You Want Fries With That?
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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
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
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,
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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