Eric Schlosser Examines Fast Food Nation in Ubben Lecture at DePauw
November 11, 2003
November 11, 2003, Greencastle, Ind. - [DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Why Care?" 744KB] "Our economy is questionable, and when all of you are going to be entering a job market next year or in a few years that's highly uncertain, and in many ways our future is more uncertain than it's been in our lifetime... so why should you care about what's behind the Big Mac and supersize fries?," best-selling author Eric Schlosser asked an audience at DePauw University tonight. "I would argue that if you ever go to a fast food restaurant, you should care. You should really care about what you're eating, and how it's being made and, most importantly for me, who's making it for you," stated Schlosser, whose book Fast Food Nation has been on the best-seller list for nearly two years. He came to DePauw to deliver a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture in Kresge Auditorium and visited two classes.
Schlosser told the crowd of students, faculty, administrators, [DOWNLOAD VIDEO: "DePauw and its Students" 1300KB] "I had the privilege of touring this University today, and it is incredibly impressive. And in talking to students, I was really, really taken by how bright the questions were and how interesting the conversation was. If you look at young people in the United States, you guys have perhaps the greatest opportunities and are among a very, very small segment of this society who has tremendous opportunity," Schlosser said, noting that many of the people who make the fast food Americans eat have few opportunities.
Schlosser says one in four Americans eats at a fast food restaurant each day, and that 70% of those visits are impulse purchases. [DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Eyes Open" 667KB] "It's not a conscious, deliberate act. Now most people don't buy a laptop, or a new TV, or a new car, or a new stereo impulsively: these are things that you think about, you compare the different models... you don't just do it on impulse. But we buy our food on impulse, and we buy foods for our kids on impulse, and this isn't just something you're going to wear or listen to or stare at blankly. This stuff enters your body and becomes part of you."
Schlosser documented the growth of the fast food industry by looking at McDonald's, which pioneered the concept and became the dominant player in the business. In 1968, the author says there were 1,000 McDonald's outlets worldwide; today there are 30,000. McDonald's is the world's largest purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes and is the #2 buyer of chickens. Started by individualistic entrepreneurs, Schlosser says the fast food companies have become giants that stress conformity, uniformity and control, "as much control as possible over the workplace, over the workers, over the food, over the marketing, and ultimately, over you... This book is about fast food, but it's a way of looking at America, and looking at the changes that have swept through this country in the last 25 years," he said.
Schlosser detailed how McDonald's developed a largely automated system of making food, eliminating the need for skilled workers. "This industry is dependent on very large numbers of very cheap workers, so it's no coincidence that the fast food industry is the largest employer of minimum wage workers in the United States and, coincidentally, is one of the biggest opponents of any increase in the minimum wage," he stated. "The only workers in America paid less money than fast food workers are migrant farm workers."
The increasing dominance of McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's also brought changes to America's slaughterhouses, Schlosser says. Conditions at meat processing plants greatly improved after the turn of the last century, when Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle brought about reforms that led to better working conditions and pay. In 1970, Schlosser says the top four meat packing companies controlled 20% of the market for beef. But because of what he calls lax anti-trust oversight in the 1980's, Schlosser says today the top four companies control 85% of the beef that's sold in the United States. [DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Packing Companies" 663KB] "These companies got big and powerful and they used their power to break unions very ruthlessly. And one of the tactics they used was to bring in illegal immigrants as strike-breakers and fire union members, and since the mid-1970's we have seen a revolution in meat packing... [it's] become a McJob. Today, meat packing workers are the lowest-paid industrial workers in the United States."
Schlosser, whose latest book is Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, says the rate of injury in slaughterhouses is three times the national average for manufacturing jobs, and that conservatively, 40,000 workers are injured in meat packing plants each year.
Meanwhile, over the past quarter century, Schlosser says America has seen a "huge" increase in food-borne illnesses, "and this is connected to the centralization and industrialization of our food systems that serve the fast food chains." The author and investigative journalist cited government figures that 76 million Americans suffered food poisoning last year; 325,000 were hospitalized because of food poisoning; and that 5,000 Americans "were killed by something they ate. That's more than died in this country on 9/11... This gigantic system has played a leading role in making big outbreaks possible. It used to be that if you got your food from a small butcher shop or processing plant, there was a limit to how big an outbreak could be. But today, when one plant produces 1 million pounds of ground beef and ships it throughout the United States and overseas, the potential for widespread contamination is huge."
Elaborating further, Schlosser says a fast food hamburger sold in 1965 and one made today might look the same, but 38 years ago the meat from the burger likely came from one cow or steer. In today's burger, you'll find [DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "1,000 or More" 996KB] "pieces of a thousand or more cattle from as many as five different countries ground up into one little hamburger patty. That's aesthetically unpleasant, but beyond that, it has consequences for anyone who eats that burger. In the same way that having promiscuous sex and multiple, indiscriminate sexual partners makes you more likely to become infected with something unpleasant, having a thousand cattle in one burger increases the likelihood significantly that you're going to come upon a steer or a cow that was carrying a bad bug."
Schlosser told his DePauw audience, [DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "The Goal" 1200KB] "Ultimately the goal of the book that I wrote, believe it or not, is not to tell you what to do, and it's not to tell you what to eat. I really believe that adults need to make that kind of decision for themselves. The goal of my work -- on this subject and almost everything I write -- is to try to make you think, and to try to offer an alternative view from the one that is being marketed and the one that is being promulgated in the mainstream. Because if you have to think about it, at least if you decide to keep eating a Big Mac every day it's a conscious choice and not just an impulse. And I believe, to the extent possible, we should live with our eyes open and be aware and take responsibility, but in order to do that, you have to have a choice."
The Ubben Lecture Series has brought distinguished individuals to the DePauw University campus since 1986, including 2004 presidential candidate and retired General Wesley Clark, former British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, General Colin Powell, Ross Perot, Bob Woodward, Benazir Bhutto, Spike Lee, Mike Krzyzewski, David Broder, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harry Belafonte and ice cream entrepreneurs Ben & Jerry.
To view a complete list of Ubben Lecturers, which includes links to video clips and news stories, click here.Back