Chico State’s ‘book in common’ has faculty, students debating its validity
If the selection of Fast Food Nation as Chico State University’s “book in common” was intended to spark debate, it’s fulfilled its purpose.
Written in a journalistic style, the 2001 book, subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” is by Eric Schlosser, who extensively researched the path fast food takes to Americans’ ample bellies, from corporate potato farms in Idaho to artificial flavoring laboratories in New Jersey. Marketing, labor issues and the threat of E. coli from beef are all covered, as Schlosser makes a case for tighter regulations and smarter consumers.
At a Sept. 26 campus forum sponsored by the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics (C.A.P.E.), a panel discussion proved that, particularly on a topic that calls into question the ethics of an entire industry, there is plenty of room for debate. Some are even calling for Fast Food Nation to be removed from the required-reading list for Introduction to University Life students and for a revision to the process that allowed it to be chosen as a book in common at all.
Agriculture Professor Dave Daley, who spoke at the forum, said Schlosser uses “poor science” to take the worst-case scenario and make it sound typical, relying on disgruntled employees, selective statistics and questionable references to meet an agenda. When Daley learned Fast Food Nation had been selected as the book in common, he said, “I was embarrassed to talk to national and international colleagues who deal with food safety.”
Fast Food Nation displays a lack of understanding about how food is produced in response to consumer demand, he said, “and you’re expected to learn from it.”
His co-panelist, Sam Beattie, a nutrition and food science professor, shared a similar view: “To a certain extent, Fast Food Nation misleads you into believing that our food supply is killing us.”
Schlosser is surprised that his extensively researched book—there are 63 pages of footnotes—has been called into question. “I was extremely careful to make everything in the book accurate,” out of journalistic ethics and legal concerns, he said in a telephone interview from New York. “I stand behind the book.”
He said people—particularly in the meat packing industry—have taken issue with the philosophies about corporate agriculture that were raised in Fast Food Nation, but no one has challenged the statistics or points of fact.
“I would love for any one of the professors to feel free to contact me with any of the mistakes that they found and I’d be happy to correct them,” he said. So far, he’s found only one statistical error, having to do with slaughterhouse spill rates, that will be corrected in future editions.
But Schlosser, told of the concerns the speakers related, doesn’t believe those are errors of fact.
“Most of the criticism has been extremely personal,” Schlosser said. “Some of my very closest friends are very, very right-wing conservatives. I have no problem with somebody fundamentally disagreeing, but impugning my motive … is just irritating.
“The point of the book is to make people think about these issues,” he said.
As he researched the topics, he met people ranging from the mother of a child who died from E. coli to a Colorado rancher who committed suicide as the economic threat of corporate cattle operations circled his family. He talked to teenage burger-flippers and cash-strapped franchisees, as well as workers who sustained injuries in slaughterhouses. “The people in my book have stayed with me,” he said. “They’re not characters at all.” This wasn’t just a professional project for Schlosser; it was life experience.
“I had eaten fast food all my life, and I had never thought about it for a minute,” said Schlosser, whose career as an investigate reporter for publications such as the Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone included investigative pieces on migrant farm workers and other vulnerable workforces. “It was the labor issues that made me feel like I really needed to do this as a book.”
While the book ranges in scope from worker safety to corporate control of the nation’s food supply, at the Chico State forum—the second of two talks on Fast Food Nation—Professors Beattie and Daley dissected Chapter 9, “What’s in the Meat?” which takes on the transmission of deadly E. coli and what Schlosser sees as the too-weak role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Daley cited Center for Disease control statistics stating that less than 25 percent of confirmed E. coli outbreaks are due to beef contamination; it’s more likely a bad salad, apple juice or alfalfa sprouts. Also, he said, cattle whose meat is used for ground beef are not crammed into feed lots where they can’t lie down or exercise. “That’s just something [Schlosser] wanted to say to make a point and make him feel good.”
Daley took issue with the cattle and meat-packing industries being painted as loosely regulated and prone to cutting costs at the expense of safety. The truth, he said, is not “evil animals crowded into a feed lot by evil people.”
