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Food + Cooking

Eric Schlosser Wants Us to Chew on This

Published in Gourmet Live 09.21.11
A decade after Eric Schlosser brought the world’s attention to the dark realities inherent in our fast-food nation, he talks with Barry Estabrook about how our food system has changed in the ensuing years—and how it has not

Barry Estabrook: Have the conditions you described so vividly in Fast Food Nation changed for the better?

Eric Schlosser: I am really gratified and encouraged by the rise of the food movement during the past ten years—by the anti-obesity efforts, the growing opposition to how fast-food companies market to children, and the huge interest in healthy food and organics and sustainability. A lot of the problems described in Fast Food Nation still exist. But a lot of people are now working on solutions.

BE: The most poignant and memorable sections of the book are where you show us the plight of the workers, not only in fast-food restaurants, but in the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants that supply them.

ES: Unfortunately, the problem that I probably care about the most—the exploitation of poor immigrant workers—has actually gotten worse since the book was published. Meatpacking remains a low-paid, dangerous job. And the declining value of the federal minimum wage has hurt migrant farmworkers and fast-food workers. Today, the real value of the minimum wage is more than 30 percent lower than it was in the late 1960s. That means, adjusted for inflation, that the poorest workers in the United States have suffered a pay cut of more than $3 an hour. That’s disgraceful. Migrant farmworkers today are earning less money per hour, in many cases, than they did when Cesar Chavez created the United Farm Workers union a generation ago.

BE: Before Fast Food Nation and Chew on This, you had written investigative articles on a variety of subjects. What brought you to food?

ES: I spent a year following the strawberry harvest in California and wrote an article about it, “In the Strawberry Fields,” for the Atlantic Monthly [included in Schlosser’s 2003 book, Reefer Madness]. Pete Wilson, the state’s governor at the time, was demonizing illegal immigrants in the hopes of becoming the Republican candidate for president. He was arguing that illegal immigrants were welfare cheats and parasites who came to California to live off of taxpayers. But those charges didn’t make sense to me. Whenever I visited California, the Latino workers that I saw seemed to be doing difficult, unpleasant jobs that nobody else wanted to do. They didn’t seem to be lounging by the pool, sipping Daiquiris. So I decided to look at the role of illegal immigrants in the California economy. And I found that they weren’t parasites—far from it. They were propping up the largest sector of the state’s economy, which is agriculture. They’d become essential to the biggest industry in the state. The huge rise in illegal immigration was providing California growers with armies of cheap labor to harvest fruits and vegetables by hand.

I’d never really thought about where my food came from. And the mistreatment of these migrants really opened my eyes to how dependent we are on their labor, how much we take it for granted, and how little gratitude we show for it. My article tried to look below the surface of modern production agriculture and provide a glimpse of how it really operates.

After “In the Strawberry Fields” came out, Will Dana, [now managing editor] of Rolling Stone, read it and asked me to do the same thing for fast food that I did for strawberries—to show us where this food comes from, explain the operating system behind it. I’d been eating fast food all my life without thinking about it. And the more I learned about the subject, the more intrigued I became. What began as an article for Rolling Stone turned into a book, Fast Food Nation. Here was an industry that not only exploited immigrant workers, but also targeted and sickened the children of the poor. So my involvement with food issues, from the beginning, was driven more by an interest in social justice than an interest in food. I know that those two words, social justice, are considered obscene these days by Glenn Beck and his friends. But, you know, I feel pretty good promoting exactly the opposite of what they want to see happen in this country.

BE: Let me play devil’s advocate. These workers are mostly immigrants, many of them in the country illegally. The farm owners and restaurant managers seem to have no trouble finding people who are ready and willing to take the jobs you are talking about. So why should consumers be concerned?

ES: To me, it couldn’t be more simple. If you eat, you should be concerned about the people who are providing you with food. In a rational society, the people who feed us would be celebrated and well-rewarded. And I don’t mean the dozen or so famous celebrity chefs. I mean the farmers, farmworkers, food-processing workers, and restaurant workers who are responsible for producing our food. That’s a pretty basic role in society—and yet these people are too often disrespected and treated extremely poorly. And it’s unnecessary. We can pay a decent wage to workers in the food industry—without going bankrupt. To double the wages of every farmworker in the United States would probably add about $50 to the annual food budget of the typical American family. It would cost less than four movie tickets and some popcorn. If you want to enjoy a healthy diet and eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, then you are connected to these farmworkers, directly, with every bite. In addition to all the moral and ethical reasons, self-interest should motivate everyone to care about this. You want the people who are handling your food to be treated well, not desperate or desperately ill. The same is true for restaurant workers. You want these people to be okay, when they’re preparing what you eat. To me, that’s just common sense.

