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Week of 6.5.09

Q & A: Eric Schlosser

In this interview excerpt, Eric Schlosser, award-winning journalist and author of the book "Fast Food Nation," discusses the state of the American food system.

Book cover for 'Food, Inc.' To read the full interview, check out the book "Food, Inc." ed. by Karl Weber, available now from PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

Q. Your book "Fast Food Nation" was one of the landmarks in the development of today's movement to reform the American food production system. Can you talk about how you got involved as a journalist with issues surrounding food, and how "Fast Food Nation" came to be?

I was introduced to the world of modern food production in the mid-1990s, while researching an article about California's strawberry industry for the Atlantic Monthly. It was an investigative piece about illegal immigrants, the transformation of California agriculture, the exploitation of poor migrant workers. It opened my eyes to the difference between what you see in the supermarket and what you see in the fields—the reality of how our food is produced...

Instead of writing a political rant about immigration policy or Pete Wilson, I just wrote something that said, "Look, here's where your strawberries come from—and here's what the consequences are."

That article about migrants in the Atlantic Monthly was read by the editors at Rolling Stone—Jann Wenner, Bob Love, and Will Dana. They called me into their office and said, "We loved your article, and we'd like you to do for fast food what you did for the strawberry. We want you to write an investigative piece about the fast food industry. And we want you to call it 'Fast Food Nation.'"

In retrospect, that was a damn good idea. But at the time, I wasn't so sure about it. The editors at Rolling Stone didn't know much about the fast food industry, and neither did I. It wasn't at all clear what the scope or the focus of the article would be. And I didn't want to write something that was snobby and elitist, you know, a put-down of Americans and of their plastic fast-food culture. I still ate at McDonald's then, especially when I was on the road. I really like hamburgers and French fries, and I don't consider myself some kind of gourmand. So I knew what I didn't want the article to be, but I wasn't really sure what it should or could be. There was a basic question that needed to be answered: What's the story here?

Q. How much resistance did you encounter in researching and reporting the book?

A lot. None of the major meatpacking companies allowed me to visit their facilities. McDonald's was not at all helpful. The industry, on the whole, didn't roll out a welcome mat. But many of the workers at fast food restaurants and meatpacking plants were eager to talk with me. They felt that their stories had not yet been told, and they wanted the world to know what was happening. Their help made "Fast Food Nation" possible...

"I didn't want to write something that was snobby and elitist, you know, a put-down of Americans and of their plastic fast-food culture."
One of the major themes of "Fast Food Nation" and "Food, Inc." is the power of corporations to influence government policy. Again and again, we see these companies seeking de-regulation—and government subsidies. They hate government regulations that protect workers and consumers but love to receive taxpayer money. That theme has implications far beyond the food industry. The same kind of short-sighted greed that has threatened food safety and worker safety for years now threatens the entire economy of the United States. You can't separate the de-regulation of the food industry from the de-regulation of our financial markets. Both were driven by the same mindset. And now we find ourselves on the brink of a worldwide economic meltdown. But in times of crisis we are more likely to see things clearly, to recognize that many of the problems in our society are inter-connected. The same guys who would sell you contaminated meat would no doubt sell you toxic mortgages, just to make an extra buck.

One of my goals in "Fast Food Nation" was to make connections between things that might not obviously seem linked. And that posed one of the biggest challenges in writing the book: how far could I go, off on a tangent, before losing readers? I was constantly worried about straying too far and writing something that seemed slightly crazy; I wanted to show the power and influence of this one industry, without exaggerating and suggesting that it somehow ruled the world. There's a fine line between being iconoclastic and being nuts. But it was important to trace the various interconnections. So I wrote about Walt Disney in a book about fast food, because Disney greatly influenced how McDonald's marketed its food to children—-and that helped change the health of children throughout the world. Some of the things that I learned were truly bizarre, like the fact that Heinz Haber, one of Disney's principal scientific advisors, had been involved with medical experiments performed on concentration camp victims in Nazi Germany. Haber later hosted a Disney documentary singing the praises of nuclear power: "Our Friend the Atom." That fact seemed incredibly bizarre—-and yet on some level it also seemed relevant. It made sense, when you're talking about systems that worship uniformity, conformity, and centralized control...

Q. Do you see actual reform of the food system beginning to occur, beyond such trends as farmers' markets and organic restaurants?

There's no question that meaningful reform has begun. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a wonderful organization that defends the rights of farm workers in Florida, has forged agreements with the leading fast food chains and with Whole Foods. Organic produce is the fastest-growing and most profitable segment of American agriculture. School districts throughout the country are banning sodas and junk foods. New York City and California have passed menu labeling laws, and California voters recently backed a referendum on behalf of animal welfare. Everywhere you look, people are changing what they eat and demanding that companies be held accountable for what they sell.

