In the late 1990s, when investigative journalist Eric Schlosser began researching Fast Food Nation, his revealing and deeply unsettling look at the ills of America’s fast-food industry, few major mainstream supermarket chains had whole sections devoted to organic goods or carried antibiotic-free meat — both fairly commonplace today. Fewer still were the fast-food joints offering healthy options like carrots and fruit cups.
In the intervening decade, healthy eating in America has entered a new era, though much about the food industry remains in dire need of overhaul. Last year, in the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., Schlosser — a co-producer and expert voice for the film — again gave Americans the gut-churning details that might instigate wiser, warier choices about food and critical change in federal policy.
His assiduously researched call to consciousness about what we eat, and how we come by what we eat in the age of industrialized agriculture, has been a driving force behind many Americans’ evolving attitudes about food. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that this work has positioned him as something of an Upton Sinclair for modern times. Before his Feb. 15 talk at Belmont University, Schlosser set aside time to talk with The City Paper.
Q: Fifty years from now, how do you think we’ll be talking about the current industrial food system — factory farming, big agribusiness and the like?
A: I don’t think it will have totally vanished, but I think we’ll look back and say, “I can’t believe people would eat that.” The amount of damage it’s doing, not just to the environment but to people’s health, is something you can’t sustain for generation after generation. The health implications of this diet are going to push changes in production. Assuming that there isn’t a total financial breakdown in this country, I think what we’ll see is that the sort of changes that are being enjoyed by the well-educated upper classes right now will extend throughout the rest of society. The current system, to me, morality and ethics aside, just seems completely unsustainable. We’ll see, but I’d love to be right.
Q: The rate at which consumers’ tastes and demands are changing to embrace organic and locally grown food, to seek out humanely raised and prepared sources of meat and dairy, seems pretty astonishing.
A: Things are changing enormously quickly. When I first started researching Fast Food Nation in the late ‘90s, so many of these subjects were not being debated or discussed. There’s been a sea change in the decade or so since. I’m not taking credit for it by any means; I simply feel like I can measure it because I know how things were when I got involved versus today. Then there’s the sheer interest in food: celebrity chefs, continual bestsellers about food. I don’t personally care that much about food in that way. I’m not really a gourmet; I’m not interested in taste-testing olive oil. For me, food is an important bellwether of the culture, a way of looking at much bigger issues in society and the economy at large. You look at the history of the civil rights movement, or the environmental movement, or the abolitionist movement — these things take time. If you use those sorts of measures, it’s amazing how quickly this movement around food, and social justice around food, has arisen. And how quickly more change could come in another 10 years, knock on wood. I think it’ll be incredible.
Q: To challenge factory farming, it seems, means to challenge the goal of efficiency. Can a more responsible food production model also be efficient?
A: The question you have to ask is: efficient for whom? Before we had an environmental movement, chemical companies could literally take their waste chemicals and dump them in a river. If fishers downstream lost all their catch, and the people who drank the water were poisoned, well, it didn’t matter to the [chemical companies]; those were costs they were externalizing on the rest of society.
So when I say efficiency, I mean for all of us. Factory farming is incredibly inefficient when you factor in public health and environmental costs. If you have a business, you want to be able to operate that business long term, and these companies are showing that they can’t operate long term just because of the damage that they’re already inflicting. The costs of the obesity epidemic in the U.S. are now higher than the annual revenue of the fast-food industry, or approaching it. So these companies are imposing enormous costs on the rest of society, and that’s a hugely inefficient system. And one of the big aims is going to create incentives in the system so that companies who do the right thing are rewarded and companies who do the wrong thing pay the price.
Q: What businesses make your “gold star” list of companies that are making an effort to do things in better ways?
A: It’s hard to find the perfect company. Costco has had some pretty good food safety rules in place for a while. It also pays good wages to its workers and has decent benefits, compared to Walmart. I think Whole Foods is very concerned about these issues. People criticize it because in certain markets it can hurt independent health food stores that have been there for a long time, but Whole Foods has also brought sustainably produced foods to areas that really haven’t been served before. Chipotle is trying to source its foods more sustainably. (My teenage son is largely composed of Chipotle.) I’ve disagreed with them about some of their purchasing policies, but I think they’re sincerely trying to do things a different way with a different set of values. But there’s not one blanket approval for any company. Ideally, you shop locally; you shop from people you know; you buy at farmers markets; you do the best you can.
Q: You’ve done a lot to raise awareness of the ills of industrialized food production. Where will you take your inquiry next?
A: As an activist who speaks out and tries to make change, I’m definitely going to stay with food issues. I really care a lot about food safety and worker safety and childhood obesity. But as a writer, this is it pretty much it for me. The film in a lot of ways marks the end of my creative involvement with these issues. I’ve been working on two books simultaneously: one about prisons in America, and another on an even cheerier subject, which is nuclear weapons. These all sound like the most depressing things imaginable, but I think my own optimism is what allows me to write about these very dark subjects. These things are dark, but it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s a lot of what my work is about: showing people that there’s nothing inevitable about the way things are.
Q: Food, Inc. starts with you ordering a burger, saying it’s your favorite meal. After all the research you’ve done on the problems in our food industry, what are your eating habits like?
A: I start with the presumption of imperfection and then I try to do my best. When it comes to the shopping that we do for our household, we try to buy organic, and I never buy meat produced from the industrial meat system. But if someone invites me over for dinner, I don’t interrogate them about where the food came from. I think that once you’re aware of these issues, sometimes there’s this weight, the feeling that you have to be perfect in avoiding this system, and I feel like that mentality can, first, be overwhelming, and secondly, lead to a feeling of helplessness or inaction. But in my mind, if enough people make just a few changes, we can really make a big difference in the overall system. I do think that to strive for purity can lead to madness. It’s impossible to be perfect and pure in the year 2010. Maybe there is someone who is, and I don’t know that I want to meet them, because it’d just be too irritating.
Eric Schlosser will speak at Belmont Heights Baptist Church on the Belmont University campus Tuesday at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. To read an uncut version of this interview — and other local book coverage — please visit Humanities Tennessee’s online journal, chapter16.org.