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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

We Are What We Eat

Eric Schlosser, author of the bestseller "Fast

Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," admits this

much about his subject: it’s fast, cheap, and convenient.

On the face of it, fast food restaurants can be considered a boon

to busy working people, the poor, and the teenagers who find employment

there. But when Schlosser, an award-winning correspondent for Atlantic

Monthly, returns to his alma mater, Princeton University, for a talk

on Thursday, November 14, he will argue that the true cost of fast

food is too high.

"After four decades, Americans’ obsession with fast, cheap food

has transformed towns and farms and flooded the labor market with

low-paying, dead-end jobs," he writes. "The fast food industry

has helped transform not only the American diet, but also our landscape,

economy, work force, and popular culture."

Among the social costs he documents in his book, which the New York

Times calls "alarming without being alarmist," are: the rise

in obesity, the rise in food-born illnesses, the advent of new pathogens

such as E. coli 0157:H7, antibiotic resistance from the overuse of

drugs in animal feed, and extensive water pollution from feedlot wastes.

"These are some of the costs that are not reflected in the price

of a burger and fries at the drive through window, and they affect

every one of us whether we eat fast food every day or never go near

it," he insists.

Schlosser, who graduated in 1981 with a degree in history,

spent two years researching the fast food industry. Last month, speaking

at a conference in New York City devoted to issues surrounding agriculture

and food production, he said, "It’s remarkable how little even

educated, middle to upper-class people in the U.S. know about the

food they eat. How we produce food has changed more in the last 40

years than in the previous 10,000. I had no idea, for example, that

a typical fast food hamburger patty has pieces from 100 different

cattle."

The tall, lanky Schlosser says he "can remember when New York

City said no McDonald’s," which was as recently as the early 1970s.

He is not a vegetarian — in fact his favorite dish at one time

was steak tartare — but he no longer eats ground beef. He speaks

in thoughtful, even tones and, despite the gravity of his message,

in person his demeanor is easy-going and approachable. Up close, his

eye contact is piercing but friendly. Salon.com noted about his writing,

"Schlosser never comes off as a ‘sky is falling’ street-corner

raver or bullheaded finger-pointer. His fury is evident, but

his voice is measured and his methods are subtle."

Schlosser has been a correspondent with Atlantic Monthly

since 1996; his journalistic awards include a National Magazine Award

for his 1995 article about marijuana and the war on drugs. "Fast

Food Nation" is his first book. It started out as a two-part article

for Rolling Stone, where it generated more mail than any other item

in years. The original hardback edition, published in early 2001 by

Houghton Mifflin, spent nearly four months on the New York Times bestsellers

list. The Perennial paperback, issued a year later, has been on the

same list for 40 weeks as of this writing.

"Fast Food Nation" has been deemed by many a groundbreaking

work of investigative reporting that has changed the way Americans

eat. Schlosser has won praise for his solid research, reportorial

skills, and clean, clear prose that allows the facts to speak for

themselves. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the book "frighteningly

convincing — channeling the spirits of Upton Sinclair and Rachel

Carson," and the Washington Post calls Schlosser "John McPhee

behind the counter."

The book is not just a collection of horror stories about fast food,

nor does it single out the McDonald’s Corporation, although it does

use McDonald’s as a model for the industry. His methodology included

sneaking into a slaughterhouse in the High Plains as well as interviewing

fast food workers and franchisees, cattle ranchers, slaughterhouse

workers, and parents whose children died after eating tainted hamburgers.

He devotes 10 pages to the so-called flavor industry that creates

the signature tastes of much fast food. The national base of this

$1.4 billion industry happens to be in our own backyard: the stretch

of New Jersey Turnpike between Teaneck and South Brunswick. He reports

on a visit to the number-one flavor company in the world, International

Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) in Dayton.

Schlosser opens the book with a description of the origins and rise

of the fast food industry in southern California in the late 1940s

and early 1950s. In fact, he praises the early entrepreneurs for their

hard work and commitment, and with developing revolutionary ideas.