There’s a good deal of racism behind the whole problem. I really believe that if the farmworkers and the restaurant workers being exploited right now had blond hair and blue eyes, this country wouldn’t stand for it. Because most of these workers are Latino and many of them don’t speak English, they don’t evoke a great deal of sympathy. I’m a huge supporter of animal rights—and I’ve been an outspoken critic of the cruelties routinely inflicted on livestock at factory farms. But it really bothers me that the mistreatment of pigs and chickens and cows seems to attract a lot more attention and spark a lot more outrage than the abuse of immigrant workers. I’m all in favor of animal rights, but I’d like to see the food movement take a much stronger stand in defense of basic human rights. If you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, you should care about the people who are picking your fruits and vegetables by hand.

BE: In some ways, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Although courts have prevented many of them from taking effect, several states and municipalities have passed far-reaching anti-illegal-immigrant laws.

ES: These anti-immigrant laws are pure demagoguery. They are politically driven, in the midst of an economic downturn. It’s an attempt to find scapegoats and pick on the weak. And it’s funny how these politicians are blaming poor immigrants for all our problems—not Wall Street banks, for some reason. It’s a form of misdirection. The number of illegal immigrants has been falling for years, as the hatred directed at them has been rising. The same thing happened during the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans were driven out of the United States—and then brought back once the economy picked up. When I think about who really got us into this economic mess, the poor immigrants who are picking strawberries, working in slaughterhouses, washing dishes in restaurant kitchens, and mowing lawns don’t make it to the top of my list.

BE: If you had the power to fix this system, what would you do?

ES: I would raise the federal minimum wage so that it’s roughly equivalent to what it was in the late 1960s. That would bring it to about $10.25 an hour. [The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Eighteen states have higher minimum wages.] The only way to end poverty in this country is to make sure that everyone who works hard can feed their families and live on what they make.

And I would rigorously enforce the labor laws that are already on the books. I would enforce the laws on overtime, laws that ensure a safe workplace, laws against indenture, laws against slavery. It’s kind of amazing that in the year 2011, you still have to enforce laws against slavery and indenture. But there are untold thousands of immigrant workers in the United States who right now are being forced to work for free to pay off their debts to smugglers and labor contractors. You wrote about the problem eloquently in Tomatoland.

Once you have guaranteed a safe workplace and a decent wage—and by a decent wage I mean a living wage—it doesn’t matter to me if the workers are American or Mexican, Haitian or Guatemalan, Latvian or Lithuanian. They could be from Mars. All that matters is that they are not being exploited so that we can eat.

BE: Do you see any hopeful signs?

ES: I’m optimistic. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has won some tremendous victories on behalf of tomato workers, by putting pressure not on farmers but on the big fast-food and supermarket companies who control the industry. The coalition has provided a template for how change can happen. They’ve shown that paying an extra penny a pound for tomatoes can make a huge difference, when that penny goes directly to the workers. The same sort of arrangement could be made for other fruits and vegetables, without consumers even noticing the tiny increase in cost. Companies like Wal-Mart and the fast-food chains and the big supermarket chains need to ensure that their products are not being harvested with slave labor, that the wages and working conditions are good throughout their supply chain.

BE: With the White House organic garden and programs such as Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, the Obama administration has made overtures to promote some aspects of sustainable farming. What is its record on labor abuses in the fields?

ES: Labor Secretary Hilda Solis visited tomato fields in Florida last year and praised the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. I think that was great; it sent a strong message. And fear of the Obama administration no doubt encouraged the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to stop threatening farmers who wanted to pay workers an extra penny per pound. The administration’s heart seems to be in the right place. But real change on these issues isn’t going to come from the top. It’s going to come from consumers who care about what’s happening to these workers—and who refuse to let these abuses continue.

Barry Estabrook is the award-winning author of Tomatoland and a frequent contributor to Gourmet Live.