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Eric Schlosser Knows What You’re Eating

"What we eat has changed more in the last forty years than in the last forty thousand," Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation, yet Americans know frightfully little about how that food is made, where, by whom, and at what cost. Eric SchlosserSchlosser's debut traces the industry's phenomenal growth from its birth fifty years ago in southern California to its global reach today, from the feedlots and slaughterhouses of America's new rural ghettos to cutting-edge laboratories where tastes are manufactured and finally to the teenagers handing you french fries at the drive-thru window. "Schlosser shows how the fast food industry has conquered both appetite and landscape," the New Yorker raved.

Powell's staff members voted Fast Food Nation their favorite book of 2001. No surprise there. Praise for Schlosser's debut has been issued from virtually all corners of the world: the L.A. Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Daily Telegraph (London), the Straits Times (Singapore), and the Daily Yomiuiri (Tokyo) to cite a few. "All children who can read should be issued a copy of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation," the Globe & Mail (Toronto) raved. "Also all adults, so that makes just about everybody."

Dave: One virtue of Fast Food Nation is that it brings together so many facets of contemporary American life without getting unwieldy. Everything fits. Did you have any idea how those competing interests would come together when you began to write it?

Eric Schlosser: It was hard. In trying to tie together all these different threads there was a huge risk that it would be a total mess. So much of it is balance, going far enough off on a tangent that it's worth exploring, then pulling back. But it was hard during the process to know if I was going way too far off.

For example, I was totally fascinated with the connections between Walt Disney and Nazi war criminals. I paid a woman in Washington D.C. to go through the National Archives to find information about this, and I think I was dangerously getting sucked in. But I knew that I was going to end up in Germany, and I knew that so much of the thematic thrust of the book was going to be about the drive for uniformity, conformity, and the worship of technology. And here were Disney and von Braun and Ray Kroc all intersecting within a few miles of each other in Southern California. So it was hard.

The basic structure was set for the original Rolling Stone piece. I submitted a first draft, and I had help from a really good editor; Eamon Dolan helped me shift around a couple chapters, and that really helped. I'm sure some people may feel that it strays or it goes too far or that the connections aren't proven, and but I hoped that I could use this one subject to look at all these other themes of American life. That was my ambition.

Dave: But in some respects those digressions give the book its resonance. One example of many, one that made me shake my head, was the story of how in the 1920s General Motors systematically purchased trolley systems across the country and immediately proceeded to rip up the track to help create more demand for buses and highways. Without the automobile, the fast food industry would never have evolved in the same manner.

Schlosser: Absolutely. And one of the big themes of the book is the contradiction between the rhetoric of the free market presented by supporters of free enterprise in public discussion and the reality of how their businesses operate. In that respect, the American west was a really good place for me to set this, especially the inner-mountain west now and Arizona, such a heart of free market rhetoric. Meanwhile nowhere else in the country is more dependent on federal funds and investments.

Again, I try to tie together a lot of different themes by way of your hamburger, your fries, and a little bit less your Coke. That was the aim, but when you're in the middle of it, you don't always know if you're hitting it right or if you're totally lost at sea.

Dave: You were prepared emotionally and intellectually for many of the subjects you wound up exploring, but it seems like your experience with the meatpacking industry was of another caliber.

Schlosser: It was. I had written a long piece for the Atlantic Monthly on the strawberry industry ["In the Strawberry Fields"]. In that piece, I used the strawberry, a fruit we eat all the time, as a means to look at illegal immigration, migrant labor in California—the whole change in our labor market through this one strawberry. I spent a lot of time with migrant workers in California, and to me that seemed like the hardest job I could imagine in the United States.

When I went into these meatpacking communities, I met people in Lexington, Nebraska, who had been strawberry workers and raspberry pickers at farms around Watsonville and Salinas, where I'd visited. That's what started to blow my mind: this century-old practice, exploitation of migrant labor in California, was now being extended to other industries and regions.

In some ways, on a visceral level, it's the part of the book I care most about. It's also the part of the book that's most difficult to get other people to care about. Words are inadequate. I did a photo essay ["The Chain Never Stops"] about the meatpacking industry for Mother Jones with Eugene Richards, who is extraordinary, one of America's greatest living photographers. I did it because I really felt that my words are not up to this reality.

The reality of these lives, these people and their injuries...on a personal level, that whole part of the book was very important. And it was put three-quarters of the way in because I felt like you couldn't start off with this. It had to be earned. People would only read it if it came well into the book because it's very hard to get people to think about these things.

Dave: I'd been living in Colorado for a year or two before I first visited Greeley. I couldn't believe that a populated town - a town with a college - could smell so bad. I didn't know whether it was alright to bring up the subject with the people I met there. Then a year or two later, I had a surreal experience that I'll never forget. I was driving back east through Greeley at about 2:30 in the morning, leaving after a bar shift on my way back to Massachusetts to visit family. I drove in the darkness past the cattle pens, past cattle and cattle and cattle and more cattle - it went on forever, this mass of cattle crammed together for what seemed like miles.

