Eric Schlosser smiles Wednesday as a food geek takes his picture.
Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation is an examination of what we eat today and how that food is produced and delivered to us. What Schlosser found was that more profound changes have occurred in the commodification of food and its transformation into an industrial product in the last 25-30 years than in the previous 20,000. The New York Times Book Review called Fast Food Nation "...a fine piece of muckraking, alarming without being alarmist."
Schlosser spoke yesterday at the Chicago Green City Market, an organic food market open every Wednesday at 1700 North Clark in Lincoln Park.
The day was rainy, but the small tent under which Schlosser spoke overflowed with people who stood in the intermittent drizzle to hear him speak about food, health, agribusiness and the role of government agencies in the regulation of our food supply.
Schlosser spoke fluidly as he spoke about how amazed he was when he began researching Fast Food Nation by how little he really knew about the food he ate. His book ended up being "about the problem," and he praised the Green Market. "What you see here is the solution."
Some of Schlosser's asserions in Fast Food Nation and in his speech may be difficult to believe at first, but he backed them up. If food had changed so much recently, why hadn't we noticed? Shlosser believes its because the food still looks the same, though it is a totally different product. In his book, he asserted that a hamburger that 30 years ago came from one animal might today contain meat from 100 different animals. He took the opportunity to correct the number in his speech, "Today, the number is close to a thousand different animals. Parts of a thousand different animals are in that one burger."
The danger in this, according to Schlosser, is that if one animal is sick, one thousand times the number of people could be exposed to that meat . Much of Fast Food Nation and much of his speech yesterday concerned abuses in the meat industries. Schlosser deplored the conditions cattle are raised in in the U.S., citing a feedlot in Greely Colorado where over 100,000 cattle are crowded together in the manure, and asserted that the conditions pigs are raised in are even worse. He also referred to the recent footage of a poultry farm taken in a Pilgrim's Pride plant that supplied chickens to KFC as an "animal Abu Ghraib."
This was an aside to the main point of his talk which is that this kind of food is just not good for people either biologically or politically. The founders of our democracy linked land ownership and farming to Democracy. Now, agribusiness has taken over and where family farms once stood, now 12 agribusiness conglomorates rule. In the U.S., a nation of 300 million people, only 2 million are now farmers directly involved in the production of food for the remaining 298 million.
The agribusiness combines, which he compared unfavorably to the Trusts Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle, control the markets and the prices smaller farmers recieve for their goods by the virtue of their size. Today, when you spend a dollar for corn or tomatoes or beef at the supermarket, only twenty cents of that dollar goes to the producer, the lowest amount in our history, according to Schlosser.
Some might see this as progress, since we spend less on food as a percentage of our income than any other nation. Schlosser argues that like many large businesses, agribusiness socializes the costs while privatizing the profits. By this, he means that the costs are pushed to the victims of the broken inspection and food quality system, particularly in the meat segment, where Schlosser says fixing the system would add 1 penny per pound to the cost of food in the U.S., but the producers refuse to go along with it. Costs born by the citizen/consumer and not by the giant agribusinesses include "the rise of food-borne illnesses, environmental costs, and the rise of obesity which will shortly become the number one cause of preventable death in the country."
Schlosser reads a page and a half of milkshake ingredients
One of the best received parts of the talk came early on when Eric Schlosser illustrated his point about the change in food by describing how strawberry milkshakes used to be made. "You'd take milk, some strawberries, some sugar" to the ingredients in a milkshake from a fast-food restaurant today by reading a page and half from his book which consisted of nothing but the list of ingredients in that shake.
"You can't make that at home." he said, a line which was appreciated by the sympathetic crowd of about 150 people.
Schlosser ended his speech on a note of hope. The organic food movement and markets like the Chicago Green City Market (which I'll write more about tomorrow) are the hope. The Green City Market, he acknowledged, takes place in a fairly well-off section of town. The essence of the change needed is for markets like the Chicago Green City Market to spread throughout the city and service not just the upper middle class and the well-to-do, but the working class and the family that often has to worry more about getting food on the table than about the health effects of that food twenty or thirty years down the road.
Schlosser in front of Green City Market sign
A brief Q&A after the talk allowed Schlosser to expand on the way costs are borne by the consumer instead of by the companies making these profound changes to our food-chain. He acknowledged again the difficulty and the importance of gettig organics and sustainably produced foods to the lower-middle and working classes, when the fast food companies spend $3 billion/year in marketing (Full disclosure: the public relations firm I work for during the day benefits from some of that money).
A man in a chef's coat asked Mr. Schlosser to expand on his critique of the meat inspection system. "Caveat emptor - Let the buyer beware." was Schlosser's answer. Schlosser described how the USDA, which was supposed to regulate the meat industry was "a case study in how a government agency can be captured and corrupted by the industry it regulates."
Schlosser cited the meat-industry-past of many current USDA officials, and gave as an example of the consequence of those connections a case in Texas where the USDA bought the industry assertion that since salmonella occurred naturally in beef (usually from fecal contamination), it could not be considered an adulterant and could not be prevented by regulation from supermarket shelves.
He contrasted this with the Danish meat inspection system. Denmark, which is one of the largest hog butchers in the world has an efficient system that allows an inspector to shut down an entire plant if salmonella is found anywhere in the plant. As a consequece, sanitation is taken seriously and the meat in Denmark is safe.
A student asked Schlosser what the worst fast food place was, what the best place was, and if he still ate fast food.
Schlosser cited McDonald's as the worst of the bunch. Not because they are any worse in their practices than othe chains, but because they are "the largest and most powerful, and so mean." The best place he thought was In and Out Burger, a West Coast chain where though the food is not organic, it is lightly processed, the milkshakes are made with milk and ice cream, the potatoes are peeled on premises, and which is still family owned.
Schlosser doesn't eat at either chain, or at any other fast food restaurant not because he's afraid of getting sick but because he doesn't want to give them any of his money.
The final question had to do with the idea of irradiation of meat and other foods as a way to clean up the industry.
Schlosser has clearly thought about this question before. He raised the concerns that some people have about irradiation damaging vitamins and possibly causing more free radicals, but dismissed them for a different reason to oppose irradiation of the general food supply which resonated with the audience and with me.
If the food producers are allowed to irradiate their meat instead of fixing the inspection process what you get may be "irradiated meat with irradiated feces. Let's get the shit out of our meat instead." The crowd applauded. It's pretty hard to argue the "pro shit-in-meat" position.
Eric Schlosser with Chicago Green City Market founder Abby Mandel
Overall, Schlosser came across as very reasonable. Some important questions did remain unasked. No one raised the question of whether organic farming could produce enough food to feed a nation of 300 million without drastically increasing the cost of food to the poorest Americans and forcing a large part of the population that had fled rural life for the cities in the last century back to the farm. I'm sure some would question the economics of some of his arguments as well. These are points with room for debate, but I feel Schlosser did an excellent job of outlining the problem.
He raised good questions, seemed to know his stuff, and was appreciated by the crowd. If I hadn't already read Fast Food Nation, I'd have purchased a copy last night. Even if you don't think you agree with his perspective, you should check out a copy of Fast Food Nation from your local library and read what he has to say. It'll help you form an informed opinion one way or the other.
I'm looking forward to his next book, which he told us will cover prisons in America.