Q & A with Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser is the Bible of the new food movement. Released in 2001, the book documents the rise of the fast food industry, the evils of factory farming and what can be done to stop it. The book was later adapted into a 2006 film under the same name.

Although Fast Food Nation is widely known, it is less known how the book came to fruition. The following is a Q & A with Schlosser taken from the book Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do About It, where he explains how his book came to be, and its impact on the American diet.

Q. How much resistance did you encounter in researching and reporting the book?

A lot. None of the major meatpacking companies allowed me to visit their facilities. McDonald’s was not at all helpful. The industry, on the whole, didn’t roll out a welcome mat. But many of the workers at fast-food restaurants and meatpacking plants were eager to talk with me. They felt that their stories had not yet been told, and they wanted the world to know what was happening. Their help made Fast Food Nation possible.

Q. Fast Food Nation became a best seller and one of the most influential books of recent years. How did that happen?

Well, it was a reminder that the conventional wisdom is usually wrong. The major New York publishers weren’t interested in publishing the book. They didn’t think anyone would want to read it. They didn’t think people would care about these things.

In the end. Fast Food Nation was published by one of the last independent publishing houses, Houghton Mifflin, based in Boston. My editor there, Eamon Dolan, felt passionately about the subject, took a big risk signing the book, and supported me from beginning to end. There was never any pressure to play it safe. But there was also no expectation on the part of Houghton Mifflin that Fast Food Nation would be a best seller. It was launched with a relatively modest marketing campaign. But independent book stores and public radio stations took an interest in the book, and readers began to discover it on their own specially young people.

I was forty-one years old when Fast Food Nation was published in 2001, and I had no idea who would read it. It was amazing to find that most of the people reading the book were at least half my age. They were college students and high school students who’d never known an America without fast food, who’d grown up in a world saturated with fast-food advertising. I’m old enough to remember when the first McDonald’s opened in New York City. That was a big deal; I went there the first week it was open.

Q. Now nearly ten years have passed. How has the story of America’s relationship to food changed in that time?

There has been a sea change in American attitudes toward food, especially among the educated and the upper-middle class. And there is now a powerful social movement centered on food. Sustainable agriculture, the obesity epidemic, food safety, illegal immigration, animal welfare, the ethics of marketing to children all of these things are now being widely discussed and debated. The nature of the discussion isn’t always to my liking. But at least the issues aren’t being hidden and suppressed. Now they are out in the open.

So there’s been a huge change in eating habits and awareness among the well-educated and the upper-middle class. For proof of that, just look at the success of Whole Foods, the Food Network, the rise of celebrity chefs, the spread of farmers’ markets, all the best sellers about food. Some people worry that the movement to reform our food system is elitist, that right now it appeals to a narrow segment of society. I think that’s a real danger, but you have to keep in mind, lots of social movements started off that way. The abolition movement, the civil rights movement, feminism, environmentalism, they all began among the educated, upper-middle class. My concern about the food movement isn’t where it started. I’m much more concerned about where it’s headed. Fast Food Nation offered a critique of the last thirty years of American history and what happened to ordinary people and the poor during that time. I hope the food movement will grow and extend more broadly throughout society. And we need a government that encourages that. For me, this movement has always been about much bigger issues than

“Does an heirloom tomato taste better than a mass-produced tomato?” I don’t see any point in having heirloom, organic tomatoes if they’re harvested by slave labor. I want tomatoes that taste good but I also want tomato pickers to be paid well. Luckily, I think a lot of people are starting to realize that it’s possible to have both.

You can read the interview in its entirety by purchasing a copy of Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do About It, by clicking here.

Sources include:

(1) Weber, Karl. Food, Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do About It. Participant Media: New York, NY. 2009.

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