When Eric Schlosser expanded his Rolling Stone article on fast food into 2001's bestselling book Fast Food Nation, he created the country's most comprehensive and widely read exposé of the industry. This year, that material has been adapted anew twice over: In May, Schlosser and co-author Charles Wilson released Chew On This, a book that frames the same information for kids, and Schlosser and director Richard Linklater have collaborated on an ambitious film version of Fast Food Nation that puts the book's facts into a fictionalized dramatic context. Schlosser also wrote 2004's Reefer Madness, a three-pronged examination of the American black market, and he's currently working on a book about the prison-industrial complex. Schlosser recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Fast Food Nation's various incarnations, the industry's attempts to squelch its critics, and the government's complicity with corporate interests.
The A.V. Club: How did the idea of a feature adaptation of this book come about?
Eric Schlosser: I was approached by Jeremy Thomas, this British independent-film producer who really does interesting stuff and works with a lot of good European directors. He approached me with the idea of doing this film after having been given the book by Malcolm McLaren, the impresario behind the Sex Pistols. I didn't immediately see it. This was about a year and a half after the book came out, and I spent that time trying to get a documentary made based on the book, and meeting with a lot of documentary filmmakers. It had not been successful, because I did not want to sign over the rights of the book and see something that was a real sellout and a compromise. That was before Bowling For Columbine showed that documentaries could have a real theatrical life, so I was meeting with documentary filmmakers who were associated with various networks. And I liked the filmmakers, but I felt uneasy. McDonald's sponsors Sesame Street, and even PBS was coming under a lot of pressure from the Bush administration, so I had in my mind decided that I'd rather have no film made based on the book than something that really watered it down or smoothed over the sharp edges. It was around then that Jeremy Thomas and Malcolm McLaren came in with the idea of a fictional film based on the book. I thought, "Wow, it's great to meet these guys." Jeremy's a legendary producer, and Malcolm is brilliant and charismatic. I didn't sign over the rights to the book, but I said I'd think about it. And when I was on a book tour in Austin, Texas, I sat down with Richard Linklater, and we started talking about it, and thought it could be interesting. We then spent about two years, on and off, getting together and talking about it. I signed over the rights once it was clear Rick really wanted to do this, and that he'd have total creative control, and Jeremy Thomas would raise all the money outside the studio system. Then I could sleep soundly on it, because in my generation, Rick is one of the two or three American directors whose work I totally respect and admire. I just wanted to see a film of his based on the book. So that's how it happened. An unlikely thing, but I think in the film world, the director's key, and if the director's in power to make the film he or she wants to make, maybe something interesting will happen. If the documentary filmmaker was in power in the same way, that could have been interesting in a totally different way, but this is how it happened.
AVC: What was the writing process like? Many people probably don't realize that you have a background in playwriting, but had those muscles atrophied?
ES: Well, like I said, I really wanted to just see what Rick would do with this book. And this isn't bullshit, but I would have been fine with whatever happened. Once Rick was clear he wanted to do this, and once it was clear he would have final cut and creative control, I would have been happy giving him the book and showing up a year later to see the film. But I wound up being much more involved than I planned to be. It started out by me simply taking him around Colorado and introducing him to ranchers, and taking him into a slaughterhouse and just giving him a sense of a subject. He wanted me to stay involved, and it was such a pleasure. We sat in the room with index cards, plotted the whole thing out, and wrote it together in the room with a laptop. Then he went off and wrote some scenes and I wrote some scenes, and it was just a pleasure. I started out as a playwright, and then I worked for a film company in New York, and I had a play in London a few years ago. It was fun to make something up. And I'm not quitting my day job at all. The investigative reporting I do, I love the writing, but the footnoting and fact-checking, the libel review, and everything is just… It was just very different from this. It was great. To be able to work with one of the best screenwriters at the moment, which is also Rick, it's just good.
AVC: When you were first researching the book, did you encounter a lot of resistance, or were you able to fly under the radar?
