June 9, 2009 -- The movie "Food, Inc." provides a shocking look at the world behind the food we eat. Looking at factory farms and regulatory agencies, "Food, Inc." goes into unprecedented detail about the way food gets on our plate and the effects it can have on our bodies.
Expanding on the ideas presented in the film, the book answers questions posed by experts in a series of essays.
Read an excerpt of the book below:
Q and A with Eric Schlosser
Eric Schlosser is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, the Nation, and the New Yorker. His writing has focused mainly on groups at the margins of American society: illegal immigrants, migrant farm workers, prisoners, the victims of crime. His first book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American (2001), was an international bestseller, translated into twenty languages. His second book, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (2003), explored the underground economy of the United States. In Chew on This (2006), Schlosser and his co-author Charles Wilson introduced young readers to many of the issues and problems arising from industrial food production. Two of Schlosser's plays, Americans (2003) and We the People (2007) have been produced in London. He served as a co-writer and executive producer of the film Fast Food Nation (2006). He also served as an executive producer of the film There Will Be Blood (2007). Schlosser has for many years been researching a book about the American prison system.
Q. Your book Fast Food Nation was one of the landmarks in the development of today's movement to reform the American food production system. Can you talk about how you got involved as a journalist with issues surrounding food, and how Fast Food Nation came to be?
I was introduced to the world of modern food production in the mid-1990s, while researching an article about California's strawberry industry for the Atlantic Monthly. It was an investigative piece about illegal immigrants, the transformation of California agriculture, the exploitation of poor migrant workers. It opened my eyes to the difference between what you see in the supermarket and what you see in the fields--the reality of how our food is produced.
So my interest in the whole subject began from the workers' perspective. At the time, the governor of California, Pete Wilson, was arguing that illegal immigrants were welfare cheats. He claimed they were coming to California to live off taxpayers. Instinctively, that didn't sound right to me. During my visits to California I noticed there were a lot of poor Latinos working very hard at jobs that nobody else seemed willing to do.
The discrepancy between the governor's rhetoric and what I saw with my own eyes made me curious about the actual economic effect of all these illegal immigrants in California. So I began to investigate the subject. And I found that during the same years in which illegal immigration to California had increased, the number of farm workers there had grown, too. In fact, California was becoming increasingly dependent on poor farm workers to pick its fruits and vegetables by hand. And lo and behold, some of the Pete Wilson's largest campaign supporters were California growers who were profiting enormously from the exploitation of illegal immigrants.
Q. Purely a coincidence, I'm sure.
Now, I didn't really want to write a political piece about Pete Wilson and why he was such a hypocrite. I've tried hard to avoid writing about politics and politicians. But I wanted to show people that, far from being parasites, these illegal immigrants were propping up California's agricultural industry -- which to this day is the most important sector of the state's economy. I had no idea that agriculture was still so important there. 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. That was true back in the 1990s, and it's still true today.
So in my article for the Atlantic, I wanted to write about farm labor economics, the history of illegal immigration, and the role of illegals in the California economy. But I wanted to do all this by telling the story of something very simple and concrete that we all like to eat: strawberries.
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 thirty years -- which is the period when, surprisingly enough, the California strawberry became enormous -- those hands have belonged to people who are likely to be in the state illegally, who are willing to work for sub-standard wages in terrible conditions.
Instead of writing a political rant about immigration policy or Pete Wilson, I just wrote something that said, "Look, here's where your strawberries come from -- and here's what the consequences are."
That article about migrants in the Atlantic Monthly was read by the editors at Rolling Stone -- Jann Wenner, Bob Love, and Will Dana. They called me into their office and said, "We loved your article, and we'd like you to do for fast food what you did for the strawberry. We want you to write an investigative piece about the fast food industry. And we want you to call it 'Fast Food Nation.'"
In retrospect, that was a damn good idea. But at the time, I wasn't so sure about it. The editors at Rolling Stone didn't know much about the fast food industry, and neither did I. It wasn't at all clear what the scope or the focus of the article would be. And I didn't want to write something that was snobby and elitist, you know, a put-down of Americans and of their plastic fast-food culture. I still ate at McDonald's then, especially when I was on the road. I really like hamburgers and French fries, and I don't consider myself some kind of gourmand. So I knew what I didn't want the article to be, but I wasn't really sure what it should or could be. There was a basic question that needed to be answered: What's the story here?
