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Still a Fast-Food Nation: Eric Schlosser Reflects on 10 Years Later

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Still a Fast-Food Nation: Eric Schlosser Reflects on 10 Years Later

Ten years after his seminal book ‘Fast Food Nation,’ Eric Schlosser reflects on how little has changed in the production, safety, and consumption in America—but why he’s still hopeful.

by Eric Schlosser  | March 12, 2012 5:45 AM EDT

More than a decade has passed since Fast Food Nation was published, and I’d love to report that the book is out of date, that the many problems it describes have been solved, and that the Golden Arches are now the symbol of a fallen empire, like the pyramids at Giza. Sadly, that is not the case. Every day about 65 million people eat at a McDonald’s restaurant somewhere in the world, more than ever before. The annual revenues of America’s fast-food industry, adjusted for inflation, have risen by about 20 percent since 2001. The number of fast-food ads aimed at American children has greatly increased as well. The typical preschooler now sees about three fast-food ads on television every day. The typical teenager sees about five. The endless barrage of ads, toys, contests, and marketing gimmicks has fueled not only fast-food sales, but also a wide range of diet-related illnesses. About two thirds of the adults in the United States are obese or overweight. The obesity rate among preschoolers has doubled in the past 30 years. The rate among children aged 6 to 11 has tripled. And by some odd coincidence, the annual cost of the nation’s obesity epidemic—about $168 billion, as calculated by researchers at Emory University—is the same as the amount of money Americans spent on fast food in 2011.

Throughout both terms of President George W. Bush’s administration, every effort to reform the nation’s food-safety system was blocked by the White House and by Republicans in Congress. During the summer of 2002, ground beef from the ConAgra slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colo., was linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. The outbreak killed one person and sickened at least 46.

ConAgra voluntarily recalled almost 19 million pounds of potentially contaminated meat, less than a month’s worth of production at Greeley. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General subsequently found that the plant had been shipping beef tainted with E. coli O157:H7 for nearly two years. The Greeley recall later seemed minuscule compared to that of the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. In 2008 Westland/Hallmark agreed to recall 143 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef after an undercover video showed downer cows being dragged by forklift into a slaughterhouse. More than one fourth of the recalled meat had been purchased to make tacos, chili, and hamburgers for federal school-lunch and nutrition programs. As of this writing, the USDA still lacks the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens, to set enforceable limits on those pathogens, and to demand the recall of contaminated meat.

The industry-friendly policies of the Bush administration also reduced government oversight of worker safety. In 2002 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration changed the form that meatpacking companies must use to report injuries. The new form had no space to report musculoskeletal disorders caused by repetitive trauma—thereby preventing a whole category of serious injury from being counted. Instantly, as if by magic, the injury rate in meatpacking dropped by almost 50 percent. “Recordable safety incident rate in plants cut in half since 1996,” the American Meat Institute proudly announced in a press release, without ever mentioning that the decline was due to the change in record keeping. In a scathing report on the exploitation of American meatpacking workers, Human Rights Watch suggested that the AMI had deliberately chosen the year 1996, as a basis of comparison, to mislead the public. “A 50 percent drop in meat and poultry industry injury rates in a single year would be implausible,” the report noted, “but reaching back six years creates an impressive but fictitious improvement in plant safety.”

A few years later the AMI claimed that “recordable injuries” had actually fallen by 70 percent, thanks to the meatpacking industry’s concern for worker safety. The claim was made in an AMI pamphlet commemorating the 100th anniversary of The Jungle’s publication.

The title of the pamphlet—“If Upton Sinclair Were Alive Today ... He’d Be Amazed by the U.S. Meat Industry”—was perhaps its most accurate assertion. Sinclair would no doubt be amazed. He would be amazed by how little has fundamentally changed over the past century, by how poor immigrant workers are still routinely being injured, and by how the industry’s lies, no matter how brazen, are still said with a straight face.

Despite all the needless harm that continues to be done, much has changed for the better since 2001, when Fast Food Nation appeared in bookstores. Issues that were rarely discussed in the mainstream media—food safety, animal welfare, the obesity epidemic, the ethics of marketing junk food to children, the need for a new and sustainable agricultural system—have become inescapable. A food movement has arisen across the country, promoted by authors, activists, and filmmakers. Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2002), Frances and Anna Lappé’s Hope’s Edge (2003), Matthew Scully’s Dominion (2003), Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food (2004), Deborah Koons Garcia’s The Future of Food (2004), Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004), Franny Armstrong’s McLibel (2005), Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Aaron Woolf’s King Corn (2008), Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved (2008), Robby Kenner’s Food, Inc. (2008), Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland (2011), the reporting of Tom Philpott, the essays of Corby Kummer and Mark Bittman, the many books of Wendell Berry and Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver’s televised Food Revolution—all of these works have combined to create a new food culture in the United States. That culture rejects highly processed foods, genetically modified foods, and the whole industrial approach to food production. It champions farmers’ markets, school gardens, healthy school lunches, and local and organic production. And it has caused a sea change in American attitudes toward food. A decade ago, the idea of an organic garden at the White House would have seemed inconceivable.

