a little KFC,” spending $50 million on the campaign in attempting to replace “tender loving care” or “tlc” with “KFC” in the well-worn adage “everyone needs a little tlc.”

The company sought to underplay the Colonel in its advertisements.  As one franchise owner stated, “We never wanted to use the Colonel as a pitchman.”

Yet the company’s promotional materials have been plagued by its ambivalence towards the “f word” (“fried”).  At the 1995 KFC National Ad Co-op meeting, executives talked of re-emphasizing the chain’s fried chicken heritage, downplayed in previous years.  “We’re not going to be afraid of fried anymore.  It’s a mindset among the new regime that we’re in the chicken business and some of it is fried,” declared one franchisee. (See note 4)

Interestingly, this owner’s use of “heritage” and “new regime” echoes the invented tradition of language and images more commonly associated with the construction of national identity.

If the corporate decision makers demonstrate ambivalence towards the manner in which the bulk of their merchandise is cooked, it is also the case that as the company goes global, it increasingly finds it advantageous to foreground its national origins.

As Timothy Brennan explains, “living corporations such as Viacom, Nestle, or Philips have traditions and lines of succession made up of men and women with a single native language and a fund of memories shared overwhelmingly with one, rather than another, nation .  .  .  .  TNC’s are not really unencumbered with nationalist baggage; the meaning of the present system is that they are able more readily to manipulate national meanings and constraints for their profit making.”

Brennan suggests the success of transnational companies often comes from their ability to exploit the national imagery of their subsidiaries, and this mediation of the national and the global is frequently revealed in the names given to these different entities.

KFC still retains through the image of the Colonel a “lifestyle imagery of national resonance,” while the name of KFC’s parent, “Tricon Global Restaurants,” signifies “an imperious stone-relief of ponderous anonymity, whose real line of production is not generally known.” (See note 5)

Constructing Nostalgia

KFC’s 1999 website clearly attempts to mark the company as an American business entity.  The homepage, which features an image of the Colonel cradling a bucket of his chicken, welcomes the visitor to the “KFC neighborhood,” where one is invited to see the sights.

The next page evokes nostalgia for a lost, small town Americana, as the KFC neighborhood includes icons of a community center, theater, park, and “KFC Whitehouse” all of which serve as links to other pages on the site. A statue of the Colonel presides over the center of the screen, the way a statue of a “founding father” might have provided a central landmark for a town square in the early twentieth century.

Clicking on the “KFC Whitehouse” icon brings up two kinds of information—”founding truths” and “opportunities”—both of which espouse a presumably North American version of management that stresses customer service and teamwork to insure quality. (See note 6)

The extent to which U.S. imagery—small towns and the “white house”—pervades this site significantly recalls an earlier moment in Fordist production when business interests appeared more local and so accountable to a community made up not of just nameless customers, but of one’s neighbors.

The KFC website is just one part of a $20 million ad campaign designed both to herald the return of the Colonel and to foreground the chain’s folksy roots.

By promoting the benevolent patriarch who invented what is now called the “home meal replacement,” a complete meal targeted at harried families too busy to cook for themselves, KFC hoped to alleviate consumer concerns about food contamination that have dogged the company ever since the late 1970s and ’80s when the Colonel’s image began to recede into the background of ads.

As anyone who grew up in these decades can attest, urban legends about KFC serving up fried rats have been pervasive and difficult for the company to counter.  Some of these legends have been compiled by Gary Alan Fine, who argues that stories of the chicken factories being so dirty that rats were mixed in with chicken parts are one way in which people articulate their anxieties about modernity—and, we would add, the processes of globalization. (See note 7)

What the Colonel is Watching

The reintroduction of the Colonel’s image, then, is meant to reassure consumers that quality control will be strictly observed; more ubiquitous than ever, the Colonel, the 1999 website tells us, had no other hobby than “visiting his restaurants and making sure every product was made to his strict standard” for “cooking and the pursuit of quality food was his great love.” (See note 8)

In response to the higher profile of the Colonel’s image, another KFC franchise owner extolled “He’s our guy and we’re all here today because of him.” (See note 9);

If the pervasive images of the Colonel inspire local eatery owners and reassure his patrons that their meals have received the same attention and loving care of those he first served the public in 1939, those same images serve as a panoptic reminder to KFC workers that their actions are closely regulated and that the Colonel is always watching.

