Web Exclusives: PawPlus

January 29, 2003:

You don't want to know this
It isn't hamburger heaven after all

Kathryn Beaumont '96 interviews Eric Schlosser '81 about the writing life and his book Fast Food Nation, in which he criticizes the realities of America's favorite eating places.


K.B.: Did you always know you were going to be a writer or reporter? Did you always know you were going to be this muckraking journalist?

E.S.: No. I really didn't. I majored in history at Princeton, and I really wanted to be a playwright. And I tried to be a playwright. And I was an unsuccessful playwright. And I was an unsuccessful novelist.

Then I did gain some work as a screenwriter and worked for a film company in New York. But I just wasn't satisfied with it.

One of the crucial influences on me was John McPhee '53, who teaches The Literature of Fact at Princeton. I had taken that, and when I thought about trying to write nonfiction, and it sounds very corny, but what gave me the chuzpah to try to do it was remembering the course. It had a huge impact on me.

K.B.: When you were doing these investigative pieces, though, was their a conscious decision to be a kind of muckraker, or did you just think, "maybe I can get people to think about important issues"?

E.S.: Both. I think what I probably drew upon is history. I did a graduate degree in history, and a lot of the stuff that I've done for the journalism that I do is really similar to history ... I always start in the library. I always start with the source material. But ultimately, it's driven by, "Oh, this is something people should know. I didn't know this either."

I have a book called Reefer Madness coming out this spring, and it's a compilation of three really big investigative pieces that started at the Atlantic Monthly. One was about marijuana, one was about illegal immigrants and farm workers in California, and one was about pornography and organized crime and the links between the two. And the thing that ties them together is the underground economy.

All these pieces started out in a place of total ignorance on my part. The marijuana piece started because the editor of the Atlantic called and said, "Eric, is there anyone in prison for marijuana?" And I said, "I have no idea." And he said, "Well, why don't you find out." So the story ... about a guy who gets a life sentence for a marijuana crime ... started just out of curiosity. There are so many stories that never get written because I don't know something, and then I find out and say, "Well, it doesn't matter." It's a self-selecting thing.

K.B.: Did Fast Food Nation start with a single question like that?

E.S.: Fast Food Nation started very similarly. Fast Food Nation started at Rolling Stone, where the editors had read the piece that I wrote on migrant farm workers and illegal immigrants. That piece was all about complex issues like illegal immigration, the history of farm labor ... all these complex economic issues that I told through a very simple thing: a strawberry. And Rolling Stone asked me to do the same thing for fast food. To take this commodity that we all eat without thinking about it ... and to think about it and to go behind the counter and show how the system operates. Now, again, the piece that emerged only emerged because it became interesting. I really wasn't sure how interested I was in it, to be honest with you. I mean, I ate fast food.

K.B.: Where is that line where you switch from looking at complex issues objectively to having an opinion?

E.S.: You know, in Fast Food Nation I tried to be fair. In the book there are people who are found very sympathetic who are part of the industry, whether it's the franchisee in Colorado Springs, or the potato baron whose politics I don't totally agree with but who seems like an amazing guy.

I'll tell you what I didn't do. I didn't start off with the answer and write something to prove it. I didn't know anything about the fast food industry, and this is almost a report of what I found out. At the same time, there's no question that by the end it's clear that I have a point of view . . . The real goal of that book and the real goal of all these investigative pieces is to make people think.

Some of the critics of the book have been personally harsh and have made their criticisms in very personal terms. Whether people agree or disagree with the conclusions in my book, I think it's unfair to imply that the use of evidence was deliberately misleading or that there's something unethical about it, and that's been the majority of the criticism from the industry.

K.B.: Has anyone come after to you legally, a la Oprah Winfrey?

E.S.: No. And one of the big concerns with the book was that Colorado has the same law under which Oprah Winfrey was sued ... a veggie libel law ...and I write at length about a slaughterhouse community in Greeley, Colorado. What's unique about the Colorado veggie libel law is that it's a felony. So criticizing the ground beef produced at this plant could lead to a felony conviction, which is a serious thing. I was concerned about that, but this summer almost 19 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef was recalled from that very same plant, so I think they have a much weaker libel case now than before.

K.B.: You said you like to get people to think. Has anything changed in the industry because of your book?

E.S.: I would to love to think that things have changed because of the book. But I have no idea. Individual people have told me how it's changed their mind about this or another thing, but it's hard to even say why the book has succeeded.

