FAST FOOD NATION: Eric Schlosser’s discoveries about how cheap and fast junk-food is produced in the U.S.

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Eric Schlosser’s first book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), an international best-seller translated into more than 20 languages, and filmed by Richard Linklater in 2006, aims to expose the reality of how food is produced in the U.S.A. Amazed by the “size and power of the fast-food industry and the speed at which it had grown”, Eric Schlosser’s award-winning investigation is highly enlightening about issues such as “the impact of McDonald’s on American industry, the role of fast-food marketing in changing the American diet, the obesity epidemic among American children, and the huge political and economic influence of the big agribusiness firms” (Food Inc., pg. 6).

Schlosser’s work as journalist has been published in Atlantic Montly, Rolling Stone, The Nation and New Yorker, among others. He’s also the author of Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labour in the American Black Market (2003) and Chew On This (2006, with co-author Charles Wilson). In an interview which opens the book Food, Inc. – How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer And What You Can Do About It (edited by Karl Weber), Schlosser revealed some of his main influences: “The writers whom I’ve admired most, the ones who have inspired me most, threw themselves into the big issues of their day. They didn’t play it safe, hold back, or write for the sake of writing. Writers like Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, George Orwell, Arthur Miller, Hunter S. Thompson – they were willing to take risks and go against the grain.”

Awestruck Wanderer has selected some of Eric Schlosser’s discoveries about the food industry, including the dark side of strawberries, the labour conditions of meat-packing workers,  and other incovenient truths that Ronald McDonald doesn’t want you to know about. Check this out:

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THE DARK SIDE OF STRAWBERRIES 

“When you think of the California economy, you think of high-tech industries like Silicon Valley, you think of Hollywood. You don’t think of poor, desperate migrants picking fruits and vegetables with their bare hands. But at the heart of the state’s economy is this hard, ugly reality. (…) You know, I love strawberries. But when most people see a display of strawberries in their local supermarket, they don’t realize that every one of those strawberries has to be very carefully picked by hand. Strawberries are very fragile and easily bruised. So if you want to produce a lot of strawberries in California, you need a lot of hands to pick them. And during the past 30 years those hands have belonged to people who are likely to be in the state illegally, who are willing to work for substandard wages in terrible conditions.”

 MEATPACKING AND SLAVERY WAGES

“I spent a great deal of time in meatpacking communities, which are sad, desperate places. Meatpacking used to be one of the best-paid jobs in the country. Until the late 1970s, meatpacking workers were like auto workers. They had well-paid union jobs. They earned good wages, before the fast-food companies came along. It upset me to find that the wages of meta-packing workers had recently been slashed, that they were now suffering all kinds of job-related injuries without being properly compensated. California has been exploiting migrant workers from Mexico for a hundred years. But that form of exploitation had, until recently, been limited to California and a handful of Southwestern states. Now it seemed to be spreading throughout the United States.”

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CORPORATE SUPPRESSION OF TRUTH

“Robby Kenner, the director of Food Inc., has said that his film is not just about food, it’s also about threats to the First Amendment and the desire of some powerful corporations to suppress the truth. I would agree with that description of his film, and it also applies to my book. Both of us, while investigating America’s industrial food system, were struck by the corrupting influence of centralized power. Whenever power is concentrated and unaccountable – whether it’s corporate power, governmental power, or religious power – it inevitably leads to abuses… When you talk about the food industry, you’re talking about something fundamental: an industry whose business practices help determine the health of the customers who eat its products, the health of the workers who make its products, the health of the environment, animal welfare, and so much more. The nation’s system of food production – and who controls it – has a profound impact on society.

Here’s an example. 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 deregulation – and government subsidies. They hate government regulation 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 USA. You can’t separate the deregulation of the food industry from the deregulation of 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 interconnected. The same guys who would sell you contaminated meat would no doubt sell you toxic mortgages, just to make an extra buck.