We can turn our critical gaze to the first link in the commodity chain, the poultry farms and chicken processing plants that comprise what is called the “broiler belt” which stretches from Maryland’s Eastern shore through the Carolinas and the deep south into the Texas panhandle.

While discussions of the commodity in cultural criticism are primarily figured in terms of semiotics and the pleasures of consumption, we want to shift the focus to the ways in which the production of specific commodities entails different forms of trauma to workers, to the environment, and to consumers.

Defining trauma on a literal level, as a bodily injury produced by physical violence or an external agent, establishes multiple levels of trauma attached to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

These include the trauma of transnational corporate production which is imprinted on the malnourished bodies of low-waged workers; the trauma of injuries, particularly burns, incurred on the job; the trauma of death suffered by those workers who toil in fire-prone chicken processing plants, the lowest level of the KFC food chain; the trauma of water pollution caused by the run-off from chicken production; and the trauma of consuming artery-clogging, cancer-producing saturated fat, and of contracting salmonella and campylobacter poisoning.  We need to state at the outset that the number of health hazards for chickens, workers, and consumers are so numerous in the poultry processing industry that we can only give you a small sample of them.

The first point in the KFC commodity chain is the factory farm where, packed into over crowded cages, as many as 80,000 chickens spend the five-week duration of their lives within a typical hen house. (See note 10)

Through the use of artificial lighting, which replicates the light patterns of day and night, the chickens’ life cycle is speeded up. The maturation rate for chickens is also accelerated through bizarre feeding practices.

“In the high-tech world of factory farms,” as Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber note, “cannibalism and other unnatural feeding patterns are not only practiced but preached as the latest miracle of modern efficiency and progress.”

Although mad cow disease has been the subject of some media attention recently, less well known are the feeding practices employed in the poultry industry.  It is legal to render cattle into protein feed for pigs and chickens, whose remains can in turn be rendered into feed for cattle.  As Rampton and Stauber point out, “chickens are routinely fed with protein supplements derived from the feathers, blood, and even the feces of other chickens.”

Moreover, in order to produce even cheaper animal feed, the poultry industry has supplanted grass and hay with a special blend of entrails, hoofs, feathers, cement dust from kilns, municipal composting plant sludge, waste water from nuclear power stations, moisture damaged or maggot-infested grains, rodents, roaches and bird excreta. (See note 11)

Fecal Soup (mmmm, Good)

While nauseating in themselves, these ingredients contribute to the creation of new infectious diseases such as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, more commonly known as “mad cow disease.”

While the link between diet and disease in poultry production is a recent phenomenon, illnesses disseminated through fecal contamination in the processing of chicken parts have a long history.  Poultry plants utilize a technique called “rapid evisceration” in which chicken intestines are mechanically removed in a manner that contaminates the equipment, spreading feces from one carcass to another.

Consumer advocates also point out that contamination inheres in the practice of rapidly chilling birds in vats of cold chlorinated water, a concoction known in the industry as “fecal soup.”  According to Caroline Smith De Waal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Numerous studies have documented that the percentage of carcasses contaminated with salmonella and campylobacter increases during processing.”

A 1991 study revealed that 20% of birds were contaminated with campylobacter when they entered the processing plant, but significantly this number rose to 52% after the poultry had been basted in the fecal soup.

In response to consumer groups’ attempts to get the poultry industry to clean up the plants, the industry has implemented irradiation as a solution, a process whose effects are still largely undetermined.

As Carol Tucker Foreman, a former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, astutely observed, “You don’t want irradiation to be used as a substitute for good sanitation .  .  .  .  If you’re going to spend the money, why not clean up the plants?  After all, sterilized poop is still poop.” (See note 12)

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that campylobacter is responsible for about 2,453,926 infections annually, the symptoms of which include bloody diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramping.  If we include infections due to salmonella poisoning, the number of food borne illnesses is much higher.  CDC officials put the incidence of food-borne illnesses at 76 million cases per year, with an estimated 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually. (See note 13)

Poisoning Us All

Even those who do not eat chicken cannot escape the deleterious effects of poultry processing, which also cause severe environmental degradation.  The combined meat industries—cattle, pork and poultry—produced 1.4 billion tons of animal excreta in 1996, 130 times that produced by humans. (See note 14)

When in 1996, Congress refused to include manure and other “non-point source” pollutants from agricultural runoff under the jurisdiction of federal law, they created for the meat industries a convenient loophole in the Clean Water Act. Reporter Bill Lambrecht notes that poultry processors bear no legal responsibility for the manure from chickens and turkeys on their farms.

