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Q&A With Eric Schlosser

As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series, a conversation with New York Times best-selling author and award-winning journalist Eric Schlosser

Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001) is, in many ways, still fueling food policy discussion in America. A ground-breaking expose on the fast food industry and a critique of the modern food system, Fast Food Nation was a New York Times best-seller for nearly two years, evolved into a movie in 2006, and inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary Food Inc (2009).

Food Safety News recently caught up with Schlosser while he was in Washington, DC meeting with lawmakers about food safety and keynoting Consumers Union’s Activist Summit.

Q: How did your meetings with lawmakers go?

A: I’m trying to just light a fire about the FDA modernization bill. The people I met with felt very strongly about it and want it to pass. I think it’s absolutely urgent, it will be a tragic missed opportunity if they don’t pass it. I see why there are so many other issues–like saving the economy from collapse–that they’ve had to deal with, but this one seems like a no brainer. It’s not a hot button political issue like abortion or gun control where there are passionate divisions and people on each side.

There’s really nobody saying “I want MRSA in my pork” or “I want E.coli in my ground beef.”

Q: Right, but with of all these issues competing for the Senate’s time–health care, financial regulatory reform–it seems difficult to get food issues high enough on the list to get them on the schedule…

A: It’s interesting. I’m so encouraged by what I find on college campuses and among your generation. This is a really vital social movement. The kind interest, the passion for the subject, and the willingness to try do something about it is encouraging. I feel like politicians are out of touch with that fact. There is percolating this big movement now, which is in a lot of ways analogous to what the environmental movement was in the late 1960s, early 70s. It hasn’t quite hit the critical mass, but it’s going to.

I think it’s tragic if these people in Washington are behind the curve, especially when the cost of being behind the curve is so high. If we get a major outbreak and they can’t trace it, they can’t recall it, and they’re not testing for it, I mean…

They’re finding MRSA in the streams in North Carolina down stream from a hog operation. It’s really unusual to find this sort of staph surviving in water that way. This is where people are fishing, this is where people could conceivably be going into the water. Imagine if there was a factory spewing this really dark cloud that smelled terrible and killed you–we wouldn’t allow it at all. Because this is invisible it’s much more difficult to make the direct connection, but it’s pollution in the same way. It’s a toxic substance coming from a factory sickening people downstream. That’s really the basis for the environmental movement 40 years ago. It’s trying to help people make those connections.

Q: In Fast Food Nation, you write extensively about meat safety, what kinds of things would you like to see the USDA do on the food safety front?

A: One of the people I met with yesterday, who I thought was terrific, was Senator Gillibrand. It’s kind of amazing that she even has to propose legislation to make the non-O157s an adulterant considering the USDA could just do it in an instant. Their argument that they need the right test is absurd. The headquarters of Earthbound Farms is not far from where I live, Earthbound has been testing for non-O157s for four years. It’s not a perfect system but probably as good as exists.

There is no question that the passage of the FDA bill would greatly put pressure on the USDA to have similar sorts of practices in place. There should be performance testing, there should be a greater ability to trace the meat, there should be mandatory recall, and serious criminal type penalties for knowingly shipping contaminated product.

From what I’ve read of the Peanut Corporation of America case…that’s just outrageous, to knowingly ship contaminated peanut butter that’s going to be consumed by children. Why does this happen? Right, the economic system favors dishonesty and favors unethical behavior. The companies that want to do things the right way and pay a little extra for food safety–because the consumer can’t tell the difference, visually, between what’s wholesome and what’s tainted, there’s a real incentive to cheat. You just have to look to China to see what human beings are willing to do for money. Tainted baby formula is just unbelievable.

© Food Safety News
  • Non 0157’s are tested for as generic E. coli. What they meant in their comment about the testing is that the generic test doesn’t tell you the specific strain. There are hundreds. To write up a company for food adulteration, it’s probably a good idea to know for a fact they type of adulterant, so you would need to get specific.
    If you want to improve food safety, all you really need to do is this:
    Properly staff the FSIS and FDA. That way, these agencies have the people power to enforce the laws that are already on the books and new regulation isn’t needed. Besides, what’s the point of piling on regs if there is nobody available to enforce them?
    Hold small and niche operations as accountable for food safety. If this really is a national security issue(and it is), then why are we just going after the large corporations? Is this legislation about corporations or is it about food safety? With several fringe food movement springing up, there are new opportunities for food borne illness, especially when a small operation may cut corners so the premium prices they charge give them premium profits. Raw milk, local meat and produce, and small scale organic operations are as likely(and I’d argue more likely) to be breeding grounds for serious food borne illness.
    So give the agencies the resources to enforce the laws already on the books and make sure everyone plays by the rules and helps keep this country safe.