K.B.: Is it gratifying to you when people come up to you and say, "I was affected by this. I've changed."

E.S.: It's amazing. It's much more so than when people come over and say, "I hated it. You're totally full of shit," which I've also gotten.

K.B.: One thing that I kept thinking when I was reading the book is that it reminded me a little bit of the cigarette industry. Are there are parallels? Do you think there might eventually be a similar backlash as happened to the tobacco industry?

E.S.: There are attorneys right now preparing lawsuits based on that analogy. There are some similarities, but there are also a lot of differences.

The tobacco companies were selling a product they knew to be deadly and were lying about it. You know cigarettes are intrinsically not good for you, and most people don't have one cigarette every six weeks. They have 20 cigarettes a day or they have none.

There are some people who eat fast food once a month, and the harmfulness of it has a much less clear cause and effect.

The area where I think the fast food chains are vulnerable, though, is marketing to children. I think adults should be allowed to smoke or drink or smoke pot or ride a motorcycle without a helmet. But the kind of freedom we give to adults is different from what we should give to children. And the way that these companies are targeting children and making food that has all kinds of potential health harms to kids ... that's where they really may be liable, and that's where a lawsuit may get them.

K.B.: You also mention that Fast Food Nation was your first book, and obviously it has done enormously well, and you have another book coming out this spring. Are there any expectations in terms of what sort of things you're going to make people think about?

E.S.: No. This is going to sound really corny, but the thing that was hanging over my head when I was writing Reefer Madness was really trying to make it good. And trying to make it readable.

In terms of how it's received, or how it sells ... that is so far beyond my control. I don't expect to have a book that has the same impact that Fast Food Nation did. But the books I'm going to write are about things I'm interested in and that I care about. After Reefer Madness I have a book coming out on prisons, and that's really hard to get people to care about. I don't think that's going to have the same readership as Fast Food Nation, and at the same time, it's really worth doing.

K.B.: Why is it worth doing?

E.S.: That's a good question. You know, to be able to write about what you care about is a privilege. Then the question is, well why do you care about this? In the subjects I've been writing about, whether it's migrant workers, or meat packing workers, or the war on drugs, I've taken things that I think are important and tried to get people to think about them.

The fact that we have two million people in prison ... and that most of them are just illiterate, emotionally impaired drug abusers who shouldn't be in prison ... is important, and no society in human history has ever imprisoned this many people for committing crimes. Because these people tend to be black or Latino, they don't get the same attention they would if they were white. It's much more of a challenge to get people to care about what's happening in our prisons then to get them to care about what's happening in our fast food restaurants.

Every writer writes about what he cares about. And if you set out trying to change the world with what you're writing, you're setting out to have enormous disappointments. If you can just get some people to think about these things, and read from the first page to the end, it's worth doing.

K.B.: What for you is important about prisons. What does it say about society? Why was that something you wanted to really delve into?

E.S.: The marijuana piece that I wrote for the Atlantic Monthly was the story of a pot-smoking hippie biker who got a sentence of life without parole in federal prison for his first marijuana crime. His case made me really think about prisons and about what are we doing with our prison system and who we are sending to prison and why. What's going on in a society where you can punish someone more severely for smoking marijuana and having marijuana than for killing someone with a gun? That story's part of Reefer Madness. And investigating the war on drugs led me to write about prisons.

I think it was Churchill who said, "Show me your prisons and I'll tell you what you need to know about your country." I think that's true about our prisons, and who are in them, what's going on in these places. Prisons are deliberately tucked away in rural areas. They're very far out of the mainstream's view, but I think that everybody is affected by this system, even if they've never known anyone who has gone to prison and they never will go to prison themselves.

K.B.: You mention that you have kids. How have they been affected by your work in terms of what they're allowed to eat now or how they felt about you going into prisons. Do you share that stuff with them?

E.S.: I have a 10-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. They both read, but they're not allowed to read my writings yet.

My kids were really not happy when I said they couldn't go to McDonald's anymore. They were younger then, but they survived it . They still get to eat all kinds of junk food, but just in smaller doses, and they still get to eat French fries. It's just that we don't go to the fast food restaurants. It's less a change of what we eat as where we eat.

The only real change is that they don't get to fast food restaurants and they don't get to eat ground beef. Because I'm concerned about the health risks of little kids eating ground beef. If it's a bolognese sauce that's cooked for a long, long, long time they can have it.