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You Want Fries With That?

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com http://www.thenation.com You Want Fries With
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 14, 2001
      Please send as far and wide as possible.


      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist


      You Want Fries With That?
      An Interview with ERIC SCHLOSSER

      If you love eating at McDonald's, you may already be avoiding Eric
      Schlosser's bestselling book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the
      All-American Meal. (In that case, you may want to leave this page
      right now.) And with good reason--for Schlosser's book outlines an
      often horrifying saga of how ground beef gets processed and made into
      the burgers we so eagerly consume. From unfair labor practices to the
      strangeness of adding flavor and water to dehydrated "food,"
      Schlosser's ringing indictment of the fast-food industry, its
      suppliers and the US government should make anyone think twice the
      next time a Big Mac attack strikes.

      In his responses to e-mailed questions, Schlosser, a correspondent
      for the Atlantic Monthly, discussed these issues as well as many
      others--including how independent ranchers can survive against
      conglomerates, and how Schlosser's children feel about missing out on
      Happy Meals.

      Patricia Chui

      This book started out as an article in Rolling Stone. How did that
      article come about?

      The editors at Rolling Stone had read an Atlantic article I'd written
      about migrant farm workers in California. For that article, I looked
      at the strawberry industry as a way of understanding bigger issues
      such as migrant labor, the rise of illegal immigration and the
      increasing reliance on impoverished and powerless workers. I told the
      story by showing how your strawberries wind up at the supermarket.
      Jann Wenner asked me to do the same for fast food--to show the world
      behind the counter, the huge systems that bring you a Big Mac.
      Another editor there, Will Dana, came up with the title and suggested
      that I look at America through its fast food. And that's where the
      book started.

      The unsanitary conditions that you ascribe to this country's
      slaughterhouses would put anyone off ground beef forever. Have you
      stopped eating it since writing this book? How can anyone even buy
      ground beef in the supermarket without worrying about the health

      I used to love eating steak tartare--raw ground beef seasoned with
      capers and raw egg. But you've got to be out of your mind to eat that
      today. Visiting the feedlots and processing plants and meatpacking
      communities didn't turn me into a vegetarian. I still eat beef, so
      long as I know where it came from. But I don't eat ground beef
      anymore. I'm not worried about getting sick from it; I'm pissed off
      at the corporate greed and the governmental lack of will that's
      allowing all kinds of bad stuff into your hamburger meat--not just
      dangerous pathogens, but bone chips and spinal material deposited
      there by these Automated Meat Recovery (AMR) systems. Up to 15
      percent of commercial ground beef now contains AMR meat, stuff that I
      think just shouldn't be sold. And you usually have no way of knowing
      where the ground beef at the supermarket came from, where it was
      processed, etc. I don't think people shoud be afraid of their food.
      If you're a reasonably healthy adult, the odds are low that eating a
      burger is going to make you sick. But thousands of other people will
      be sickened by tainted ground beef this year. That's way too many,
      and it's unnecessary. I don't let my kids eat hamburgers, because
      children are vulnerable to the bad E. coli that thrives in ground

      The US's epidemic obesity--and reliance on fast food--seems to hit
      hardest in poorer areas of the country, where it's sometimes cheaper
      to eat at KFC than to cook at home. How can this ever change?

      The obesity epidemic is without question harming poorest communities
      the most. You'll find the more affluent and more educated that
      someone is, the less likely he or she will be obese. It's a question
      of access to proper medical care and accurate information. Fast food
      is the food of working people and the poor. It's inexpensive food,
      which is good. But there's no reason that it needs to be so high in
      fat and salt and sugar, especially when the major chains are now
      targeting Latino and African-American children. Obesity among
      American children has more than doubled in the past twenty years, and
      there's no excuse, really, for marketing this stuff to kids.
      McDonald's just introduced a children's meal with even bigger portion
      sizes. I think that's totally irresponsible, when more than one-
      quarter of our kids are already obese or overweight.