  • I believe the best thing we can do to ensure food safety is to educate the consumer to safe food handling.
    As a chef, I was responsible for serving more than 2 million meals, and no one ever got sick. My guideline for food safety? What my mother taught me before I was 10 years old.
    Instead of instituting more regulations on the grower (especially affecting the smaller grower), we need to educate the consumer.

  • I believe the best thing we can do to ensure food safety is to educate the consumer to safe food handling.
    As a chef, I was responsible for serving more than 2 million meals, and no one ever got sick. My guideline for food safety? What my mother taught me before I was 10 years old.
    Instead of instituting more regulations on the grower (especially affecting the smaller grower), we need to educate the consumer.
    To do this “n Sam Vance
    06/14/2010
    7:33AM
    Non 0157’s are tested for as generic E. coli. What they meant in their comment about the testing is that the generic test doesn’t tell you the specific strain. There are hundreds. To write up a company for food adulteration, it’s probably a good idea to know for a fact they type of adulterant, so you would need to get specific.
    If you want to improve food safety, all you really need to do is this:
    Properly staff the FSIS and FDA. That way, these agencies have the people power to enforce the laws that are already on the books and new regulation isn’t needed. Besides, what’s the point of piling on regs if there is nobody available to enforce them?
    Hold small and niche operations as accountable for food safety. If this really is a national security issue(and it is), then why are we just going after the large corporations? Is this legislation about corporations or is it about food safety? With several fringe food movement springing up, there are new opportunities for food borne illness, especially when a small operation may cut corners so the premium prices they charge give them premium profits. Raw milk, local meat and produce, and small scale organic operations are as likely(and I’d argue more likely) to be breeding grounds for serious food borne illness. ” is to put us at greater risk for food safety, and seriously compromises national security!
    The above statement is full of untruths! Suggesting the smaller farmer is a greater risk to safety is ridiculous. The greater risk is in centralized processing and distribution facilities. This is where multiples of contact with the food, obscure the find for the contamination culprit because so many people contact the food. ALSO, by centralizing the processing centers for food, we are much more vulnerable as a security risk as it is easier to starve us by the fewer the points of distribution and processing. Security-wise, the more, localized facilities, the less the risk. Also, the easier to track and control any contamination.
    Sam Vance sounds like another big ag. pawn!

  • Doc Mudd

    Sam Vance is spot on with his suggestion that producers of all sizes be held absolutely accountable for the safety of their products. How can there be any exceptions?
    When I hear opposing sophistry to the effect of “educate consumers” on how to safely handle product contaminated by greedy small producers, well, I recognize a steaming pile of bullcrap when I see one. Then, with the further accusation that opposing commenters are “big ag pawns” (a shopworn ad hominem ruse, if ever there was one), we are all safely assured that intelligent dialogue has been derailed.

  • “The above statement is full of untruths! Suggesting the smaller farmer is a greater risk to safety is ridiculous. The greater risk is in centralized processing and distribution facilities. This is where multiples of contact with the food, obscure the find for the contamination culprit because so many people contact the food. ALSO, by centralizing the processing centers for food, we are much more vulnerable as a security risk as it is easier to starve us by the fewer the points of distribution and processing. Security-wise, the more, localized facilities, the less the risk. Also, the easier to track and control any contamination.
    Sam Vance sounds like another big ag. pawn!”
    Hey Bob. How’s it going? I would be the world’s worst paid Big Ag pawn @ $0. What you don’t take into consideration is that in many cases, the larger an operation, the less people interact with the food(due to automation). Also, the larger an operation is, the better resources they have to prevent food safety issues.
    Food safety risks are mitigated through the effective processing that takes place, not by merely processing less things. With that logic, every person in America could kill their own chickens and nobody would ever get sick. This would be a nightmare. Also a nightmare waiting to happen is open farmers markets where the general public is pawing through the produce or where food is held in the temperature danger zone or out in the elements. It’s dangerous thinking to assume that something small is safer because it’s small. Something is safer, because it better controls possible contaminants.