|Interview by Gavin J. Grant|
Eric Schlosser's first book, Fast Food Nation, has garnered an incredible amount of attention since its publication in January this year. It is a January/February Book Sense 76 pick and has been shooting up the Book Sense Bestseller List.
We talked on the phone -- briefly interrupted by a call from a Chicago radio station for an interview! -- about the reaction to the book, the support he has received from independent book shops, and his hopes for changes in the way food is produced.
All my friends are reading Fast Food Nation. Is the reaction everywhere as strong as this?
This is my first book, and I had no idea how people would respond to it. Given our political climate and what the book argues, there just was no guarantee that people would respond or be interested in it. I've had friends who've written wonderful books, really beautiful books, that don't even get reviewed. I had no sense of what would happen.
From the very beginning, the independent bookstores have played a central role in bringing this book to the attention of readers. The first real interest in the book came from Harry Schwartz (1) in Milwaukee and the Chinook Bookstore (2) in Colorado Springs. If this book was going to find an audience, it makes total sense to me that it would be through the independent bookstores.
What [Book Sense] is doing is really great and important. It's part of trying to preserve this part of American culture that's taken such a beating and is so endangered, and yet, I think, is so crucial to maintaining a vital literary culture. The people at independent bookstores read books and are aware of them, and to the degree that these bookstores vanish, you really have a kind of corporate and bureaucratic control of what people read.
As a first-time author, I've been writing for years, but really haven't encountered people en masse who've read or been interested in the work. You write these things in a room, it's a real privilege to be able to write about what you care about. At the same time you have no idea if other people are going to care at all!
Where else have been on your tour?
I was in Maryland at Bibelot, and Milwaukee . . . in Minnesota I did a reading in conjunction with Ruminator Books, in Los Angeles at Dutton's, and in Colorado Springs at the Chinook Bookstore -- thus far I've done five or six readings. I've gone where stores parts have expressed an interest in having me. At most of these readings I've never really read aloud the parts I was reading before.
What's the crowd reaction been like?
So far, so good. I haven't seen heads nodding off in the middle. One of the good things is that the question and answer part afterward has been as rewarding and interesting as any of it -- because I really don't need to hear myself read. It's a chance to get feedback, and to engage in a dialogue about the work, which, when you're off writing something, you don't really get the opportunity to do.
What kind of crowds are you getting?
It seems that the crowd divides up to two age groups. There are young people who are concerned about these issues, say 19 to 27 years old, then there are people who seem a bit older than me, say 48 to their early 60s -- people from the 1960s generation who are still believers. It's my age group -- I'm 41 -- that hasn't been in attendance: There've been fewer people aged 34 to 45. Again, I've been very encouraged by the younger people there who seem very passionate and interested in the subject.
Your book brought a lot of diverse information into one place in a succinct manner.
That was a real challenge. If it works, all these things tie together. If it doesn't work, it's a sprawling mess that goes off on all kinds of tangents. That was a real worry for me, to not be too narrowly focused on fast food, in the most literal sense. At the same time, not to go off on too many tangents that made no sense. That was one of the ways the editor, Eamon Dolan, was really helpful and useful, in making me justify what I was doing and where I was going, and, if I sometimes started floating a little bit too far afield, dragging me back to the main task at hand.
How long did it take you to write the book?
Two years, a little more than that if you add in time spent on the Rolling Stone piece. It was a very intense period. It wasn't writing four hours in the morning, then going off and hanging out in the afternoon, like the ideal novelist's life would be. I felt an urgency in getting it out. I felt like there were many parts of it that were potentially timely. I care about the literary aspects of the book, I tried to make the writing as clear as possible, and make it an interesting thing to read, but I sacrificed some of that, ultimately, in order to get this out to people, and let them know what's going on. I couldn't be too fussy or finicky about some of those aspects. I wanted it out in the world! A number of the issues are coming to the forefront. Right now there's legislation being introduced in the Senate about the sale of fast food and soda in schools in an attempt to crack down on that. There's huge debate about the ergonomics standards and OSHA worker safety rules. All that's in addition to all the food scares that are going on. I felt as I was researching and writing this that it was important stuff and I need to tell them about it immediately.