ES: You know, I was really straight about what I was doing. Fast Food Nation appeared as an article in Rolling Stone before it was a book, so I was extending it from the article, and by that time, everyone could read the article. So for everything I do, I'm very clear about what I'm doing, and I tell people what it's about. They get a sense of what I'm thinking. I don't let people think I'm going to write something in praise in the meatpacking industry, and then they read it and it's actually attacking the meatpacking industry. By and large, people were really good in letting me in. The only people who were not good were McDonald's and the big fast-food chains and the meatpacking companies. So wherever I went, I was invited in, except for the slaughterhouse that I wrote about in the book. I just felt I really needed to go into a slaughterhouse. So I got in there on somewhat disingenuous terms.
AVC: Was McDonald's actively trying to stop you?
ES: No, they would just never agree to any interview, and I think it was extremely petty. When the book was done, I hired a fact-checker from The New Yorker to ruthlessly go over it and argue at every contention of fact. I wanted it to be accurate on all kinds of levels, and I also didn't want to be sued. McDonald's executives refused to be interviewed and refused to be helpful in any way. But then, once the book was finished, my fact-checker called up the company and said, "Okay, I want to go over the book with you and make sure it's accurate." And they wouldn't participate in the fact-checking process. I was able to get, through a source, the phone number of McDonald's corporate archivist. They have their own corporate historian, and it's full-time. And I was able to get past the PR people and call her up and say, "Look, we want to make sure that this is accurate, and it would be really great if you could spend the time to make sure the facts are straight." I think it was in their interest [to participate in the fact-checking process], because they would have gotten a real preview of coming attractions. They would have been able to get a real strong sense of what the book was about months and months in advance, but no one would do it, so that's the way it goes.
AVC: The book is prismatic in the way it ropes together health, labor, and corporate control. Was it difficult to achieve that balance without digressing too far off course?
ES: It was really hard, and in many ways, that was the hardest part of the process for me. I wanted to write something that was complex. I wanted to write something that used this industry as a way of literally looking at changes in the United States, but also as a symbol and a metaphor for other kinds of changes. So it was really complicated, and the vast majority of what I learned never wound up in the book. There were all kinds of other tangents that I went off on that I wound up cutting for the book. I'm writing a book on prisons right now, and it's the same big challenge for me, The challenge is to write something that's complex and that brings in so many diverse subjects, and yet isn't a total fucking mess, and is a pleasure to read. Knowing when to stop is the crucial thing I wrestle with. Those books, the prison book I'm working on and Fast Food Nation, they aren't chronologically structured, and they don't have a familiar kind of narrative. Fast Food Nation isn't about my journey into the dark world of fast food and the prison book is not about my journey into the prison world. I'm not using myself as any kind of narrative link. So it's very complicated to structure and to pull everything together without it just flying apart. I don't want to whine too much, because this is what I've chosen to do, and I really like my work. But that's the hardest part of what I do.
AVC: What avenues did you start to explore that you avoided because the book would seem lopsided?
ES: Well, not lopsided. I just had to be ruthless in cutting it, and ruthless in making sure that it all held together. There were all kinds of things I thought about writing, and there were all kinds of things I researched and didn't write about, but the one thing I wrote and then cut from the book was a fairly big section on genetically modified foods, and how they came to be approved in the United States. It's a really scary story. There's a government official who was put in charge of figuring out how to introduce genetically modified foods, and whether they need a separate regulatory classification, or they can just be dumped on the marketplace, which is what ultimately happened. The man in charge of the safety of our environment and our bodies with this totally new kind of food was Dan Quayle. He was head of the committee to figure out how to introduce this genetically modified food. And I made the point in the section that I cut from the book that here's a guy who couldn't even spell "potato," in charge of introducing a genetically modified potato. This is true. And this whole genetically modified food section all centered on genetically modified potatoes that were turning into McDonald's French fries. And then McDonald's announced that they would stop using genetically modified potatoes for their French fries, and that kind of got rid of any pretext that I could use to write about genetically engineered food. Once McDonald's chose to make that decision—which was a great decision that they deserve credit for—I had to cut the whole section from the book, because there was no justification for it anymore.
AVC: Have you been able to measure the impact of the book's success?
ES: I really have no idea what the impact of the book has been. I'd like to think it's had some great social, cosmic influence, but I would never claim that. I wouldn't claim it for a minute. I can say this. When I started research on the subject in 1997 for Rolling Stone, there were issues I thought were really important that weren't really dealt with in mainstream media, like marketing to children, the obesity epidemic, the rise of corporate power and homogenization, and all these things. And now, almost 10 years later, some of these things are being discussed in the mainstream media. You have Republican governors like Mike Huckabee in Arkansas and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California kicking the junk food out of the schools and restricting the kind of marketing I wrote about in Fast Food Nation, so there's been a huge thing. McDonald's has some healthy things on the menu, and they reveal how much trans fat is in their food.