Schlosser: Isn't it unbelievable? It's unbelievable. Like a sea of fur.

Dave: It seemed to go on for miles. It was late at night, dark and desolate, and some of the cattle were lowing. It was just so spooky.

Schlosser: What you saw and felt, it's hard to write that.

Dave: One thing the meatpacking industry has in common with the fast food industry is its reliance on very high turnover and essentially disposable employees.

Schlosser: Absolutely.

Dave: I saw a commercial the other day for IBM that said ninety-something percent of American businesses are small businesses. Well, one thing you write about is that many of the people getting small business loans from the government are not really what we think of as small businesses at all. They're taking the loans and opening Subways.

Schlosser: It's a brilliant way for huge corporations to use government funds to expand. The whole idea of franchising is getting other people's money to build your restaurant, and in this case using a Small Business Association loan, basically a taxpayer-backed loan, to do it. It's brilliant.

Dave: These same restaurants are getting federal funding to train employees. Then they don't train them. In fact "zero training" is a stated industry goal.

Schlosser: Right.

Dave: You discuss the fast food industry's influence in Congress, but how does such a fundamental misapplication of the system persist?

Schlosser: I may be naïve or optimistic, but I think most Americans just don't know. I consider myself a fairly well informed, well educated person. I'd spent almost a year looking at industrial agriculture and strawberries, that whole industry in California, so I was very familiar with all sorts of agricultural issues, and I had no idea that much of this was happening.

I had no idea about the changes in meatpacking, for instance. I had no idea about the influence of the fast food industry over minimum wage policy. What you mentioned about these tax credits...this was all news to me. In a way, that's why this book was such a pleasure to research: I was learning. There may be people who know this stuff, but I didn't, and the hope is that by writing this, once people know, things will be different. Exposing it to the light, hopefully things will be different.

Dave: Many public schools are now funding themselves by allowing beverage companies and fast food chains to sell product in their halls and cafeterias. You also cite textbooks published by major corporations that present misinformation serving their own self-interest under the guise of education.

Schlosser: And ultimately it's our unwillingness to fund education that's behind that. Schools need textbooks. They don't have the money to buy them, they'll take the ones that whatever big corporation is offering.

Dave: And the company gets a tax credit for that too.

Schlosser: They use it as a tax write-off.

Dave: In the Epilogue, you write:

The twenty-first century will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power. The great challenge now facing countries throughout the world is how to find a proper balance between the efficiency and the amorality of the market.

How do you see that happening?

Schlosser: Without being too simplistic, and without quoting Arthur Schlessinger, I think we go through cycles of history. The pendulum swings back and forth. I think we are coming out of a period of conformity, a push for homogeneity in culture, and also unchecked corporate power. I think those checks will be re-imposed. Not just because of the fast food industry and the meatpacking industry; look at Enron.

We'll see how that plays out, but that's just such a perfect example of this government being used by a corporation to serve its own ends. The remarkable thing about Enron is that they're not even paying taxes. They have the government essentially operating on their own behalf, and they don't even have the good grace to pay for it.

I'm thinking about writing something called "In Praise of Corporations." Quite honestly, they can drive an extremely efficient, effective method of economic activity. It's a way of raising money and sharing risk. But to blindly worship the corporation in the absence of any check on its power is absurd.

We all live in a community, and if we were all angels we wouldn't need law enforcement. But the reality is that there are certain people who'll break into your house and rip off your stuff or threaten you. You do need civil society. Why would it be any different with corporations? It's completely illogical that we've gotten to this point. The meatpacking industry, as we speak, can sell beef with salmonella in it without any check by the government. That happened about a month ago: the salmonella standard for ground beef was thrown out.

Further reading
Articles by Eric Schlosser discussed in this interview

The Chain Never Stops with photographs by Eugene Richards (from Mother Jones)

In the Strawberry Fields (from the Atlantic)

Reefer Madness (from the Atlantic)

The Prison Industrial Complex (from the Atlantic)

Dave: Was that Bush, himself?

Schlosser: It was a federal court. For the first time, a plant with high-level salmonella contamination was shut down - they'd been selling ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, maybe not such a great thing - but the plant was reopened later in the afternoon by a federal court. The case eventually made its way to an appeals court that ruled salmonella is a naturally-occurring organism and the government can't shut down a ground beef plant that has high levels of it in its meat.

That's insane. Huge, state-run, socialist entities aren't the answer, but at the same time, giving over economic and civil power to a handful of unelected corporate executives - bad idea.

Dave: You're writing a book about the prison system now?

Schlosser: I am. This article that you read from the Atlantic [he points to a printed copy of "The Prison Industrial Complex" on the table] is in many ways the blueprint for it in the same way that the Rolling Stone articles were the blueprint for Fast Food Nation. Again, it's going to try to be big and broad and draw a lot of different things together.