Daley said that it’s not necessarily that Schlosser’s statements are incorrect, “it’s the exaggeration associated with it.”
The industry would have no moral or profit motive to have poor health or labor practices, Daley said. “The worst thing they can do is send out contaminated product.”
Beattie, who has visited many processing plants and slaughterhouses, said consumers have to make decisions based on risk, and when it comes to food-borne illness, the risk is just not that great—especially if food is stored and prepared properly. Beattie said Schlosser overstated the incidence of food-borne illnesses. He asked that students reading the book evaluate whether its statements are “accurate and factual” and consider whether the author has an agenda or is objective.
Daley called up one of Schlosser’s sources, Dave Theno, a food scientist who consulted with the fast-food industry and is quoted in Chapter 9. Theno told Daley he was so bothered by Schlosser’s take that he offered to come to Chico just to refute his book.
“I used him as a role model for the industry,” said Schlosser, sounding somewhat perplexed. “Ask if Theno would appear with me. I’d do that in a minute.”
As for Beattie’s points that people are more likely to get E. coli from seafood or alfalfa sprouts, Schlosser said, “That’s a different book.” He was writing about the meat-packing industry, so that’s where the focus was when it came to health issues.
And while Daley cracked up his Chico State audience by saying that Schlosser was wrong when he said dairy cattle could live 40 years rather than 15, Schlosser said that’s only because they are killed so young. (The natural life expectancy of a cow is 20 to 25 years.)
Schlosser was especially surprised that Beattie would take him to task for writing that the USDA does not have recall authority. “If they’re a professor of agriculture, they should know that the USDA lacks recall authority,” he said. Every recall has been voluntary, not mandatory, and it will likely stay that way as long as Republicans control Congress, Schlosser said. “The only thing that the USDA can do is remove their inspectors from a plant.”
Beattie clarified later that he knows the USDA technically doesn’t have recall authority, but it doesn’t matter because companies have complied with every recall request in history—275 between 1997 and 2000 alone. “I think the recall process now works,” he said. “Those companies are working hard to get the product out safe. Most of these people care a lot about their clients. … They don’t want to hurt people.”
He added that the consumer bears some responsibility for making sure food is safe. And he pointed out that most food poisoning occurs at home. “Don’t ever feed your child a burger that you think is undercooked.”
A few weeks after the forum, Beattie had cooled, agreeing that the book raises interesting and important questions. “It has really fostered a lot of discussion and debate,” he said. “People need to pay attention to what they eat. … There are products out there that are inherently unsafe. We need to educate our consumer.”
Still, Beattie wishes professors would have been given an opportunity to weigh in on how the book would be presented to students.
Daley suggested that rather than read Fast Food Nation as a book in common, students could take a course in ag literacy and learn more about where their food comes from.
Professor Byron Jackson was the vice provost for academic affairs and chair of the Book in Common Committee when Fast Food Nation was chosen.
“The major issue is, can you get the students to read the book and can you get a strong buy-in from faculty,” he said. Previous choices have included books on the environment and multicultural issues. “We decided that this year we would look for a book that would deal more with popular culture.”
Fast Food Nation, Jackson said, carries a profound message in “the matter of asking questions about the health and safety in our food. … It’s not an indictment of the industry at all.”
Andrew Flescher, the professor who directs C.A.P.E. and moderated the forum, said students don’t have to believe every word of Fast Food Nation.
“It’s a text that brings out debate and discussion,” he said. “That’s what free speech is all about. One of the most important things we do is critically read.”
Schlosser recently returned from a trip to Europe, where he met with members of the Slow Food movement. Schlosser’s next project, due out in April, is a controversial book exploring the underground economies in three sectors: marijuana, illegal immigration and pornography’s ties to organized crime.
“I care a lot about the issues in the book,” said Schlosser, who is not a vegetarian but would advise against letting little kids eat Happy Meals.
“I don’t want people to be afraid of food. I eat all kinds of strange stuff. The odds are I won’t be terribly sickened, but somebody will be,” he said. “People may take away a fear from a chapter, [but] you’re more likely to die in your car than from your hamburger.” That, he said, doesn’t mean don’t drive, but rather know what type of car you’re in and the risks involved.