Since his groundbreaking book, Fast Food Nation, was published a year and a half ago, author Eric Schlosser has found himself the target of the wrath of fast food empires and the oft-cited expert on the darker side of the all-American meal.
In his book, Schlosser traced the roots and phenomenal growth of the fast food industry, including its tentacles into the country's public school system. Since then, mainstream and alternative newspapers and networks have seized on his findings, following up with their own reporting.
In a recent interview, Schlosser weighed in on the most recent E.coli outbreak stemming from the Greeley meatpacking plant owned by ConAgra, whose policies and practices came under intense scrutiny in Fast Food Nation. Last month, ConAgra announced the recall of 19 million pounds of tainted ground beef, the second largest in the nation's history.
As Schlosser pointed out, only 400,000 pounds were actually returned. The rest had already likely been consumed.
Indy: You have said that the USDA knew that ConAgra shipped tainted meat for two weeks before it was publicly announced.
ES: They didn't even tell ConAgra. Meanwhile Safeway was having a two-for-one sale on this contaminated ground beef. Safeway had no idea. The USDA did. They just sat on it. They just don't want to upset the apple cart.
Indy: So how does the system work?
ES: Not only are the recalls voluntary, but the company does not have to disclose where it's shipped the meat. This is considered proprietary information.
ConAgra does not want people to get sick; I don't believe that for a second. But they also don't want too many illnesses to be linked to their meat because they have to pay for every person who gets sick. This system is designed to avoid liability.
Indy: What has happened with testing in meatpacking plants since the Jack-in-the Box E.coli outbreak in the 1993?
ES: There are essentially two food safety systems in the United States right now -- one for big corporate purchasers of meat and one for individual consumers. Since the Jack in the Box E.coli outbreak, the big fast food chains have been insisting that the meat they buy be rigorously tested for salmonella, for the dangerous form of E.coli and for other pathogens. The meatpacking companies are glad to do it because these are their biggest customers.
But when the USDA asks for even a little bit of pathogen testing, like testing for salmonella, the meatpacking industry fights tooth and nail. So the cleanest meat is being sold to the biggest customers: McDonald's, Burger King, Jack-in-the Box. And the dirtiest meat is being shipped off and mixed up and sold in supermarkets.
So we've essentially privatized food safety in this country.
Indy: So what testing is required?
ES: The USDA is not testing for E.coli in the slaughterhouses or even in the feedlots, which would make sense because ideally you get the animal before it enters the slaughterhouse. The USDA is only testing at retail stores and at some wholesale distribution spots. Once they find E.coli its too late, it's already been shipped, it's already out into distribution and being eaten.
What's interesting is that a few years ago the USDA finally said they were going to test the ground beef that it buys for the national school lunch program. Even though this is essentially a government subsidy program in which the meatpacking industry was able to sell some of its cheapest meat to the U.S. government quite profitably, [the industry] objected to testing the meat that was going to be served to school children who are at the highest risk of being sickened by this.
Indy: Do you think it's ironic that fast food meat is cleaner than the stuff we feed our children?
ES: It's incredible because as I write in the book, the fast food industry is largely responsible for transforming the meatpacking industry and creating these gigantic grinders and this huge industrialized system and now they get the cleanest meat.
Indy: How did this system evolve?
ES: The right wing of the Republican Party is very well-funded and is very close to the meatpacking industry. They have a longstanding close connection going back to the Reagan administration.
The Clinton administration did a lot of things I didn't like, but what they did do is they genuinely tried to reform our food safety system and basically hold these companies accountable.
The food safety system we have right now is a compromise because when Clinton was introducing a new food safety system the Republicans had control of the Congress and very much watered down any kind of tough standards for this industry. Between the meatpacking industry and the National Cattleman's Beef Association, which is increasingly dominated by the big meatpackers, they are against any government regulation of what they are selling.
Indy: You have also cited the USDA's extremely close ties to the meatpacking industry.
ES: If you look at the people who staff the USDA, they often go back and forth between industry and government. The chief of staff for the Secretary of Agriculture right now was the chief lobbyist for the National Cattleman's Beef Association. One of the top USDA people was a former ConAgra executive.
At the local level, the individual inspectors on the line really feel passionately about food safety. It's at the upper levels of the bureaucracy that they get this resistance.
It's unbelievable that we can recall defective tires, defective automobiles, toys that could present a choking hazard, and we can't recall contaminated meat that can kill you.
Indy: We've all been hearing that if we just cook the meat to a certain degree, we can kill the pathogens.
ES: The meatpacking industry very much wants to push the responsibility for food safety onto consumers, so they don't have to pay for it.
It's like the automobile company saying, "Drive carefully and you won't need a seatbelt." The reality is, if you cook your meat well, to 160 degrees with a meat thermometer, it'll kill the E.coli and it'll kill the salmonella.
But there are incredible opportunities for cross contamination before any of that happens. You have to be incredibly careful about the juices of the meat not getting on countertops, not getting on your hands. Especially with this E.coli you can be infected by only like 4 or 5 organisms which are tiny microscopic bacteria; it can live on countertops for days.
It's true that consumers need to be much more careful and conscientious about how they handle raw meat but deadly germs shouldn't be in your meat to begin with. And they shouldn't be there in large numbers.
Indy: Do you see this latest outbreak forcing the Bush administration to make reforms?
ES: I don't see any movement in the Bush administration to make any of these reforms but we'll see what happens in Congress.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin and a number of others are trying to bring forward legislation to make recalls mandatory, give government the power to recall meat and to establish performance standards.
If this gets an airing before the public and there's actually a debate about it then the Republican position will crumble because this is a nonpartisan issue. Republican or Democrat, you eat.
Since the book has come out, I've talked to a lot of different people. There's nobody outside of the meatpacking industry who thinks it's a good idea for recalls to be voluntary.
Even conservative Republican soccer moms are kind of amazed at the power that the meatpacking industry has.