One thing about Fast Food Nation, from a writing point of view, is that it doesn't have a narrative. It's not an A-to-Z story of my reporting in the fast food industry; I'm not following one person. It's structured, for good or for ill, as the unfolding of an idea, the unfolding of an argument. And the prison book will be the same, but that's complicated and hard to do. Some people need a more clearly narrative-driven focus. We'll see if the next one works.

Dave: You wrote another long article for the Atlantic a while back about the criminalization of marijuana in America ["Reefer Madness"]. Was it by researching that topic that you became immersed in America's penal system? There's a lot of overlap with many of the subjects we're talking about. The privatization of America's prisons represents a vast shift in how we deal with crime.

Schlosser: It's similar to the connection between the strawberry piece and the fast food piece; it's a bigger, more complex version of the original.

The first really long Atlantic piece I wrote was about the war on marijuana, trying to understand it. Behind it all was this prison boom and the growth of mandatory minimum sentences. That really made me start thinking about our prison system. Twenty-five or thirty years from now when historians look back at our era - I'm forty-two, so really I'm talking about the last couple of decades - I believe that the growth of this prison system will be regarded as one of the most extraordinary social phenomena of the period.

Who knows what will happen with our war on terrorism? Who knows what other extraordinary events will happen? But to go from two hundred thousand inmates to about two million in a relatively brief period of take a huge proportion of the mentally ill and impoverished drug offenders and lock them up behind bars is an extraordinary thing. The book asks, "How does a society come to do that?" It very much plays into those themes of conformity.

Dave: What books have opened your eyes as you hope your books will impact readers?

Schlosser: On prisons, Ted Conover's book, Newjack, is unbelievable. Beautifully written, incredibly brave. That's one that immediately comes to mind. I'm going into prisons, and I care enormously about this issue, but he took a job as a correctional officer for a year without telling anybody and wrote just a brilliant account of the reality of prisons.

I'm reading a lot of Department of Justice studies at the moment! I really should be reading more that's not directly related to my work.

My generation of writers, roughly age 35 to 44, I think a lot of writers are really coming into their own, and reading their work gets me very fired up about writing nonfiction. I really admire Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm. I love that book. Also William Finnegan and John Seabrook, who's a friend of mine.

Dave: How long did you work on Fast Food Nation? How long will the prison book take?

Schlosser: Including the research for Rolling Stone, Fast Food Nation took about three years - though I did a few other things during that period, as well. I'm hoping to finish the new book in the fall. I've done an enormous amount of reading and research, but we'll see. It's not going to be as long a book, and it's going to have a lot of pictures. It's not going to be a big coffee table prison book, but words, the inadequacy of words, and trying to drive home the reality of these lives....

Another reason they take a while, especially with this book: there's a huge amount of time spent fact-checking, and a huge amount of time putting together the footnotes and the source material. It's done in the interest of transparency, saying, "Here's where I got it. Are you interested in reading more? Go ahead. Do you want to challenge it? Here it is." But in terms of Fast Food Nation, also because of the litigiousness of the companies I was writing about.

Dave: As yet, there's been no legal action over the content of Fast Food Nation, right?

Schlosser: No subpoenas. Certainly I do not believe that I libeled anyone, but that isn't necessarily a guarantee against them suing you. These are very big, powerful companies, and they can sue you simply to impose pain on you and to drag out your legal fees. So far [he knocks on wood], so good. Maybe they're just trying not to increase my paperback sales, but I don't want sales for that reason at all.

Eric Schlosser visited Powell's City of Books on January 23, 2002, the day a cover story appeared in Willamette Week about the second Portland neighborhood within a year to fight the opening of a proposed McDonald's restaurant. An earlier effort by Southeast Portland residents had convinced the company to abandon hopes for a franchise on Hawthorne Boulevard (three blocks down from Powell's east side location); now a group of Northeast residents had initiated their own fight.

So many people showed up for the reading that standing room space was full twenty-five minutes before the event's scheduled start.

Schlosser was energized by the turnout, recalling nights only ten months before with perhaps a half-dozen people in the audience. Upon crossing the street from our Internet office he was informed that Northwest representatives of McDonald's had arrived too late to enter. They were stuck in line behind dozens of others. Schlosser urged security to assure them that he'd stay long enough to talk, however late it kept him here.

Many thanks to the author for sharing his time on a busy, busy day.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Chew on This: Everything You Don't...
    Used Hardcover $8.95
  2. Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and...
    Used Trade Paper $3.95
  3. The Jungle (100th Anniversary Edition) Used Trade Paper $4.00
  4. Eugene Richards Used Trade Paper $4.50
  5. Cold New World: Growing Up in Harder... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  7. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  8. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  9. Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the... Used Trade Paper $5.50
  10. Grinding It Out: The Making of... New Mass Market $7.99
  11. Chronicle of the 20th Century Used Hardcover $17.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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