The runoff from chicken manure is a key nutrient for the toxic microbe known as pfiesteria, blamed for killing a billion fish in North Carolina in recent years and perhaps 50,000 in Chesapeake Bay during the summer of 1997.

In Missouri, chicken waste pollutes streams and wells.  The nefarious over-spreading of chicken waste on fields has galvanized a broad range of people to try to monitor the industry.  As Wanda McGough, a high school teacher explained, “I’m not a trouble maker.  But when [chicken waste] begins to come out of your faucet, you feel violated.” (See note 15)

Labor’s Beef with Chicken

As bad as the conditions are for the chickens and those who live near the plants that process them, poultry workers face greater hazards in an industry that has a rate of injury and illness almost double that in the coal mining and construction industries. (See note 16)

In a largely non-unionized industry, wages range from $5.45/hr to $8.45/hr for particularly odious work. Together these factors of poor working conditions and low pay have altered the composition of the workforce as U.S.-born citizens are increasingly replaced by Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Haitian, Russian and Laotian immigrants.

Many of these workers are undocumented and fear deportation, which gives the poultry industry even greater latitude in exploiting its workers.  As the Rev. Jim Lewis, a member of the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance in Delaware, revealed, workers toil in temperatures in the forties:

“There’s water on the floor, water in the air, and they’re breathing this icy water vapor.  If they are men, they’re hanging chickens, and the chicken often defecates in their faces, or scratches them, or stabs them with its beak. If they are women, they are cutting up chickens with their hands so cold they can barely move them.”

The most common injuries caused by the repetitive work in the plants include shoulder, back and wrist injuries.  Ninety percent of the injured workers, reported the Legal Aid Organization, received no paid sick leave or worker’s compensation when they were hurt.

Other egregious labor violations consist of industry demands that workers put in small amounts of unpaid overtime on a daily basis and cutting break times to one or two ten-minute bathroom breaks a day, a practice that often results in workers urinating on themselves or risking dehydration by severely limiting their liquid intakes. (See note 17)

From Hamlet to Ourselves

Chicken industry management continues its rampant violations of labor laws despite the exposure of the inhumane working conditions in their plants following the tragic September 3, 1991 fire in the Imperial Foods Products building in Hamlet, North Carolina.

Twenty-five Imperial employees died and another fifty-six were injured in the blaze when a grease fire started on a chicken fryer and spread quickly inside the old, dilapidated facility.  The workers died desperately clawing at the locked exit doors.

The Hamlet plant had not been inspected in the eleven years of its operation; there were no fire extinguishers, no sprinkler systems, and no fire exit doors.  Ironically, it was a similar fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911, which resulted in 146 women dying, that lead the labor movement to fight for better workplace protection.

“When I eat Kentucky Fried Chicken,” David Harvey insists, “I am situated at one point in a chain of commodity production that leads right back to Hamlet, North Carolina.” (See note 18)

At the next link of our commodity chain, the KFC franchise, minimum wages and worker humiliation rule the roost.  June Lauer, a thirteen-year employee at a KFC in Wisconsin, sued the company for unemployment compensation after her manager suggested that she get the Colonel tattooed on her breast as a way of raising company awareness and improving employee morale.

In her suit, Lauer charged male managers with routinely referring to female employees as “bitches,” continually referencing genitals in conversations, and pressing female workers for information on their menstrual cycles.

In a decision that confirms what many feminists have asserted about the recent rollbacks in women’s rights, Administrative Law Judge Charles Schaefer wrote, “Use of vulgar and obscene language and terms can serve to promote group solidarity.  To the extent that it was intended to promote this end, it would have been an effort to achieve a legitimate business goal.” (See note 19)  His decision is currently under appeal.