Jann and Will were really curious about the industry and thought it was worth exploring. So I told them, "Let me think about it."
Q. By the way, do fast food companies advertise in Rolling Stone?
Yeah, the magazine's main readersyoung males -- are a major demographic for the fast food chains. Jann Wenner was willing to go after some of his own advertisers, which I give him a lot of credit for.
At first, I wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to accept the assignment. It ran the risk of becoming something terribly kitschy and ironic. So I did what I always do when I want to learn more about a subject: I went to the New York Public Library. Almost everything I write begins at a library -- and that is still true today, even with the incredible amount of information available on the Internet. I started reading books about industrial food production and the fast food industry. Some of the most interesting were memoirs written by the founders of the industry, people like Ray Kroc of McDonald's, Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Tom Monaghan of Domino's Pizza.
I was pretty amazed by what I learned. I was amazed by the size and power of the fast food industry, by the speed at which it had grown. There was so much that I'd never thought about, like the impact of McDonald's on American agriculture, the role of fast food marketing in changing the American diet, the obesity epidemic among American children, the huge political and economic influence of the big agribusiness firms.
I was intrigued. So I went back to Will and Jann, and I said, "Yeah, I'll take the assignment. But let's be clear about the scope of this story. I think it's going to lead in all sorts of directions, into all kinds of tangents. This industry has had an impact on many aspects of American society. And I should try to follow the story wherever it leads." And they said, "Great, go for it." So I did.
Researching and writing the article wound up taking me about a year, a lot longer than I thought it would. In the fall of 1998, Rolling Stone ran it in two parts. And looking back, although we called the article "Fast Food Nation," it was really never about fast food. It was about this country -- about what our food system reveals about our society.
Q. Are you saying that your work was driven by a political agenda?
No, I'm much more interested in history and culture and economics than in politics. I don't write with a specific "political agenda" in mind. I try to write things that are complex, that are open to different interpretations, that respect the reader's intelligence. I try to avoid simplistic explanations or ten-point manifestos. 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. My writing deals with many subjects that politicians also deal with. But that doesn't mean I'm interested in writing political tracts. For me, the crucial questions have always been: Is this subject important? Is it relevant? Is it meaningful? Is there something new to be said about it? When the answers are yes, I get to work.
Coming of age in the Reagan-Bush era had a big impact on me. For the past thirty years, so much of American society has been driven by selfishness and greed and a lack of compassion for people at the bottom. I've tried hard in my work to question those motives and offer an opposing view. I've tried to expose hypocrisy and corruption. But what I've tried to do, most of all, is simply to understand the times we live in: What is really going on? What are the driving forces behind the changes we're experiencing? How did things get to be this way?
Q. So how did the two-part article for Rolling Stone become the basis for a book?
After the article came out, it felt like there was still a lot more to say about the subject. There were a number of issues that I wanted to explore in greater depth. So expanding it into a book seemed the natural next step.
I found the process of reporting the article to be deeply moving. I spent a great deal of time in meatpacking communities, which are sad, desperate places. Seeing the abuse of these meatpacking workers really affected me. 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 meatpacking workers had recently been slashed, that they were now suffering all kinds of job-related injuries without being properly compensated.
One of the more remarkable moments of my research occurred while I was visiting a home in the Midwest where a group of impoverished meatpacking workers lived. They were all illegal immigrants. And while I was talking with them, I learned that some of them had worked at a strawberry farm I'd visited for the Atlantic Monthly piece. That's when I realized that this was a really important story, one that deserved a lot more of my time and attention. 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. Finding that illegal immigrants were being exploited in the heartland of America, in a little town that on the surface looked straight out of a Normal Rockwell postcard--well, to me, this was something new, a disturbing and important new trend.
Excerpted from "Reforming Fast Food Nation," part of the book Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer - And What You Can Do About It, available now from PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com). Copyright © 2009.