Throughout the United States, parents are working to kick fast food, junk food, and soda out of their children’s schools. The sale of fruit and vegetable seeds for home gardens is soaring. Idealistic college kids often dream of becoming chefs or farmers, instead of doctors and lawyers. The Food Network has turned cooking into a form of mass entertainment and transformed people who cook well into celebrities. The frozen, reheated, salty, fatty foods served at McDonald’s and Burger King and KFC are the antithesis of what this new movement wants. Even the National Restaurant Association, a corporate bastion of the old mindset, now acknowledges the change. Its 2011 “Restaurant Industry Forecast” says that today’s top menu trends are “local sourcing, sustainability, and nutrition.”

At the moment, the main problem with the food movement is how few Americans can enjoy its benefits. Although the amount of money spent on organic food has increased more than 20-fold since the early 1990s, it currently accounts for only 4 percent of the nation’s total spending on food. The annual revenue of McDonald’s Corp. are roughly equal to those of America’s entire organic-food industry. Organic food is more expensive. Families in which both parents work outside the home often don’t have the time to prepare meals from scratch. And more than 23 million low-income Americans now live in “food deserts” that lack supermarkets. As upper-middle-class and well-educated people increasingly reject fast food, the industry has responded much like the tobacco industry once did when that demographic group decided to quit smoking. The fast-food chains, like the tobacco companies, are now aggressively targeting African-Americans, Latinos, and the poor. America’s low-income communities now boast the highest proportion of fast-food restaurants—as well as the highest obesity rates and the highest rates of diabetes. Two vastly different food cultures now coexist in the United States. While some Americans eat free-range chicken and organic produce, exercise regularly, and improve their health, most are consuming inexpensive processed foods, drinking large amounts of soda, and reducing their life expectancy. The contrast between the thin, fit, and well-to-do and the illness-ridden, poor, and obese has no historical precedent. The wealthy used to be corpulent, while the poor starved.

Although the food movement originated among the well-educated upper middle class, it is now reaching out to those less fortunate. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization that campaigns on behalf of migrant farm workers in Florida, has persuaded the leading fast-food chains—after years of protests—to help raise the wages and improve the working conditions in the fields there. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is fighting against wage theft, racism, and the abuse of workers in the restaurant industry. The Edible Schoolyard Project and Slow Food USA are trying to bring healthy food to children in low-income communities. And Growing Power, a group led by Will Allen and based in Milwaukee, is demonstrating how agriculture can thrive in the inner city, turning urban food deserts into farms that produce healthy food.

There are inherent limits, however, on how much this thriving new movement can achieve. At a time when unemployment is high, 46 million Americans live below the poverty line, and the minimum wage remains almost 20 percent lower, adjusted for inflation, than it was 40 years ago, changes to America’s food system won’t be enough. In the previous chapter of this book, I argued that the 21st century would be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power. I believe that more strongly today than I did a decade ago. The Founding Fathers of the United States believed that absolute power corrupts absolutely. They believed in the need for competing centers of power. They created a system of government with checks and balances so that no branch of government would become despotic. And they were equally convinced that competition was essential in the economic sphere. If they were alive today, like Upton Sinclair they would be amazed by the monopolies and monopsonies that now dominate the American economy, by the corruption of government officials, and by the wide disparities in wealth. The food movement needs to become part of a larger movement with a broader vision—a movement that opposes unchecked corporate power, that demands not only healthy food but also a living wage and a safe workplace for every single American.

Fast Food Nation was my first book, and I had no idea whether anyone would care to read it. The views expressed in the book seemed completely out of step with the views of most people. I certainly didn’t expect that it would still be in print more than a decade later. Since the book was published, I’ve been strongly criticized by fast-food chains, meatpacking companies, and industry-front groups. The criticism has, for the most part, been quite personal. I’ve been called a communist and a socialist, a “dunce,” a “health fascist,” an “economics ignoramus,” a “banjo-strumming performer at Farm Aid,” a “hectoring nanny of the nanny state,” and much stronger epithets. Elementary school principals have been contacted and warned that I shouldn’t be allowed to visit classrooms or speak with schoolchildren. Extraordinary lies about me have been spread on the Internet. A number of my readings at bookstores and talks on college campuses have been disrupted by industry supporters. At times I’ve been accompanied at public appearances by police officers. And all of that has occurred because this book describes the business practices of companies that sell hamburgers.