Unfortunately, over the past decade, some things have gotten worse—especially the abuse of meatpacking workers. And food safety has deteriorated significantly, with some of the biggest recalls in U.S. history occurring in the last few years. The administration of President George W. Bush administration was completely in bed with the large meatpacking and food processing companies. As a result, food safety regulations were rolled back or ignored. These industries were pretty much allowed to regulate themselves. And tens of thousands of American consumers paid the price, with their health.

"Food safety has deteriorated significantly, with some of the biggest recalls in U.S. history occurring in the last few years."
The fast-food industry has done some good things in the areas of animal welfare, antibiotic use among livestock, and food safety. But the big chains are pretty much operating the way they always have. They want their products to be cheap and taste everywhere exactly the same. That requires a certain kind of production system, an industrial agriculture responsible for all sorts of harms. And the fast food chains want their labor to be cheap, as well. The fundamental workings of this system haven't changed at all since "Fast Food Nation" was published...

Q. Some people blame economics for the bad eating habits a lot of Americans practice. Is it true that healthy eating costs more than unhealthy eating?

Technically, no. It's possible to go to the market, buy good ingredients, and make yourself a healthy meal for less than it costs to buy a value meal at McDonald's. But most people don't have the time or the skills to do that. It's a hell of a lot easier to buy your meal at the drive-through. I can understand why a single parent, working two jobs, would find it easier to stop at McDonald's with the kids rather than cook something from scratch at home.

But we're looking at the whole economic issue the wrong way. Instead of asking, "What does it cost to eat healthy food?" we should be asking, "What's the real cost of this fast, cheap food?" When you look at the long list of harms, this fast, cheap food is much too expensive.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that one-third of all American children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes, as a result of poor diet and lack of exercise. So when we talk about bringing healthy food to every American—yes, it probably means spending more money on food. But you can spend that extra money on food now, or spend a lot more money later, treating heart disease and diabetes.

The fast food industry didn't suddenly appear in a vacuum. The industry's growth coincides neatly with a huge decline in the minimum wage, beginning in the late 1960s. When you cut people's wages by as much as forty percent, they need cheap food. And the labor policies of the fast food industry helped drive those wages down. For years, the industry has employed more minimum wage workers than any other—and has lobbied for lower minimum wages. So we've created a perverse system in which the food is cheap at McDonald's because the company employs cheap labor, sells products that are heavily subsidized by the government, and sells them to consumers whose wages have been kept low. We're talking about a race to the bottom. We shouldn't have a society when the only food that's readily affordable is unhealthy food.

Q. So how can we break this cycle?

"If the government's going to subsidize any foods, it should be healthy foods."
Well, we can start by taking care of children in this country, rather than simply talking about "family values." We can invest in bringing healthy food into public schools and teaching children about nutrition—like Alice Waters has done, at the Edible Schoolyard. We can begin to change the food culture of this country by changing how we feed and educate our children.

We can create a health care system that looks after everybody in the country, rich or poor, that cares more about preventing illness than about medicating it, that intervenes long before people need heart bypass surgery or dialysis.

We can raise wages and remove the unfair obstacles that block unionization among farm workers and restaurant workers.

We can make healthy foods more widely available by supporting farmers markets and bringing supermarkets into low-income neighborhoods. And we can make industrial fast foods more expensive by insuring that the prices at the counter reflect the true costs to society.

We can pass environmental laws that make factory farms clean up their own waste, animal welfare laws that end unnecessary cruelty, and labeling laws that tell consumers what's in their meat. This might drive up the price of meat. It might force some Americans to reduce their meat intake. But that might be a good thing. I still eat meat, I'm not a vegetarian—yet. But do we need to eat a large portion of meat two or three times a day, as many Americans do? I don't think so. And if we eliminate some of the factors that keep the price of meat artificially low, it will improve the health of consumers, livestock, and the land.

We can get rid of government subsidies for factory farms and corporate farms. If the government's going to subsidize any foods, it should be healthy foods: fruits, nuts, and vegetables—not high fructose corn syrup and corn-based cattle feeds. And we need to support family farmers who have a long-term interest in land stewardship, not corporate farms that view the land as just another commodity to be bought, sold, and exploited...

Q. Yet your agenda for change is so sweeping that it sounds radical.

Radical? I think my proposals are pretty conservative. It's the industrial system that seems radical and completely out-of-keeping with tradition. This country thrived for almost two-hundred years without industrial fast foods. There's no reason we can't thrive, once again, without them. The way we produce food today, this giant industrial system, is only about thirty years old. And look at the damage it has already done, in such a brief period of time. For most of our history, we had a very different kind of agricultural system and a very different diet—and that traditional system worked well enough to support a continent full of people, to feed our cities, to help feed the rest of the world.
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