      What could happen to change this? Well, the fast-food chains could
      reformulate their kids' meals so that they're not endangering the
      health of poor children. Pressure to do that needs to be applied by
      Congress and consumers. And the chains could also try to use some of
      the billions they spend on marketing each year to encourage their
      customers to eat food that's less likely to kill them, down the road.
      Changing the eating habits of adults is going to take a long, long
      time. Changing the content of fast-food kids' meals could happen,
      literally, overnight.

      It's difficult, as you note, for independent ranchers and farmers to
      succeed in industries in which large corporations hold a virtual
      monopoly. How will they survive if corporations can always produce
      cheaper, faster, and on a larger scale?

      The situation of independent ranchers and farmers is pretty dire at
      the moment. Concentration in agriculture is now reaching levels never
      before seen in this country. We're headed toward a perverse form of
      Soviet-style, centralized agricultural production, which was a
      disaster there for farmers, consumers and the environment. The
      Department of Agriculture and the Justice Department have in the past
      two decades allowed mergers--like the recent Tyson Foods takeover of
      IBP--that probably wouldn't have been allowed in the Eisenhower or
      the Nixon administrations. We need a tough antitrust policy to insure
      competition in the nation's livestock and commodity markets. Until we
      have that, independent ranchers and farmers are going to be in rough
      shape. The best they can do at the moment is switch to high-value
      products like organics and free-range livestock. The farmers stuck
      selling high-volume, cheap commodities to big agribusiness firms are
      headed for trouble.

      You come down pretty hard on McDonald's. What was the McDonald's
      reaction to your book and its attendant publicity?

      The McDonald's Corporation has strongly criticized me and my book.
      Thus far, however, nobody from the fast-food industry has sued me for
      libel or (to my knowledge) spied on me. So, compared to previous
      critics of this industry, I'm doing just fine.

      How do your kids feel about not getting to eat at McDonald's anymore?

      My kids were not pleased when the Happy Meals stopped coming. But you
      know, in the grand scheme of things, it was hardly traumatic. Nancy
      Reagan was right, at least when it comes to kids and McDonald's: Just
      say no. My kids still get to eat junk food every now and then, but
      not in such concentrated and cynically calculated forms.

      Given that you no longer eat at fast-food restaurants, are there any
      foods that you miss?

      I miss cheeseburgers, but I still eat a fair amount of french fries.
      And I do eat at In-N-Out Burger, a small California chain that treats
      its workers well and has terrific fries.

      Are you familiar with the Slow Food movement, which believes, "A firm
      defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to opppose the
      universal folly of Fast Life"? What kind of impact do you think Slow
      Food might have?

      I'm a big supporter of the Slow Food movement. At the moment, it's
      slightly highbrow, but it really doesn't have to be (and hopefully
      won't be) in the future. The movement is all about reviving and
      preserving traditional foods, most of which are rooted in small-scale
      production. If Slow Food can do that in the United States and broaden
      its appeal, it will have a large impact on what we eat and how our
      food is produced.

      What's your utopian vision of how fast-food restaurants should be?

      The industry's already moving, slowly, in the right direction. The
      big chains--McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell--are losing customers.
      Smaller, regional chains are growing. My utopia would not require
      everyone to eat tofu. It would involve sustainable and largely
      deindustrialized agriculture, regional production and fast-food
      restaurants that are locally owned and somehow connected in a real
      way to the places where they operate. The way of thinking that must
      be discarded is the whole idea that food must look the same
      everywhere and taste the same everywhere and be served in restaurants
      that are identical. My utopia is the antithesis of that mentality.

      What can concerned citizens do to help bring that change about?

      Well, on a political level, people can support candidates and
      organizations who care about these issues: food safety, worker
      safety, real competition in the market, real government oversight of
      business. More important, people can vote with their dollars. Every
      purchase is an endorsement of certain corporate behavior. Nobody's
      forced to buy fast food. So stop buying it, and see what happens. The
      big fast-food chains are extremely vulnerable at the moment--even a 2
      percent drop in sales would have a huge effect on their bottom line.
      My advice is, become part of that 2 percent.

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