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From: TSS ()
Subject: What's in your burger? Don't ask 'Fast Food' writer
Date: November 15, 2006 at 7:33 am PST

What's in your burger? Don't ask 'Fast Food' writer

By Chris Garcia
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

You are about to walk into a cesspool of bad news.

Eric Schlosser, author of the globally best-selling exposé "Fast Food Nation," is talking about food. American food. Our food. And it's kind of gross.

Deborah Cannon

Eric Schlosser, who published 'Fast Food Nation' in 2001, wrote the movie script with Austin director Richard Linklater. Since finding fame with 'Fast Food Nation,' Eric has written the books 'Chew on This' and 'Reefer Madness.'

'Fast Food Nation' opens Friday in Austin.

Schlosser, who looks and sounds like actor Ed Harris, is at the Driskill Hotel promoting the feature film version of "Fast Food Nation," which he co-wrote with Richard Linklater, who directs. Partly shot in Austin, the movie opens Friday.

"He's one of my favorite filmmakers," Schlosser says of Linklater. " 'Slacker' and 'Dazed and Confused' spoke to me."

The film, a rousing bit of agitprop that might have you thinking thrice about that burger patty, stars Ethan Hawke, Greg Kinnear, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Avril Lavigne and others in a carousel ensemble. Schlosser and Linklater distilled much of the nonfiction book's muckraking reportage and fashioned fictional lives to dramatize some of its core issues, such as the dangers facing America's beef supply, worker exploitation, illegal immigration, corporate greed and the treatment of livestock.

"The only way it seemed to make sense was to take the title of the book and some of the themes, then put the book aside," says the soft-spoken Schlosser. "It's the same in spirit, not a literal adaptation."

Since the release of "Fast Food Nation" in 2001, mainstream consciousness of obesity, food contamination and organic foods has boomed. But much remains to be done, Schlosser says.

"People's awareness is significantly better," he says. "When you have the conservative governor of Arkansas and the Republican governor of California kicking fast food and soda companies out of schools, that's a big change."

American-Statesman: So some good has happened since the book's publication. Still, in the paperback's afterward you note that the Bush administration has pushed some things in the meatpacking industry dangerously backward.

Eric Schlosser: The meatpacking industry owns and operates the United States Department of Agriculture. The biggest meatpacking company is Tyson, and the head of the American Meat Institute is the chairman of Tyson. The chief of staff at the USDA is the former chief lobbyist for the National Cattle and Beef Association. These big institutions work completely in concert with one another.

If you just look at where the money goes, McDonald's gives 80-something percent of its political donations to the Republican Party. The meatpacking industry gives the same. The restaurant industry gives 90 percent. And they are particularly in league with the right wing of the Republican Party. They appeal to its core issues. The fast-food industry does not want the minimum wage increased. It's that simple. They are the biggest employers of minimum wage labor, and the National Restaurant Association hugely deserves credit or blame for keeping the minimum wage at the lowest it's been since 1951.

They also don't want tough food safety rules, especially rules that create liability for the meatpacking companies. The companies are not deliberately poisoning their customers, but if somebody gets sick, they don't want a quick, traceable trail right back to the company and feedlot where the cattle came from. They've been remarkably effective in Congress at blocking any kinds of attempts to do common-sense food safety stuff, like test the cattle for mad cow disease.

The movie deals with E. coli in American beef, which felicitously parallels the recent outbreak of E. coli in American spinach.

Yeah, there's (expletive) in our spinach. There's a scene in the film where they're talking about how (cow urine and excrement) is put in these big lagoons and it leaks into rivers, and there you go. These factory farms produce 1 trillion pounds of waste a year. Traditionally cattle on the prairie would eat grass, relieve themselves — which fertilized the prairie — then walk away. But when you have 100,000 cattle living in one feedlot, they're basically living in each other's waste. . . . We've been living with cattle and pigs and chickens for thousands of years, but it's only in the past 25 years that we've treated them and housed them this way. The most disturbing is what we do to pigs. It's like out of a horrible, dystopian science-fiction movie.

How serious is it that this is happening to our greens? Is it just the tip of the iceberg?

It's a big problem. The bottom line is: Wash your own spinach. Ground beef gets contaminated because if there's one infected animal and you grind it up together with thousands of other animals — your typical fast-food hamburger patty has pieces of a thousand or more cattle in it — the odds of you encountering an infected one are huge. If there's a little bit of bacteria in one head of lettuce, well, bad luck if you eat it. But if they chop it up and wash it in these big vats with all the other lettuce, that's a perfect way to spread the contamination throughout the United States. It's the industrialization of our food system combined with terrible mistreatment of livestock. Here's the payback. There's a reason those burgers cost only 99 cents. Maybe it's better to pay a little more now and not pay big time in other ways.

Experts are telling us to do something simple: "Eat local."

It's America in 2006. It's impossible to be pure. You can't live a totally virtuous life, unless you're off the grid, growing all your own food and using solar power. To the degree that you can buy food that's produced near to where you live, buy it from the farmer and not the middleman, that's all good. That movement is gaining strength all over the country.

What are three things that could be done to improve the quality and safety of our food supply?

Limits on the industrialization of livestock is one. Really putting limits on these gigantic hog and poultry farms, with tough animal welfare rules. You shouldn't be able to have these massive hog-confinement factory farms. The health of these animals is integrally connected to the people who are going to eat them. Do you want to eat something that's perfectly healthy? Or do you want to eat something that's being given daily doses of antibiotics because it's living in the fecal material of all of its fellow creatures?

Two, not having government subsidies for really unhealthful foods. Right now corn growers get 50 (percent) to 60 percent of their annual income from direct federal subsidies. If you grow fruits and vegetables, you get nothing. The policies of the USDA help determine what we're going to eat. You can't have a feedlot with 100,000 cattle unless you have really cheap cattle feed to give them, and it's that really cheap corn that becomes cheap beef and on and on. So make sure the federal subsidy program is encouraging people to eat good food and not cheap corn syrup, high-fructose sweeteners in their sodas, etc.

The third thing is compassion, which is probably the most in short supply, and a recognition that the people who pick your fruits and vegetables and who work in the meatpacking plants and fast-food restaurants getting minimum wage are preparing your food. If they're treated like (expletive), that bad treatment extends all the way up the food chain into your mouth. You want the person preparing your food to earn a decent wage, to be healthy and have access to health care. It's possible to eat food without the whole system being dependent on the exploitation of those at the very bottom.; 445-3649


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