Did my book have anything to do with that? I have no idea. All I can say is, there have been changes, and how well-educated and upper-middle-class people are eating is really different. They're not going to McDonald's. They're going to Whole Foods and buying organic. And fast food is increasingly the food of the poor. What I do know is true is this: People will come over to me and tell me that the book had an impact on them, made them think. And that's just great. As a writer, that's just amazing. So the fact that I'm even talking to you about this book, almost six years after it was published, is incredible to me. I had no idea what would happen with it, so it's good in that some people will tell me they liked it and it had an impact on them. That's all I can really measure. Beyond that, who knows?
AVC: The book concludes with the prediction that the 21st century will be marked by the struggle to curtail corporate excess. What's it going to take for that to happen? It doesn't seem that our government officers, on either side of the aisle, are all that motivated to stand up for the consumer or low-level employees.
ES: It's going to take people waking up and realizing how much power a handful of companies have over their lives and our government. Take the whole Hewlett-Packard scandal, for instance. Hewlett-Packard was investigating journalists, spying on journalists. I mean, these companies now behave as though they have their own intelligence agencies. Their own propaganda ministries. It's incredible, and the government is more corrupted by corporate money than it's been since a hundred years ago, in the age of Upton Sinclair. This year's the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Jungle. But there was another really important piece of muckraking called "The Treason Of The Senate" that was published in 1906. It was about how money totally corrupted the U.S. Senate. It's a really strong case of déjà vu. Not that the Democrats are pure in any way, but the right-wing Republican Party is really another wing of these large corporate powers. And lobbyists are writing the bills that Republicans are introducing. It's incredible.
AVC: Have you learned anything from the Best Food Nation website? Has it set you straight? [Bestfoodnation.com is a PR project that touts the American food industry and beats back critics like Schlosser. —ed.]
ES: [Laughs.] It's what I mentioned earlier: ministries of propaganda. I did a talk yesterday at NYU on corporate social responsibility, and it was actually longer than a two-second talk. It led me to look at the tobacco industry and, oddly enough, the lead industry. The dangers of lead paint for children were pretty much established in 1904 or 1906. Lead paint was banned in most of Europe for interior use by the 1920s. But in this country, companies were heavily promoting the use of lead paint for playrooms, schools, and children's bedrooms up until the 1940s or '50s. It's incredible. Looking at the tobacco industry and looking at the lead-paint industry, you see this precursor of Best Food Nation and other sites like that. Which is disinformation and propaganda deliberately being spread to mislead people. I mean, the lead industry just denied it had any impact on children. They claimed this paint was perfectly safe, in the same way the tobacco industry knew its product was addictive and deadly and denied it for a generation. The fast-food industry is in very good company with the lead industry and the tobacco industry in how it tries to mislead the public, and how aggressively it goes after anybody who criticizes its business practices.
AVC: For a giant, multi-billion-dollar industry, that site is a pretty pitiful response. What kind of impact could they expect something like that to have?
ES: I have no idea. To be honest with you, I saw it when it came out in May while I was on this book tour [for Chew On This], and I haven't even been back there. But that site lists the companies and organization that put up the money for it, and in a way, I can respect that. It's still full of disinformation, but at least the funders are listed. When I was on this book tour during this spring, however, the Wall Street Journal published an article saying that they had a memo from McDonald's that McDonald's had a plan to discredit me personally, and thus discredit my work. On this tour, there were people planted in the audience who were passing out pamphlets and protesting against me. When I was visiting schools, there were letter-writing campaigns and phone calls saying that I was an improper person to speak to children, and that I was un-American, and all this crazy stuff. The groups who were attacking me were groups like The Young Americans For Freedom or The Center For Individual Freedom or The Heartland Institute. And all these groups seemed to be fronts orchestrated by this Washington PR firm called DCI that McDonald's uses.