What has the industry reaction to your book been -- public and private?
They are not happy about it. There was an editorial in a restaurant industry trade journal and one in a meatpacking journal that was very critical of me and the book. But so far there have been no subpoenas -- which is, seriously, a very nice thing! So far no major errors or serious misstatements of fact have been pointed out. It has been a more personal critique of me and of my arguments rather than what I based them on. That's totally fair game for them.
Have you been following the Foot and Mouth disease news in the UK?
It's a disaster, an absolute disaster. The fact that the UK has been at the center of both of these outbreaks [Foot and Mouth disease and BSE, or 'Mad Cow Disease'] is tragic and incredible and unnecessary. They've followed our example in terms of centralization and industrialization of their livestock practices. Fundamentally, if you're looking at E. coli, or Mad Cow Disease or Foot and Mouth, you're looking at a centralized and industrialized system that is ideal for spreading these things far and wide. God knows what other pathogens may emerge and spread through the system. In the UK they've gone from about 1,400 to 400 slaughterhouses in the last 10 years. When animals travel greater distances, and they all get slaughtered in the same place, the sick ones can more easily contaminate the healthy ones.
I'm not a vegetarian but, having been in these plants and feedlots and processing facilities, I'm very angry about how the big agribusiness companies are producing our meat. I've thought about [being vegetarian] and I think there are very strong arguments for it, not just on the more selfish health-oriented grounds, but really on ethical, moral grounds. I have friends who are ranchers. I don't know. There are glutamate receptors in our taste buds, which are clearly linked to the consumption of meat. For me, the important thing is some kind of connection to what you are doing, some kind of respect, and somehow affording a sense of dignity to these creatures that we have co-existed with for thousands of years. Our current system doesn't do this. People have so little idea of how cattle and hogs and poultry are being raised and slaughtered. For me it was really important to let them know. You can read the book and become vegetarian, or keep eating meat, but you really should know where your food is coming from, and we don't. We're such a suburban urbanized nation that's completely cut off from any sense of this.
What we've done, feeding meat to ruminants, and making animals into factory products is a very strange thing.
It is. It comes out of this worship of science. The Eisenhower era was the great flowering of it but it had antecedents going back 100 years. It's this whole worship of science and belief and faith in technology without any other moral consideration or ballast that has doubt or questions, or says there are other ethical imperatives besides efficiency and science.
It's horrible what's been done to livestock. We could just go on and on. The antibiotics in the feed -- not to cure them of any illness, but just to increase their growth rate.
In Europe, I think it's leading to a fundamental reexamination of the system. In Germany they're way ahead. The official policy of the government is the de-industrialization of agriculture. In the UK people are really beginning to debate these issues. I just hope in the U.S.A. it's not going to take some kind of disaster to force us to think about these issues. It would be great if we could take action and think about it all without having a huge outbreak of some kind that causes loss of life or really hurts our ranchers and farmers. But you never know -- it's human nature to do nothing until we're forced to.
My book is going to come out in the UK in April with a different subtitle: Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World. [Between the U.S.A. and the UK] there seems to be a common language, but very different literary cultures and writers. Oddly enough, a year and a half ago when I was working on it, I felt more confident that there would be people [in the UK] who would be concerned about these issues. Now that there's been this response in the U.S.A., I'm wondering what'll happen over there.
Do you think that any of the large companies involved will see things differently and reorganize the meat processing systems, or, does it have to be a grassroots campaign?
