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:
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.”
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.
PUBLIC HEALTH DISASTER
“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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