Beyond Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser

PUBLIC HEALTH DISASTER

81YRoRKdF2L“The administration of President George W. Bush 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. 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. At the moment, about two-thirds of the adult population in the United States is obese or overweight. That’s the recipe for a public health disaster, and if the number grows much higher, it will be a monumental disaster.

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 long list of harms, this fast, cheap food is much too expensive. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 spendind 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 obesity epidemic is costing us about $100 billion a year.  The medical costs imposed by the fast-food industry are much larger than its annual profits – except the industry isn’t paying those medical bills. Obesity may soon surpass tobacco as the number-one cause of preventable death in the United States. (…) Companies that sell healthy foods should earn large profits; companies that sell junk food shouldn’t!

A PERVERSE SYSTEM

“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 40%, 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 fast food restaurants because they employ cheap labour, sell products that are heavily subsidized by the government, and sell them to consumers whose wages have been kept low. We’re talking about a race to the bottom. We shouldn’t have a society where the only food that’s readily affordable is unhealthy food.

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Interview with Eric Schlosser about Fast Food Nation:

Food Inc. (full documentary):

Peter Singer and Eric Schlosser, “Moving Beyond F.F. Nation”:

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Recommended further reading:

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McDonaldization Of World Food; The Difference Between Sacred Cows and Mad Cows; Seattle’s No-WTO 1999 protests; among other themes – by Vandana Shiva

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McDonaldization Of World Food

mcdonald__s___i__m_loving_it_by_pushok_12“Globalization has created the McDonaldization of world food, resulting in the destruction of sustainable food systems. It attempts to create a uniform food culture of hamburgers. The mad-cow-disease epidemic tells us something of the costs hidden in this food culture and food economy. In 1994, Pepsi Food Ltd. was given permission to start 60 restaurants in India: 30 each of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Pizza Hut. The processed meats and chicken offered at these restaurants have been identified by the U.S. Senate as sources of the cancers that one American contracts every seven seconds. (…) Junk-food chains, including KFC and Pizza Hut, are under attack from major environmental groups in the United States and other developed countries because of their negative environmental impact. Intensive breeding of livestock and poultry for such restaurants leads to deforestation, land degradation, and contamination of water sources and other natural resources. For example: the water necessary for meat breeding comes to about 190 gallons per animal per day, or 10 times what a normal Indian family is supposed to use in one day, if it gets water at all.” (p. 71)

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TRANSFORMING VEGETARIANS INTO BEEF-EATERS

“At a time when meat consumption is declining in Western countries, India’s trade-liberalization program is trying to convert a predominantly vegetarian society into a beef-eating one. This program is based on the false equation that the only source of protein is animal protein, and that higher animal consumption equals a higher quality of life. (…) The 3 most important diseases of the affluent countries – cancer, stroke, and heart disease – are linked conclusively to consumption of beef and other animal products. International studies comparing diets in different countries have shown that diets high in meat result in more death from intestinal cancer per capita. Japanese people in the USA eating a high-meat diet are 3 times as likely to contract colon cancer as those eating the Japanese low-meat diet. Modern, intensive systems of meat production have exacerbated the health hazards posed by meat consumption. Modern meats have  7 times more fat than non-industrial meats, as well as drug and antibiotic residues.” (66)

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SACRED COWS AND MAD COWS

“In India, cows have been treated as sacred for centuries. Ecologically, the cow has been central to Indian civilization. Both materially and conceptually the world of Indian agriculture has built its sustainability on the integrity of the cow, considering her inviolable and sacred, seeing her as the mother of the prosperity of food systems. (…) Indian cattle provide more food than they consume, in contrast to those of the U.S. cattle industry, in which cattle consume 6 times more food than they provide. In addition, every year, Indian cattle excrete 700 million tons of recoverable manure: half of this is used as fuel, liberating the thermal equivalent of 27 million tons of kerosene, 35 million tons of coal, or 68 million tons of wood, all of which are scarce resources in India. The remaining half is used as fertilizer. Two thirds of the power requirements of Indian villages are met by cattle-dung fuel from some 80 million cattle. Yet this highly efficient food system, based on multiple uses of cattle, has been dismantled in the name of efficiency and development…  Worse, trade-liberalization policies in India are leading to the slaughter of cattle for meat exports.

