Flak Over 'Fast Food Nation'

Now, more than a dozen trade groups representing producers of beef, potatoes, milk and snacks, along with restaurant groups, are fighting back with a media campaign to counter what one groups contends is the "indigestible propaganda" Mr. Schlosser is spreading.

The Wall Street Journal
May 18, 2006

Flak Over 'Fast Food Nation'
U.S. Food Manufacturers Rally To Oppose a Film and a Book That Blame Them for Obesity
Janet Adamy and Richard Gibson

As "Fast Food Nation" a fictionalized movie based on Eric Schlosser's book, is set to have its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival tomorrow, an array of U.S. food companies are sharpening a campaign to rebut the allegations in the film and a new book that fast-food chains contribute to the nation's obesity epidemic and other problems.

The film, to be distributed in the U.S. as early as this fall by News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight Pictures, tells the story of an executive from a hamburger chain called Mickey's who visits a Colorado meatpacking town to determine why there's something wrong with the meat in the company's popular sandwich, the Big One. The plant is staffed with illegal immigrants who work in unpleasant conditions. Other story lines include a teenager who works at a Mickey's who is frightened by a string of robberies at nearby fast-food restaurants. Actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are among the cast.

In addition, Mr. Schlosser and co-author Charles Wilson this month released "Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want To Know About Fast Food" that makes similar arguments as the earlier book, which ties fast-food to health problems, the decline of small farmers and American cultural homogenization. The new one, however, is aimed at 11- to 15-year-olds — an important demographic for fast-food companies.

Now, more than a dozen trade groups representing producers of beef, potatoes, milk and snacks, along with restaurant groups, are fighting back with a media campaign to counter what one groups contends is the "indigestible propaganda" Mr. Schlosser is spreading. They've launched a Web site called Best Food Nation that quotes employees from Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc. and other food concerns praising the quality and safety of the food supply. They're also encouraging consumers to write letters to local school boards and contact government officials to voice their support for the U.S. food industry.

Kendall Frazier, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says the groups came together after hearing Mr. Schlosser had written a book geared toward young people. "We felt like there are an awful lot of factual errors in this book," Mr. Frazier says. Mr. Frazier didn't elaborate, but asserted that "a lot of people have misconceptions about food production and what American agriculture is all about."

The aligned groups include the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Meat Institute, the U.S. Potato Board, the National Restaurant Association and the Snack Food Association.

McDonald's Corp. has been trying to counter Mr. Schlosser's message with a public-relations campaign that plays up the chain's new healthy offerings and spotlights workers who have climbed through the Oak Brook, Ill., chain's corporate ranks.

The nation's largest fast-food chain is also funding TCS Daily, an arm of the Washington lobbying and public-relations firm DCI Group, that is making more pointed attacks against Mr. Schlosser and his work. Last week, TCS Daily launched a Web site called Fast Talk Nation that called his theories "rhetoric" and argued that he wants to decriminalize marijuana, based on excerpts from one of his other books, "Reefer Madness," about sex, drugs and cheap labor in the American black market.

Last Friday, TCS Daily abruptly closed the Fast Talk Nation site two days after its launch. James Glassman, who says he "hosts" the TCS Daily site, says he closed the Fast Talk Nation site because he wanted to pool his resources with the broader industry's Best Food Nation site.

Mr. Schlosser says he supports some lighter sentences for marijuana possession but opposes legalization. "What bothers me is the use of third parties to attack me when the people who are paying for it aren't standing up and taking credit for it," he says of the sudden surge of criticism against him.

McDonald's is one of a handful of companies that funded TCS Daily. Anna Rozenich, a McDonald's spokeswoman, said the chain was not involved in the creation of Fast Talk Nation or the decision to take it down, and that it isn't using third parties to attack Mr. Schlosser and his co-author, Mr. Wilson. "We certainly on some points disagree with their opinions but, all in all, we appreciate feedback," Ms. Rozenich says.

The new book, "Chew on This," contends that fast-food companies bombard kids with carefully constructed marketing and promotional campaigns and support mistreatment of animals in slaughterhouses and employees in restaurants. It profiles fast-food-eating teenagers who have had gastric bypass surgery and a young man who helps unionize a McDonald's franchise, only to see it close.

Mr. Schlosser's 2001 title, "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" was published by HarperCollins and has at least 1.4 million copies in print.

McDonald's also was criticized after the 2004 documentary, "Super Size Me," chronicled filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's deteriorating health when he went on an all-McDonald's diet for a month. Around that film's debut, McDonald's removed the super-size option from its menu although it said the decision wasn't prompted by the film.

This time, McDonald's planned well in advance on how to respond to Mr. Schlosser's new film and book. In a memo to franchisees, the fast-food chain said it was considering dispatching what it called a "truth squad" to get out the message that McDonald's offers a healthy menu and provides good jobs as part of a full-scale media campaign to "set the record straight."

Last week, Mr. Schlosser wrapped up a book tour that took him to middle schools in cities including Berkeley, Calif., and a Chicago suburb located several miles from the McDonald's headquarters. His presentations included pictures of manure piles linked to meat processing and human organs harmed by fat consumption. Some students wore buttons saying their schools "won't chew on this" in support of the talk.

Conservative political groups mobilized to blunt the impact of the visits. In Chicago, the Cook County Republican Central Committee last week sent a news release to local media outlets encouraging them to attend a book-signing by the authors and "ask a challenging question or two."

The Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Va., organization that says its mission is to further conservative causes, recently sent a letter to the headmaster of a California school before Mr. Schlosser was scheduled to appear there, warning that his message would "be harmful to your school and to your children," and that the author "undermines and assaults American businessmen." Ms. Rozenich, the McDonald's spokeswoman, says the fast-food chain was not involved in either effort and does not fund either of those groups.

Benjamin Wetmore, a spokesman for the Leadership Institute, says the group wrote the letter because of "general concern over Mr. Schlosser's anecdotes around the country."

The Cook County Republican Central Committee did not return calls seeking comment. Representatives from Burger King Corp. and Wendy's International Inc. declined to comment.

Write to Janet Adamy at moc.jsw|ymada.tenaj#moc.jsw|ymada.tenaj and Richard Gibson at moc.senojwod|nosbig.kcid#moc.senojwod|nosbig.kcid

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