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Fast Food Nation Interview: Eric Schlosser On Obesity, Kids, and Fast Food PR
When PR Watch most recently caught a cell phone signal from Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and the new Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food, Schlosser was rushing from car to car in New York City, after London, which was just after Berkeley, where he was giving students a preview of the indie film version of "Fast Food Nation." We didn't have the chance to ask him when he had time to eat. But we did use the time to speak with him about fast food, the U.S. childhood obesity epidemic, and the public relations industry's techniques in attacking his work. Schlosser has been likened to a latter day Upton Sinclair—exposing the abattoirs and abuses in the meatpacking and calorie-packing processed food industry. If you haven't read his books, you should, and here are a few reasons why you can't just see the movie.
PR Watch: What led you to write about fast food, not just its effects on our bodies but our broader well being?
Eric Schlosser: I didn't set out to write a jeremiad about the fast food industry at all. It started as an assignment from Rolling Stone that I wasn't even sure I wanted to accept. Once I realized how powerful the industry had become and how different it was in reality from the images it was marketing--that's when I became intrigued. Whenever there's something that I think deliberately is being kept from people or deceptive that's when I become curious. The editor of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, called me into his office. They had read my [Atlantic Monthly] piece about illegal immigrants and migrant farm workers in California. It was a very complicated piece with all these big issues but it was told through something very simple and concrete, which was the strawberry. Rolling Stone just wanted to know where fast food comes from. What does it mean? I didn't know anything about it. I didn't take the assignment right away--I like hamburgers and fries. I went to McDonald's. I didn't want to write something elitist that was a putdown of what ordinary people eat. I went to the library and began reading. The more I learned about it the more I was amazed at how powerful the industry had become in a very brief period of time and how much impact it had on society in a very brief period of time.
PR Watch: Your new book [with Charles Wilson], Chew on This, reads like a spin control manual on fast food. It could be for kids or a number of audiences. ... Did you intend to, and how does one, debunk spin for younger audiences?
Eric Schlosser: The chapter on marketing especially is an attempt to provide some kind of media literacy for kids and to help them be aware they're being targeted. I didn't see it in the context so much of the PR industry. It was that kids are bombarded every day, everywhere we go, by marketing. I wanted just to make them aware of that fact, and to help make them aware of some of the tactics being used.
PR Watch: I have a nine-year-old kid, who, like everyone, is bombarded by marketing. Kids tend to--well, we all react. We often react to our society by doing the opposite of what we're told. How do you break through to a young audience?
Eric Schlosser: We tried really hard not to present information as a lecture and not to present it in a hectoring way, to write the book in a way that respects the intelligence of reader and isn't condescending to them. It's offered as information, it's offered as, here's the other side. At the end, it encourages [younger readers] to make up their own minds, and shows connections to what they're doing and the bigger world. Unless it's your own child you cannot prevent them from anything. With my own kids once I did this research, it was like, okay no more. That was it for them and McDonald's. My son was six and my daughter was seven.
PR Watch: How did your kids feel about cutting off McDonald's?
Eric Schlosser: They were really unhappy, you know. But that's the way it goes. It's a form of high-risk behavior for kids, this fast food diet. So far, there isn't any rebellion in the household, i.e. I don't see any signs that one of them will become a McDonald's franchisee to just kind of stick it to me. In terms of writing the book for kids, Chew on This doesn't set out to try to tell them what to do. It tries to give them information, and what more can you do? I'm actually more optimistic with the kids than I am with adults, for a couple of reasons. ... The age group this book is aimed at is a really interesting moment in kids' lives, where they're just starting to look beyond their family and their friends and just starting to look at the wider world. I don't think all children are perfect and childhood is a golden age at all. [But] kids are more likely to have empathy and to be angry at injustice. There is often a purity there. They're less likely to be cynical and ironic, less likely to be jaded. Maybe kids who read this are more likely to be pissed off than 48-year-old middle-aged guys like I am—almost.
PR Watch: What's your experience with PR front groups like the so-called "Center for Consumer Freedom"—and what are they doing following you around?
Eric Schlosser: I think it's really important that these front groups not be treated like they're legitimate organizations. Even the name "Center for Consumer Freedom" is deceptive, because it implies it's a consumer group. It's not. It's run out of a lobbying firm in Washington D.C. I think there need to be tougher rules in how front groups can present themselves. There needs to be much more transparency. I think there has to be a requirement that they reveal their funding sources. I think the media has to be more energetic in not just accepting at face value who these people say they are. That was one of problems I dealt with: all these groups suddenly attacking me, coming out of the woodwork, and some journalists being misled that these might truly be legitimate groups. Thank God for SourceWatch as a resource--no seriously--so I could tell [journalists] about front groups and they could take two minutes on line and see that this is true. These groups exist to create controversy... At New York University, I'll be talking about a Brown and Williamson PR person [describing] their strategy--this is from 1969, but it could come from [the 2006 movie] "Thank you for Smoking." Here's the quote from the marketing person, in terms of how to deal with critics of tobacco: "Doubt is our product since it's the best means for competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level then it creates an opportunity to put forward the real facts about smoking and health." Basically these are the industry's facts. So if they can make something controversial, they are already beginning to undermine their critics. For example, the ads that were put out recently by the Center for Consumer Freedom about transfats in New York City were totally deceptive. Transfats are acknowledged to be toxic. Period. There is no health benefit of transfat. There is no reason to have it in food. Yet they portray [critics] as the "food police" and the "nanny state." Don't get me going on this. ... [T]hese guys need to be outted at every opportunity.
PR Watch: You're talking to groups in New York City right now, a city that's on the verge of creating a new policy to ban transfats—what is the atmosphere like and do you think this represents a trend in public action about food safety?
