Eric Schlosser is not, as some may think, anti-business. He is not anti-profit. He's not even anti-hamburger. And though the best-selling author of Fast Food Nation may not be taking his kids to McDonald's anytime soon, he applauds natural food companies like Newman's Own, which has used McDonald's to bring organics to a larger audience. And the rapid growth of the natural foods industry? Good news … mostly.
"The good news is that this growth is evidence that a healthy diet is becoming more mainstream," he says in a recent interview, speaking via cell phone as he drove north along California's coast-hugging Route 101. "The bad news is that some of the companies that for years have been responsible for an unhealthy diet are trying to take over the industry."
Schlosser lambasted many of these companies—and McDonald's in particular—six years ago in Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), the book that catapulted the already well-respected journalist into the national limelight. This carefully researched treatise—sometimes funny, often disgusting, always edifying—exposed the inner workings of the fast-food industry. From the factory farms of the Midwest to slaughterhouses where immigrant workers toil under horrifying conditions to the labs where tastes and scents are carefully manufactured, Schlosser shows how the fast-food industry places far too much emphasis on the bottom line and far too little on human health and safety. The impact of Fast Food Nation has often been compared to that of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which more than a century ago exposed the bloody underbelly of Chicago's meatpacking plants.
More recently Schlosser, along with his long-time fact-checker Charles Wilson, completed Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) to educate middle school-aged kids about the fast food industry's impact on their diets. "The goal of the book was to literally tell kids what they're eating, what it does to their body and to show them how marketing is being directed at them," he says. "I'm not trying to tell kids, 'Never have a hamburger again.' I'm trying to make them into savvy consumers."
Not surprisingly, this most recent book (as well as the premiere last May of Fast Food Nation, the movie, at the Cannes Film Festival) met with resistance from big agriculture and fast-food chains, which joined together in a marketing campaign aimed at discrediting Schlosser's message. One of their efforts was the launching of BestFoodNation.com, a Web site supported by a veritable who's-who list of conventional farm and hospitality lobbyists including, among 15 others, The Cattlemen's Beef Board, The National Council of Chain Restaurants and United Egg Producers. Their mission: "to counter Chew on This" and "to tell the real story of the U.S. food system."
Despite this adversity, Schlosser says response to the book in schools he has visited has been good—and fascinating. "What's amazing to me is how little kids know about where food comes from," he says. "Most kids grow up in cities or suburbs and have never been to a farm and don't know how animals are being raised. They think there are these nice old-fashioned farms with pigs and chickens. They're baffled by the idea of factory farms."
It's easy to see how Schlosser's mission to educate the public about health issues correlates to that of the natural foods industry. And Schlosser says it's crucial to keep the industry's original values in mind as business continues to expand and evolve. "I'm not opposed to companies making profits at all, but the problem is when profits are the only goal. I think that [naturals companies] have to be constantly re-evaluating what the business model is and what the purpose is," he says. "If profit becomes too overriding a goal, then you lose touch with all the ethics and values that created the whole industry in the first place."
And while Schlosser's the first to admit there are no easy solutions to the complex problems of food production, he kept returning to this point: The naturals industry, already comprising pioneers, must continue to be pioneering in the way it thinks about its business. And this will form a large part of the talk he will deliver as Expo West keynote speaker March 10. "I'll talk about the importance of organics, but also the importance of other goals," he says. "Just because some?thing's organic doesn't mean it's a product that you should be buying. There's also how workers are treated, the scale of production, the distance that the food has traveled …. The description organic now mainly tells you how the soil was treated; it doesn't tell you how the people are treated, or, increasingly, even how the animals are treated. As consumers become more savvy, they're going to be looking beyond the organic label, and they're going to be concerned with every bit of production. They're going to realize when they buy this product and eat it, they're connected to the whole system."
Schlosser's take on progress made: "It's two steps forward, one step back," he says. The introduction, for example, of Newman's Own organic coffee to McDonald's, and organic food to the shelves of Wal-Mart? Good. The companies themselves? Too big, still wielding too much power over our diets, and still not responsible enough. "If McDonald's started carrying organic milk tomorrow, it would be a good thing. But I still don't think they should have the power that they do," he says. "I wouldn't ever criticize any natural foods company that sells its product to McDonald's or Wal-Mart. You need to be able to sell your product. But if you have to change your values to get that contract, don't do it."
So there is the periodic back step, but Schlosser is still hopeful about the future of food, and in particular about the newly Democrat-dominated Congress, which he thinks will begin to introduce more legislation aimed at making America healthier. Among the changes he expects: better food safety legislation, a closer look into marketing to children, intensified attention to the national obesity epidemic, and an increase of farm subsidies that encourage healthy food rather than those that prop up megafarms.
Ultimately, though, Schlosser says, it's up to individual consumer choices to start the sea change needed to create healthier people and a healthier planet. And this is something he takes personally. "I'm not pure. I'm really not. But I really try to spend my food dollars in a way that awards the food companies that are doing things the right way. I don't buy meat from industrial meat packers or from big fast food," he says. "It's impossible to be in America in the year 2007 and be pure. But I really try to be conscious and support local, sustainable, organic producers any way that I can."
Eric Schlosser will speak at Expo West at 9 a.m. March 10 in Ballroom A/B.
O'rya Hyde-Keller is a Providence, R.I.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 22, 24