Nevertheless, I’ve found the whole experience immensely rewarding. Over the years, I’ve done my best to help groups campaigning for food safety, child nutrition, worker rights, animal welfare, and sustainable agriculture, among other causes. It has felt good to get out of the office and into the world, to try and do things instead of simply writing about them. I’ve met countless people who are making a difference, whose self-sacrifice makes my work on behalf of change seem insignificant.

Everything that I’ve learned since Fast Food Nation was published has made me more, not less, optimistic about the possibilities for change. I believe, more than ever before, that nothing about our current food system was inevitable. And when things aren’t inevitable, that means things don’t have to be the way they are. I hope that 10 years from now this book really is irrelevant—and that the world it describes, so full of greed and lacking in compassion, is just a bad memory.

Afterword” from Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser. Afterword copyright 2012 by Eric Schlosser. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs

By GREG SMITH, March 14, 2012, NYTimes

TODAY is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process. I was selected as one of 10 people (out of a firm of more than 30,000) to appear on our recruiting video, which is played on every college campus we visit around the world. In 2006 I managed the summer intern program in sales and trading in New York for the 80 college students who made the cut, out of the thousands who applied.

I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.

When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of advising two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia. My clients have a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars. I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Goldman Sachs. Another sign that it was time to leave.

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.

It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.

These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, “How much money did we make off the client?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.

When I was a first-year analyst I didn’t know where the bathroom was, or how to tie my shoelaces. I was taught to be concerned with learning the ropes, finding out what a derivative was, understanding finance, getting to know our clients and what motivated them, learning how they defined success and what we could do to help them get there.

My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from South Africa to Stanford University, being selected as a Rhodes Scholar national finalist, winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Goldman Sachs today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.

Greg Smith is resigning today as a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Index of Templates From They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff
Introducing “Standard Views”

Americans today tend to believe that ____________.

Common sense seems to dictate that _____________.

It is often said that ____________.

You would think that _____________.

Many people assumed that ______________.

Making What “They Say” Something you say

I’ve always believed that ____________.

When I was a child, I used to think that _____________.

Although I should know better by now, I cannot help thinking that ___________.

At the same that I believe __________, I also believe ___________.

Capturing Authorial Action

X acknowledges that _________.

X agrees that __________.

X argues that ___________.

X believes that ___________.

X claims that ___________.

X complains that ___________.

X concedes that __________.

X demonstrates that __________.

X emphasizes that ___________.

X insists that __________.

X observes that __________.

X questions whether ___________.

X refutes the claim that __________.

X reminds us that ___________.

X reports that __________.

X suggests that __________.

X urges us to __________.
Introducing Quotations

X states, “__________.”

According to X, “___________.”

X himself writes, “___________.”

In her book,_________, X maintains that “___________”

In X’s view, “_____________.”

X agrees when she writes, “____________.”

X disagrees when he writes, “____________.”

X complicates the matters further when he writes, “_____________.”


Explaining Quotations

Basically, X is saying ___________.

In other words, X believes ___________.

In making this comment, X argues that __________.

X is insisting that ____________.

X’s point is that __________.

Agreeing—With a Difference

I agree that ________ because my experience _______ confirms it.

X’s theory of _________ is extremely useful because it sheds insight on the difficult problem of ____________.

I agree that _________, a point that needs emphasizing since so many people believe

Indicating Who Cares

At first glance, teenagers appear to _______. But on closer inspection ______.

Establishing Why Your Claims Matter

X is important because _______.

Ultimately, what is at stake here is ________.

My discussion of X is in fact addressing the larger matter of ________.

Although X may seem of concern to only a small group of ______, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about ___________.
Commonly Used Transitions

Cause and Effect


As a result



It follows, then






As a result



In conclusion, then

In short

In sum, then

It follows, then


The upshot of all this is that



To sum up

To summarize


Along the same lines



In the same way




By contrast


Despite the fact that

Even though


In contrast



On the contrary

On the other hand









In addition

In fact



So too



Although it is true that


I concede that

Of course


To be sure


After all

As an illustration


For example

For instance


To take a case in point



By extension

In short

That is

In other words

To put it in another way

To put it bluntly

To put it succinctly


Adding Metacommentary

In other words, _______.

What ____ really means by this is _______.

My point is _________.

Essentially, I am arguing that ________.

My point is not that we should __________, but that we should ________.

What ________ really means is _________.

To put it another way, _________.

In sum, then, _________.

My conclusion, then, is that, ________.

In short, ________.

Although some readers may object that ______, I would answer that ______.

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