And that sort of thing is even more offensive to me than Best Food Nation. It really looked like McDonald's was funding third parties to attack me, and therefore keep the attacks at arm's length from themselves. And that's really anti-democratic. If the head of McDonald's wants to come out and say I'm a loser and my work sucks, at least he's on the record as saying it. But funding legitimate-sounding groups to attack other people, that's really awful. And it's increasingly routine, too. There's one group whose website you should check out called the Center For Consumer Freedom. And they write op-eds all the time, and they're on TV all the time, and you'd think they were a consumer group because of their name. But they're funded by the fast-food industry, by the alcohol industry, by the tobacco industry. And they're opposing New York City's proposed ban on trans fats as being part of a nanny state and food police. And they are creating controversy where there really should be none, and it's just perfectly in keeping with what the tobacco industry and the lead industry did for years.
AVC: Are you concerned that with the release of Chew On This and the film that there'll be fresh threats of lawsuits or unwanted personal attention? When Oprah dared to speak out about cattle, she was hit in a heavy-handed way, and she's a pretty powerful woman. Are you worried about more blowback at this point?
ES: I'd be a fool not to think about those things. I'd like to think that in the United States, you can criticize a company that makes hamburgers without having to worry about what might happen to you. But realistically, the McLibel duo [Helen Steel and David Morris] who criticized McDonald's not only were sued, but were investigated for months by private eyes hired by McDonald's. They spied on them while they were preparing their defense for the case. One of these McDonald's corporate spies slept with a Greenpeace activist for six months while obtaining information on them.
That sort of stuff hasn't happened to me. How paranoid am I? I'm not totally paranoid, but in this Hewlett-Packard case, they were obtaining phone records, and they were trying to plant a spy at The Wall Street Journal. I hate to have to think about it. Have they tried to get my credit reports? Have they tried to get my phone records? In the Hewlett-Packard case, they were going through their garbage. I don't know if any of that's been done. I hope that none of that's been done. Would I be surprised tomorrow if I found out they were spying on me? No. I mean, this is the reality, this kind of corporate, as you said, blowback. Very often what they do now is they put up a third party to file the lawsuits, so that a lawsuit wouldn't come from a company itself. It would come from some rancher in South Dakota who thinks I've maligned beef, or something like that. Knock on wood, that hasn't happened yet, but who knows?
AVC: At least in the case of this film, you have a studio behind you, and you have producers and collaborators.
ES: Yeah, but ultimately you are alone. And I'm not saying Fox [which is distributing the film under its Searchlight label], but I'm saying in general how it works with these libel lawsuits, it may be in the interest of your publisher or your studio to settle, and in settling, make a payoff and admit something, where it may be that nothing has been done that's wrong, and there's no reason to settle whatsoever. There are all those other parties, but ultimately, if you care about what you're doing, it's going to fall on you. Oprah's one of the richest women in the United States, and she talks about that lawsuit as one of the worst experiences of her life. Fighting it cost her a couple million. I'm not eager for any of that, but I will say this: If they sue me, I will use that lawsuit as a way of discovery, and I really will enjoy my opportunity to finally talk to some of these executives, and get them deposed under oath. So it goes both ways. But I really would prefer not to get sued, and I really would prefer no one to have my credit report, phone records, or any of that. That's just the occupational hazard of being an investigative journalist these days, and certainly it's nothing like what the journalists in Iraq have to contend with on a daily basis.
AVC: Where are you on the prison book?
ES: I've been working on it for years, going into prisons for years. After the film comes out on November 17, I'll feel like I will have done everything I could on this subject and I will quietly, respectfully withdraw from it and do everything I can to finish my prison book in the next four or five months and then really get involved on those issues.
AVC: Can you say what theses you'll be exploring?
ES: Yeah, it's just a big overview in the same way that Fast Food Nation is, describing how we got to have the biggest prison population in the history of the world in a very brief time. When I was a kid, there were 200,000 people behind bars, and now there's 2.2 million. It's unbelievable. So the book explores how it happened, how it works, and what it's doing to us. I think it's a really important subject. It's incredibly dark. The difficulty I've had is the complexity in structuring it. Also, it's like writing a book on AIDS in Africa among children, in that it's just a heavy, dark subject, and it's hard to do it in a way that's compelling. So that's what I'm doing, and I can't promise it'll be a good book, but I sleep soundly in terms of the importance of the subject matter.