I think reorganization is not only possible but also necessary. There's nothing inevitable about the way we do things now. In fact, the costs are huge, and the potential costs are unimaginably huge. It's a question of these companies being forced to incorporate the costs that right now they're imposing upon society into their business plan. I don't think they're going to willingly do that. I think it's going to come from consumer pressure. Ideally, there'd be government pressure, but I don't see any likelihood of that. If you look at the huge industrial hog farms and the incredible pollution of the nation's waterways by [their] just dumping their raw sewage, that is a gigantic cost they're not being forced to pay. If you look at the meatpacking communities and the injury rates, the workers who are now on Welfare and Medicaid, that's a huge cost that society is being forced to pay -- and you can just go through the list. A lot of what has to happen is to take the costs that they are imposing right now and make them pay for it, and that'll change how they're doing business. Then if you take the future potential costs, i.e. the risk of Mad Cow Disease or other pathogens we don't even know about. . . . These changes are either going to be done willingly with some kind of foresight, or I think they're going to be done in the midst of a disaster. The billions and billions that have been lost in the UK now because of Mad Cow Disease . . . You can pay a little bit now, or you can pay a lot later on. I think the meatpacking companies in the U.S.A. should be willing to make changes in advance of some debacle.
When you say 'other pathogens we don't even know' are you worried you might weaken your argument because you could be written off as a scaremonger?
I'm not trying to be a scaremonger, I don't want people to be afraid of their food. There are a lot of things in life that pose a greater immediate risk. For example, in New York City, taking a cab to La Guardia Airport.
The Centers for Disease Control has warned about emerging pathogens. The National Academy of Sciences did a report in the mid-1980s about how vulnerable our food supply was to new pathogens, and urged very intensive microbiological testing, especially of our meat. I'm not apocalyptic about any of this. On Mad Cow Disease I have no idea how many people will eventually fall ill, I really hope in the UK it remains a really small number. At the same time, you can either learn from these outbreaks, or just live in denial. There's no question that the system we now have is just a perfect one for spreading new pathogens. There may be new ones out there that we just haven't even thought about. Certainly BSE caught people by surprise. Foot and Mouth has been around for centuries. E. coli 15787 has only really been recognized for the past ten or fifteen years. Instead of scare mongering, I think it's a question of being prudent. I'm not living in fear of my food, I still eat beef, but I don't eat ground beef. My kids don't eat ground beef.
What do your children think of your conclusions?
They weren't happy about it at first. My son is eight, and my daughter's ten, and they haven't read the book, they're not quite old enough for that. But I've and talked to them about what I've found, what I've learned, and now they're just fine with it. It's amazing what can happen when you just say no.
Do you eat at fast food chains?
No. It's not because I'm afraid I'm going to be poisoned. It's because I don't want to give them my money until they change some of the ways they do business.
When you're traveling where do you eat?
II'll stop at your basic local diner, truck stop, or restaurant. I don't stoop at fast food restaurants anymore. I used to. I used to eat a great deal of this food when I was on the road as a journalist.
Do you have any recommendations for people who want to read further on the subject?
The source notes are in my book to give a road map of how I came to these conclusions. For each chapter I also give a sense of the books that I found really interesting and for anyone who wants to read further on any one of these subjects, these are books they might want to check out. I think (John Seabrook's) Nobrow is just terrific. Oddly enough it has a milkshake on the cover! It's about cultural homogenization and corporate influence. I recently reread Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson. I thought Naomi Klein's No Logo is another really good one.
I read you're working on a book on the prison system?
I feel as though I'm writing a history of America over the last twenty-five years. I wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly called "The Prison Industrial Complex." The aim is to try to understand how this country, in a relatively short time, went from having 200,000 inmates to having two million. The book I'm planning to do is in conjunction with an extraordinary photographer, Andrew Lichtenstein. He's been going into prisons for years. What we're going to do is an old-fashioned photojournalist collaboration and hopefully come up with a book that's unusual in its approach to the subject. He didn't want to do a photo book, which just had lengthy captions, and I didn't want to do a straightforward investigative book that just had text, so we'll see what comes of it.
(2) Chinook Bookstore, 210 North Tejon Street City: Colorado Springs State: CO Phone: (719) 635-1195
A January/February 2001 Book Sense 76 pick
"The author shines a light on the fact that it is impossible for the average American consumer to experience a transaction that doesn't involve processing of some kind. This book is vital reading for everyone who is fighting the battle against big chains, homogenization, and globalization. This is the most thought-provoking nonfiction I've read in awhile."
-- Juliana Wood, Bibelot, Baltimore, MD
Author photo by Jim Scherer.