Eric Schlosser: I talked to the New York City health commissioner. I tried to support him in this. I think what he's doing is absolutely terrific. I think it also shows we're having an impact. KFC already announced its [2007 planned] elimination of transfats and it's just a matter of time before McDonald's does. There is no reason not to. They did it in Copenhagen—McDonald's didn't have to shut all of a sudden when Denmark banned these things in 2004. In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there is no safe amount in eating transfats. That's almost five years ago. They could have really saved a lot of lives if they had acted a lot sooner. There's a really good article in the New England Journal of Medicine about the dangers of transfats, a really good summary. And in one of the articles, Danish researchers are visiting KFC and McDonald's all over the world, analyzing transfat content. They found enormous—enormous—variations in the levels of transfats. [For each restaurant] it depended on what oils were available and what oils were less expensive for cooking. But the levels in New York City were incredibly high. So the New York City health commissioner asked a year ago for a voluntary ban, to stop using the stuff. He checked up a year later and found that nobody agreed with the voluntary ban. So he's taken action.
PR Watch: On our website, www.prwatch.org, we just did a "Spin of the Day" on the angles that the restaurant industry is taking on transfats, including developing an angle of ethnic discrimination.
Eric Schlosser: They're going to bring in Latinos and make it as though it's a race issue. That's completely cynical, totally and completely cynical on their part.
PR Watch: Why do you think change seems to be happening now?
Eric Schlosser: I just think there's been a steadily growing awareness about our food system and some of the harm it's causing. Think of Mike Huckabee, the conservative Republican governor of Arkansas, leading a campaign against junk food and soda, or the Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, defying soda industry lobbyists who came to Sacramento. He defied them and banning soda and junk food from the California schools. When I wrote Fast Food Nation this was inconceivable, and now it's happening. It doesn't mean we live in a perfect world and all these problems are going to be solved, but it looks like there really is going to be action at local and state level--mainly because of the failure of the federal government to take action to protect the public health.
PR Watch: One of the intriguing stories in Chew on This is your account of the front groups of food flavoring, mostly in New Jersey for some reason. We've heard about industry front groups. You write that the flavoring experts use "umamis" to measure flavor and "mouthfeel" to judge what we like. What is the role of the flavorers in determining what we eat?
Eric Schlosser: It's a sign of how processed our food has become that you need a separate industry to provide us with flavor. In some ways, I don't hold the flavor industry for health harms in the same way [as the fast food companies]. If you go to Whole Foods and get processed foods that are organic they often have flavor additives too. ... You need flavor additives to give good taste to [processed] healthy food and unhealthy food. Ideally you would have food that isn't that heavily processed. These flavor additives are generally regarded as safe by the Food and Drug Administration because individual components are considered safe. We don't know what happens when they mix 30 or 40 of these different flavor chemicals together. Do you get something new? There is some indication [from studies] in England that mixing them together may cause hyperactivity in children. It's really unknown. But the flavor industry was interesting and most important to me because it symbolized how different this food is from real food, how flavor additives get children to eat things they might otherwise never want to eat.
PR Watch: So you wouldn't ascribe a distinction to the Whole Foods version of flavorings and those in fast food?
Eric Schlosser: Whole Foods uses natural flavors, which means they're synthesized from natural sources as opposed to being made through a combination of chemicals. They reduce natural substances down to these flavor chemicals. It's a very fine point of distinction. The same factories making the tastes of fast foods are making the tastes of health foods. Ideally people would go back to eating fresh ingredients, and the fewer chemicals of all kinds, the better. I haven't seen any proof that the flavor chemicals are dangerous. It's the food that the flavor chemicals are being added to that raises a health question.
PR Watch: Back to a basic PR industry question. As a result of your criticism of the fast food industry, you've been tailed. You caused a lot of fits in the industry, from McDonald's on. Who has sought to confront you and your message?
Eric Schlosser: Young Americans for Freedom, the Center for Individual Freedom, the Liberty Institute, the Heartland Institute, an outfit called the National Minority Health Month Foundation, with the leaders calling me a socialist and implying that I was a racist. And what's that New York group, the American Council on Science and Health. They use that classic tobacco industry tactic, trying to create doubt, trying to create controversy. Most important of all, as Rick Berman of the Center for Consumer Freedom has argued, if you can attack the messenger you can discredit the message. So there have been a lot of personal attacks on me by trying to make me the issue and imply I'm a bad American or anti-American. They don't talk about issue. It was unpleasant but it wasn't effective. I certainly never attacked these executives by name or say they're bad people or anything like that, They're business practices not the human beings that I'm attacking. The Wall Street Journal reported at one point that McDonald's had in place a plan to use "truth squads." By attacking me, and trying to discredit me, they could discredit my message. McDonald's denied it. So I called up the reporter for the Journal. He had the memo right there. His name is Dick Gibson, and he's covered the industry for years and years.
PR Watch: So McDonald's is lying?
Eric Schlosser: One of them is lying. Either McDonald's is lying or Dick Gibson who's written about the food industry for years is lying. You know, the Wall Street Journal is not really this left wing socialist rag that goes out after big businesses. ...
PR Watch: McDonald's has just announced about five years of consecutive profit growth. Have their PR techniques and damage control worked?
Eric Schlosser: A lot of their profits are from promotions for the World cup in Europe which was very effective. And they're targeting the poor. In the U.S., much of their profits are coming from dollar hamburgers, cheeseburgers and cokes which make a lot of money. Right now, they're making a lot of money. But from a business model perspective, it's not one that I would invest in. Morality and business ethics aside, I think that unless they change they may really have problems. We'll see what happens.