Fast Food: The people vs McDonald's
The golden arches are under fire again, this time in a book for kids. Johnny Davis talks to its author, Eric Schlosser, about fatty food and even fatter children
Sunday 30 April 2006
McDonald's is taking the launch of Eric Schlosser's new book seriously. Not only has it taken out pre-emptive ads suggesting its restaurants are fine places to eat, its president has offered to buy Schlosser a Big Mac.
"I think I'll pass on the meal," says the 46-year-old author of Fast Food Nation and the upcoming sequel Chew On This. "But I would love to get together with them - privately or publicly. McDonald's has always refused to meet me."
Indeed, until now, face-to-face didn't appear to be its style. Earlier this month, the US media published leaked information that spoke of McDonald's "council of war" convened to "discredit the message and the messenger", by which they meant Schlosser. The company was, once again, "worried about the backlash".
Who can blame it? Fast Food Nation, Schlosser's 2001 exposé, racked up 1.4 million sales and provided food for thought on everything from slaughterhouse worker conditions to the ingredients that make french fries quite so moreish. That, along with Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, in which the film-maker spent a month eating McDonald's and infamously discovered his liver "turning to pâté", plus a general shift towards healthier food, took the sheen off the golden arches. Indeed, many thought the smile might be wiped off Ronald McDonald's face for good. While this turned out to be premature, you suspect the news that Schlosser's Chew On This is written for the fast food industry's key demographic - children - was hardly greeted with Happy Meals all round. Rather, you would think the industry want to do all it could to stop him.
"That is so not funny," he says. Only last month he turned up to talk at the Los Angeles school where his sister teaches, only to find a rightwing group called Young Americans for Freedom picketing him. The headmaster had been sent information suggesting Schlosser was an "inappropriate person to be addressing school children". Other groups have been similarly targeting him. He sighs. "I've been called socialist, communist and un-American. But they've done nothing to me compared with what they did to Helen Steel and David Morris [the British "McLibel Two" who spent seven years in courts after distributing leaflets criticising McDonald's].
"To my knowledge they have not hired a private investigator to go through my trash. If I found out they had, would I be surprised? No."
Chew On This is a terrific read. A paired-down kids' menu to Fast Food Nation's whopper meal, it has lost none of its bite. Realigning the most salient points of the former book - where fast food comes from, what's in it, what it does to us - for nine- to 13-year-olds, and adding a side order of new findings, Schlosser still shocks. The tabloids have already got in a froth over its revelation that a fast food strawberry shake contains 59 chemicals and no fruit. And there is plenty more where that came from. The fact that McDonald's is the world's largest toy company, luring kids with 1.5 billion freebies every year. Or that, nine weeks after the US invaded, Iraq's first Burger King opened. Or that chickens are speed-reared from egg to McNugget in six weeks.
Schlosser was born in New York and spent his childhood there and in Los Angeles. He began his journalism career at the regarded Atlantic Monthly, where he combined methodical research with stories about the social causes that fascinated him: the plight of illegal immigrants, the drugs trade. His next book is about the US prison service.
With Chew On This, Schlosser's biggest beef is with the way the industry targets children (UK food companies, for example, spend £300m annually advertising to kids). It is a novel conceit: a book targeted at pre-teens that tells them how corporations are targeting pre-teens. "My aim isn't to turn children into vegans, but maybe to make them think," says Schlosser, who road-tested the book on his own two teenagers.
What with the launch of this book, and the Fast Food Nation movie, directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and premiering at Cannes next month, McDonald's and others are gearing up to bite back. After Fast Food Nation's publication, they kept schtum and suffered for it as profits dipped. The introduction of carrot sticks proved too little, too late.
But only a fool would forecast lean times. In the US, the success of a new $1 menu - which McDonald's admits targets poorer, Hispanic customers - has raised profits by a third. In the UK, it has employed top ad agency TBWA and plans to spend £50m revamping restaurants with sofas and internet access. The introduction of the Bigger Big Mac - that is, 40 per cent bigger - for the World Cup, effectively puts up two fingers to Jamie and his school dinners.
"Listen," Schlosser says. "I'm totally optimistic about change. If I weren't, I wouldn't bother with any of this."
'Chew on This' is published 25 May, priced £6.99. Order your copy for £5.99, incl p&p, by calling Independent Books on 08700 798 897
'Birds cannot spread even one wing in their cages'
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is the world's largest animal rights organisation.
What it wants: Peta claims that McDonald's continues, everywhere but the UK, to cram hens into cages too small for a bird to spread even one wing, and slaughters chickens inhumanely.
Its question: McDonald's in the US released a report indicating that the current method of slaughter is inhumane and there is a better form of slaughter that some of your UK suppliers are already using. When will you phase in this new method for all your suppliers?
McDonald's answer: McDonald's has led our industry in animal welfare reform. We have produced tangible results. Whatever methods are used around the world, we insist on high standards of humane treatment. We back it up with third-party audits and monitoring. We are also evaluating new methods all the time.
'Cows are fed on soya from deforested Amazon land'
What it wants: Greenpeace claims McDonald's is "trashing the Amazon for fast food". Some meat on sale at McDonald's is from cows fed on soya grown on deforested land in the Amazon. An area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is destroyed there every 10 seconds and the biggest driver of this destruction is soya farming. Greenpeace's research has also shown that the farms are involved in using slave labour, illegal land-grabbing and the invasion of protected indigenous lands.
Its question: "Will McDonald's stop trashing the Amazon rainforest for fast food?"
McDonald's answer: We are committed to practices that do not impact the valuable Amazon biome. New developments have shown possible linkages to soya production affecting the Amazon, so we are working with suppliers so that our supply of soya will not come from such areas.
'We know that we are not perfect. But we listen'
Helen Steel and Dave Morris were sued for libel by the McDonald's Corporation over a leaflet called "What's Wrong With McDonald's?" After the longest trial in English legal history, the High Court made some damning rulings against McDonald's core business practices, stating it had deceptively promoted its food as nutritious, exploited children with its advertising and was culpably responsible for animal cruelty.
What they want: For the sake of our planet and all its population, all multinational corporations should be closed down. They rely for their profits on the exploitation of people, animals and the environment.
Their question: Why are you wasting your time, and everyone else's, with your quest for profits and power?
McDonald's answer: While McDonald's and the more than 5,600 independent entrepreneurs who own and operate McDonald's restaurants are for-profit businesses, we see our obligations to the communities we serve as part and parcel of our responsibilities as well. We don't have all the answers, we know we're not perfect. Yet we are committed to listening, and learning.
'Franchises in hospitals that treat obesity?'
Morgan Spurlock was the star of the film Supersize Me. He ate nothing but McDonald's food for a month, accepting a "supersize" portion whenever it was offered. By the end of the month he had gained 24.5lb (11kg), had chest pains, high blood pressure and was showing early signs of liver disease.
What he wants: For the company to be honest in its advertising practices, to stop luring kids into its restaurants with the offer of free toys and to improve the nutritional content of its food. "I want to overwhelm you with freedom of information, freedom from deception and the freedom to make an educated decision," he says in Don't Eat This Book.
His question: Why do you keep McDonald's franchises in hospitals in the USA where obese children are having their stomachs stapled?
McDonald's answer: McDonald's has been focused on providing customers - wherever they are - with more choices, more variety and more options for years now. We have so much more than hamburgers and fries, from fruits to salads, low-fat milk to orange juice and from yogurt to chicken to vegetables.
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