But fully two-thirds of the book is devoted to the impact it has had

in the decades since. He notes how the fast food industry provides

the working poor and teenagers with dead-end jobs with "low wages,

no skills training, and short-term employment." He explains how

high turnover actually helps the chains by keeping wages low and unionization

at bay.

He gives special attention to the plight of meatpacking workers who

operate the slaughterhouses run by giant corporations with almost

complete lack of federal oversight. He describes nightmare working

conditions, union busting, unsanitary practices that introduce E.

coli and other pathogens into restaurants, public schools, and homes.

In an interview with Atlantic Monthly, Schlosser declares, "These

[workers] are poor immigrants. . . When they get badly hurt in these

meatpacking plants, which happens all the time, they’re unable to

do manual labor the same way ever again."

The cattle ranchers and potato farmers who raise the beef and grow

the spuds to the specifications of the industry are not much better

off. They are, Schlosser writes, "losing their independence, essentially

becoming hired hands. Family farms are being replaced by gigantic

corporate farms with absentee owners."

He also highlights how from almost its earliest days the fast food

industry has consciously marketed to the youngest consumers, labeling

it an industry that "both feeds and feeds off the young."

He told the group assembled at the agriculture forum in New York,

"Targeting children overseas is now the focus of fast food companies.

Children are the least tradition-bound of the population, so the potential

for acceptance is higher. Yet rates of childhood obesity have been

shown to increase as a fast food diet is introduced." He pointed

out that decades ago Ray Kroc, the legendary founder of McDonald’s,

noted that by succeeding to acclimate a child to the taste of fast

food, he could create a lifelong customer.

Despite heavy criticism from some quarters, Schlosser has not been

hit with lawsuits from the industries he targets, which include not

just fast food chains, but the meatpacking industry, industrial cattle-raising

and farming, and the flavor industry, as well as the federal government

(for its lack of industry oversight). But he is not content to accept

praise while ignoring his detractors. He includes in an afterword

to the paperback edition a few not-so-kind reactions "in the interest

of balance."

The National Restaurant Association, which represents

fast food chains as well as independent restaurants, calls him "the

food police" and says he "recklessly disparages an industry

that has contributed tremendously to our nation." National Review

Online labels his work "McGarbage," and the Wall Street Journal,

a publication Schlosser admires but whom he says used a "right-wing

member of its editorial staff" rather than an investigative journalist

to review his book, called the book "a hodgepodge of impressions,

statistics, anecdotes, and prejudices." Schlosser points out,

however, that "although `Fast Food Nation’ has been strongly attacked,

thus far its critics have failed to cite any errors in the text."

Despite his dire findings, Eric Schlosser remains optimistic. In the

2002 edition of his book he praises McDonald’s for its efforts to

improve its public image, including putting pressure on slaughterhouses

to process cattle more humanely.

"For years," he relates, "excessive line speeds and improper

stunning have led to cattle and hogs being dismembered while fully

conscious." He uses this as an example of how the industry can

use its clout for good (when prodded by activists who prod consumers);

he would like to see the same pressure applied to improve treatment

of its human workers.

The chain reaction that forced McDonald’s to change its formula for

french fries began when a man who is vegetarian for religious reasons

became alarmed reading in "Fast Food Nation" that animal products

were part of the ingredient list. Schlosser also takes pleasure in

reporting that the growth of the fast food industry is slowing. This

year, for example, McDonald’s will open 600 new restaurants worldwide,

down from a high of 2,000 in 1996.

Even more heartening, in Schlosser’s opinion, are indications, such

as stagnant sales, that the American public’s desire for uniform,

cheap food seems to be on the wane. He believes that consumers hold

the key to change.

"Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food. The first

step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it.

The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They

are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers

if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit. It’s

not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it

your way."

— Pat Tanner

Eric Schlosser, Princeton University, McCosh 50,

609-258-3000. Talk by the author of "Fast Food Nation: The Dark

Side of the All-American Meal." Free. Thursday, November 14,

7:30 p.m.

Pat Tanner is a food writer, restaurant reviewer, and

radio talk show host based in Princeton. Her show "Dining Today

with Pat Tanner" airs Saturdays from 9 to 10 a.m. over WHWH-AM

1350.


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