A cow is not merely a milk machine or a meat machine, even if industry treats it in such a way. That is why cows are hurt by the industrial treatment they are subjected to. When forced to become carnivores instead of herbivores, they become infected with BSE (Mad Cow Disease). When injected with growth hormones, they become diseased. To deny subjecthood to cows and other animals, to treat them as mere raw material, is to converge with the approach of capitalist patriarchy. Sacred cows are the symbols and constructions of a culture that sees the entire cosmos in a cow. (…) Mad cows are symbols of a worldview that perceives no difference between machines and living beings. (…) Sacred cows are a metaphor of ecological civilization. Mad cows are a metaphor for an anti-ecological, industrial civilization. Liberation strategies have to ensure that human freedom is not gained at the cost of other species, that freedom for one race or gender is not based on increased subjugation of other races and genders. In each of these strivings for freedom, the challenge is to include the Other.” (pg. 59-73)

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MONOCULTURES AND MONOPOLIES

“Industrial agriculture promotes the use of monocultures because of its need for centralized control over the production and distribution of food. In this way, monocultures and corporate monopolies reinforce each other. Today, 3 processes are intensifying monopoly control over seed, the first link in the food chain: economic concentration, patents and intellectual property rights, and genetic engineering. Monsanto, which was earlier recognized primarily through its association with Agent Orange, today controls a large section of the seed industry.  (…)  The perverse intellectual-property-rights system that treats plants and seeds as corporate inventions is transforming farmers’ highest duties – to save seed and exchange seed with neighbors – into crimes. (81-90)

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RECLAIMING THE STOLEN HARVEST

The failure of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 was a historic watershed. The rebellion on the streets and the rebellion within the WTO negotiations launched a new democracy movement, with citizens from across the world and the governments of the South refusing to be bullied and excluded from decisions in which they have a rightful share. In Seattle, 50.000 citizens from all walks of life and all parts of the world protested peacefully on the streets for 4 days to ensure that there would be no new round of trade negotiations for accelerating and expanding the process of globalization.

The WTO has earned itself names such as the World Tyranny Organization because it enforces tyrannical, anti-people, anti-nature decisions to enable corporations to steal the world’s harvest through secretive, undemocratic structures and processes. The WTO tyranny was apparent in Seattle both on the streets and inside the Washington State Convention Center. Intolerance of democratic dissent, a hallmark of dictatorship, was unleashed in full force. While the trees and stores were lit up for Christmas festivity, the streets were barricaded and blocked by the police, turning the city into a war zone. Non-violent protestors, including young people and old women, labor and environmental activists, and even local residents, were brutally beaten, sprayed with tear gas, and arrested by the hundreds.

But the thousands of youth, farmers, workers, and environmentalists who marched the streets of  Seattle in peace and solidarity were not acting out of ignorance and fear; they were outraged because they know how undemocratic the WTO is, how destructive its social and ecological impacts are, and how the rules of the WTO are driven by the objectives of establishing corporate control over every dimension of our lives – our food, our health, our environment, our work, our future.

The post-Seattle challenge is to change the global trade rules and national food and agricultural policies so that ecological practises, which protects small farms and peasant livelihoods, and produces safe food, is not marginalized and criminalized. The times has come to reclaim the stolen harvest and celebrate the growing and giving of good food as the highest gift and the most revolutionary act.”  (pg. 127)

JLLwt001.jpg ©1999 Jim Levitt/GlobalAware Protest march against World Trade Organization Seattle 1999

The streets of Seattle in 1999 during the NO-WTO protests ©1999 Jim Levitt/GlobalAware

All quotes in this post are excerpts from Stolen Harvest – The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, by Vandana Shiva (South End Press, 1999). Comic strips by Dan Piraro at Bizarro. Some recommended documentaries you might enjoy seeing and spreading:

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