When Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation came out in 2001, it shocked eaters with its revelations of corporate greed, worker abuse, and conditions of the animals in America’s industrialized food system. The book has since been turned into a feature film and inspired a documentary. But as evidenced by regular meat recalls, “Ag Gag” laws that punish food industry whistleblowers, and a secondary market for E. coli-tainted meat, the food system Schlosser exposed has remained largely unchanged.
Schlosser spoke with BuzzFeed last week about the achievements and failings of the food movement so far, the connection between food and the minimum wage, and his latest documentary, Hanna Ranch, about the life of eco-rancher and activist Kirk Hanna.
What has changed since Fast Food Nation was published in 2002 and what hasn’t?
Eric Schlosser: When I started doing the reporting on Fast Food Nation 17 years ago, I just could not believe what I was learning about our food system, what’s in our food, and what it’s doing to the health of the American people and the workers making it. Now the culture’s changed significantly. There’s much more awareness about the impact of industrial food. There’s been a sea change in how well-educated, upper middle class, and wealthy people think about food and how they eat. And all that’s good. But for most Americans, there isn’t access to this healthy food, particularly for low-income Americans. One of the parts of the book that I cared the most about was about the exploitation of meatpacking workers, poor immigrants, mainly Latino. It seems to me that the conditions among the meatpacking workers may even be worse today than they were 17 years ago. So, we’ve come a long way, but there’s still enormous change that needs to be done.
How are the working conditions worse today?
ES: On top of the terrible injuries that meatpacking workers suffer on the job, today there’s a lot more fear of being deported. Workers go to the plant in the morning worried about whether they’ll get arrested and shipped off and not see their families at the end of the day. One of the real challenges for me has been to try to get people as interested in the labor aspects of this story as they are in the healthfulness of the food part. It’s easy to think, What is this food doing to me? But it takes another leap to really care about what this food is doing to the people who are the backbone of the food system: farm workers, meatpacking workers, restaurant workers.
What are the most important changes that people can make to their food spending to impact the industry if they can’t shop organic and don’t have access to a farmers’ market?
ES: There’s a moral pressure put on people to shop perfectly, and it’s impossible to do. It’s even harder to do if you’re having financial problems. But there are limits to how much we can make change through shopping. If you were to ask, what is the single most important change that’s necessary to transform our food system? I would say, a big increase in the minimum wage. That seems like it might not be directly food related, but it ultimately is. It’s poverty in America that fuels this cheap fast food industry. It’s wonderful when people are trying to bring farmers’ markets and school gardens into low-income communities, but it would be even better to get rid of low-income communities.
In Food Inc., you talk about using the fight against Big Tobacco as a model for changing public policy on food. How is that effort going?
ES: We’re doing really well in the sense of changing the culture and attitudes. We’re not doing very well in terms of the government playing the role that it should be. The government is essentially subsidizing cheap, highly processed foods and it’s not doing a very good job of making major industrial food companies bear the real costs that they’re imposing on the rest of society. There’s a long way to go. There’s a great deal we can do as consumers with our purchasing power, but ultimately we also have to act as citizens and get the government on the side of people and not on the side of these big corporations.
Let’s talk about your new film, Hanna Ranch. Why is Kirk Hanna’s story individually important and what is it emblematic of in the bigger picture?
ES: On a personal level, Kirk was the first person I met in Colorado Springs when I was just starting reporting on Fast Food Nation. He was also a great man and he tried really hard to change things, to create a bridge between the traditional ranching community and environmentalists and raise cattle in a much more sustainable way. It was a very bold thing to do when he was trying to do it, and he paid the price. It’s unfortunate that people who take the lead in pushing for more major cultural and social changes are often the ones who make the biggest sacrifices.
The film demonstrates the hard life of a rancher, both in terms of the bigger issues like urban sprawl and development and also in the day-to-day — the long hours and physical labor. Why should Americans care about keeping traditional ranching alive?
ES: This country was basically founded by independent family farmers. Now this incredible American tradition is in jeopardy, largely because a handful of corporations has gotten control of our food supply. The proportion of each dollar spent on beef that actually goes to the rancher has been declining for years as the big meatpacking companies, the middlemen, keep the money and don’t give it to the ranchers. We’ve lost about 40% of the ranchers in the United States in the last few decades. It’s a very bad trend. In family farms and independent ranches, the land is being passed on from generation to generation. You have people working the land who are taking the long-term view and not just looking at it as a commodity that would be just as profitable, if not more profitable, as a parking lot. They could be the landscape’s best environmental stewards and yet they’re disappearing because of the economic pressures being put on them by this new industrial agriculture.