Chain of Foul Practices

In another suit against KFC in Dallas County Court, four women have charged KFC with gender discrimination.  The women routinely worked longer hours, earned lower salaries and bonuses, were not told of promotion opportunities, and were discouraged from using their earned vacation or sick time. One plaintiff, Mary Baggarly, alleged that the regional manager denied her a raise by stating that it wasn’t necessary since her husband was “making plenty of money.” (See note 20)

Nor are KFC’s discriminatory practices limited to gender.  In 1997, a federal race-based discrimination suit against the corporation was filed in which ten African American managers in Texas sought undisclosed actual and punitive damages.  All the managers were fired without cause over a two-year period and replaced with white workers. (See note 21)

Eating, we like to believe, is a basic activity, but the many links within the KFC commodity chain reveal foul labor practices and disease are as much a part of the standard fare as those hapless chickens.

As we have become increasingly removed from the production of our food, unsure of its origins and composition, we experience what Jeffrey Schrank terms “eater alienation.” (See note 22)  Yet the relationships between us and what we consume are mediated through market functions and state regulations governing food production and labor conditions.

As the Rev. Lewis observed, “Most people walk into a store and pick up a piece of chicken and have no idea where it came from or at what cost—and I don’t mean what cost per pound, but the cost to a lot of people along the way.” (See note 23)


  1. Karl Marx, Capital Volume One. Trans. Ben Fowkes.  (New York: Random House, 1976), 163-165.
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  2. For the following discussion we have drawn from: http://www.kentuckyfriedchicken.com/about/kfcfacts.htm, May 14, 2002; http://www.kfc.com/COLONEL/colhistory1.htm, January 5, 2000; http://www.kentuckyfriedchicken.com/about/default/htm, May 14, 2002; http://www.kentuckyfriedchicken.com/default1.htm, February 11, 1999.
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  3. Eric Bates, “Private Prisons.”  http://past.thenation.com/issue/980105/0105bate.htm, May 20, 2002.
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  4. Karen Benezera, “KFC Mulls Mega-4-1.”  Brandweek, Volume 36. Issue 2.  January 9, 1995, 4.
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  5. Timothy Brennan, At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1997) 157.
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  6. For the above see http://www.kentucky friedchicken.com, February 11, 1999; http:// www.kentuckyfriedchicken.com/default1.htm, February 11, 1999; http://www.kentuckyfriedchicken.com/whitehouse.htm, February 10, 1999.
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  7. Gary Fine, Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends (Knoxville, University of Tennessee, 1992).  In the last several years, this urban legend has assumed a new form and been disseminated over the internet.  An email message, circulated widely, claims that KFC is using genetically modified organisms in lieu of chickens.
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  8. http://www.kentuckyfriedchicken.com/default1.htm, February 11, 1999.
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  9. Benezra, op. cit., 4.
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  10. EarthSave Bloomington, “Food Safety: Factory Farm Alarm-Is Your Food Safe?” The Blooming News, Volume 22.9 (March 1998), 3.
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  11. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, “Mad Cow Disease: Industrial Farming Comes Home to Roost.”  Covert Action Quarterly, Number 62, (Fall 1997), 55.
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  12. Sandra Boodman, “Poultry Peril,” The Washington Post, December 9, 1997, 12Z.
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  13. wysiwyg://143/http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol5no5/mead.htm, May 15, 2002.
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  14. Debbie Howlett, “Lakes of Animal Waste Pose Environmental Risk.”  USA Today, December 30, 1997, 7A.
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  15. Bill Lambrecht.  “Chicken Waste Poses Pollution Problems,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 23, 1997, 1A.
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  16. Earthsave, op. cit., 3.
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  17. Heather Dewar and John Rivera.  “Poultry Plant Workers Find Their Voice.”  The Baltimore Sun, February 2, 1998, 1B.
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  18. David Harvey, “Class Relations, Social Justice and the Politics of Difference.”  Place and the Politics of Identity, eds. Michael Keith and Steve Pile (London: Routledge, 1993) 58.
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  19. Myriam Marquez, “Secret Recipe for Disaster.”  Sun-Sentinel, October 7, 1997, 9A.
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  20. Jim Mitchell, “4 Women Sue KFC.”  The Dallas Morning News, May 21, 1997, 1D.
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  21. Deborah Tedford, “6 Ex-Managers File Suit Alleging Racial Bias at KFC.”  The Houston Chronicle, October 22, 1997, 30A.
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  22. Fine, op. cit., 129.
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  23. Dewar and Rivera, op. cit., 1B.
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Purnima Bose and Laura Lyons teach courses on feminism, globalization, and post-colonial studies at Indiana University and the University of Hawaii, respectively.

ATC 99, July-August 2002