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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.