Knives out for fast-food muckraker

"Rather than engage in discussion of the issues I raised, instead of talking about obesity or the treatment of animals or aggressive marketing to the poor, they attempted to besmirch my reputation. I got called anti-American, a socialist, anti-immigrant, a racist — completely crazy stuff.

The Toronto Star
July 23, 2006

Knives out for fast-food muckraker
ACID REFLEX: A devious backlash strategy began as soon as Eric Schlosser served up his second book, he tells Judy Stoffman
Judy Stoffman

Eric Schlosser, whose book Fast Food Nation lifted the lid on some unconscionable practises of the fast-food industry, is no stranger to controversy. But he was taken aback by the hostile reaction to his new book Chew On This, an adaptation of Fast Food Nation for teens, co-authored with Charles Wilson.

"It was very revealing of how the (fast-food) industry operates," he says in a phone interview from his home in northern California. "Rather than engage in discussion of the issues I raised, instead of talking about obesity or the treatment of animals or aggressive marketing to the poor, they attempted to besmirch my reputation. I got called anti-American, a socialist, anti-immigrant, a racist — completely crazy stuff.

"What I found really objectionable was the use of front groups to attack me. At least it would be honest if they attacked me directly."

Fast Food Nation blindsided the industry when it appeared five years ago. It eventually became a bestseller in paperback, but took a while to find an audience. In contrast, the industry was ready to counter Chew on This immediately, alarmed that it was addressing teens who are fast food's core customers.

"They are very eager to prevent young people from reading it," Schlosser says.

The goal of Chew on This, Schlosser says, is to show where food comes from and how its production impacts on society. "It is not designed to turn children into vegans but meant to make kids think," he says.

The book describes the huge feedlots where cattle destined to be carved into Big Macs gain 400 pounds in the final three months of their lives; the toxic lagoons of cattle feces by the feedlots; the chemical flavourings that make french fries addictive; the mechanized slaughterhouses; the poverty of the chicken farmers working for huge companies like Tyson that supply and own the chicks.

Schlosser also explains how the portion sizes and caloric content continue to rise, leading to widespread obesity.

The counter-attacks, Schlosser recalls, began before his new book was launched.

"I was invited to give a talk at my niece's school in L.A. and the principal got phone calls and emails that I should not be allowed to speak," he says. "When I got there, there were demonstrators against me calling themselves Young Americans for Freedom. That was the beginning."

On his book tour in May, his publisher Houghton Mifflin had to hire security to protect him when he spoke at bookstores. Since Schlosser does not have a Canadian publisher, he made no Canadian appearances, though the book is available here.

"The book is not reflective of Canada's food industry," says Jill Holroyd of the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association. "There are rigorous supply chain protocols in Canada, federal and provincial standards and municipal codes to be met."

Canadian farmers supplying chickens to KFC or McDonalds, for instance, own their own animals unlike in the States.

The overheated U.S. reaction is a foretaste of what you can expect this fall when the film Fast Food Nation, co-written by Schlosser, is released. The American food chains see him as being in the vanguard of changing popular attitudes to fast food and know they have a lot to lose.

The film, directed by Richard Linklater (The School of Rock), deals with the intersecting lives of characters in a Colorado town with a meat-packing plant.

"It doesn't preach and has no political plan — it's character driven — but it's very critical of the meat-packing industry, which is tougher and meaner than the fast-food industry," says Schlosser.

His hero is Upton Sinclair, the so-called muckraker whose novel The Jungle was a shocking exposé of the U.S. meat-packing industry 100 years ago, and prompted passage of the first Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug acts.

The same week that Chew on This came out, the website was launched by a coalition of food-industry groups. The site bills itself as "A Celebration of our Safe, Abundant, Affordable Food System!" and attempts to refute Schlosser's facts without naming his book.

Other websites nipping at his heels belong to the Heartland Institute, a right-wing Chicago-based organization favouring "free-market solutions to social and economic problems" and the Center for Consumer Freedom, which denies any obesity problem exists in the U.S. The Heartland Institute's review compared Chew on This to Nazi propaganda.

"A lot of these groups were created by tobacco companies originally, to counter the evidence against smoking," Schlosser says. "Marketing people from Philip Morris are on the board of the Heartland Institute — they think global warming is a myth and smoking is not that harmful."

He also senses the shadowy presence of the DCI Group, a public relations firm that numbers McDonald's among its U.S. clients.

"They are close to the Bush administration and very much specialized in attack politics," he says.

He does not think the backlash has seriously hurt Chew on This, which has been on the New York Times children's bestseller list since its May launch.

On a book tour in England, he had a face-to-face debate with the head of McDonald's there, whom he found to be a decent man despite their conflicting positions. But nothing like this has happened in the U.S.

"It would be so much more useful if (U.S.) companies would engage in open debate instead of hiding behind third parties. I am not against these companies earning a profit — it's how they do it."

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