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"I have been encouraged recently by a willingness on the part of the media to challenge the fast food chains."

Interview with Charles Wilson, co-author of Chew On This: Second Part of a Two-Part Interview

(This is the second part of an interview with Charles Wilson, co-author of Chew On This. The book is essentially an adaption of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser for younger readers but with new material. The first part was published last week.)

I asked Mr. Wilson if he wanted to add any context to this excerpt I wanted to share about the stark reality of life for the animals that become our fast food meals:

“These cattle don’t wander the prairie, eating fresh grass. During the three months before slaughter, they eat special grain dumped into long concrete troughs that look like highway dividers. The grain is designed to fatten the cattle quickly, aided by growth hormones that have been implanted beneath their skin.”

Wilson added, "Cows weren’t intended to be industrial commodities on this scale. E. coli O157:H7 is almost non-existent in cows that eat grass off the prairie. This strain is thought to have evolved in the acidic rumen of cattle that are fed grain and corn in commercial feedlots. The recent outbreak of E. coli poisoning in spinach is thought to come from cow manure from an industrial farm adjacent to the spinach fields that cross-contaminated the produce. It’s another lesson that when you manipulate nature, there are generally unintended consequences.”

What follows is the second half of the interview.

Scott Butki: With some exceptions like the McLibel suit in England, why do you think the news media doesn’t do many stories about some of the outrageous things done by fast food companies like McDonald's lying for years about whether its French fries were vegetarian? The company said it was soaked in pure vegetable oil when it actually contained some beef for “flavor enhancement,” to use the company’s language. 

Charles Wilson: I have been encouraged recently by a willingness on the part of the media to challenge the fast food chains — particularly on the issues of marketing to children and the quality of their ingredients, such as man-made trans-fats. I think the benefit of Eric’s Fast Food Nation or books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is that they’ve helped foster a public awareness that the food we eat now is profoundly different than the food we ate a few generations ago.  

For years, the fast food companies never had to answer questions about their supply chains, for instance. With the recent cases of E. coli poisoning, there have been more stories about how the centralization of the fast-food supply chain allows outbreaks that can spread across several states — instead of within just a single town or a family picnic. The closer the media’s scrutiny, the greater potential that these companies can be persuaded to change practices that are not beneficial to public health. 

SB: You do a good job of articulating the history of school lunches and how it has changed over time from something positive – providing food for hungry students so they can concentrate – to something problematic, namely a place where some get soda and fast food. Aren’t there currently some states, including my own, Maryland, passing legislation that would effectively eliminate the sale of fast food in school cafeterias? Do you think such a trend will gain traction?   

CW: I am hopeful this will gain traction. I feel like schools should take a page from the Olympics; they should be completely free of commercial advertisements. For years, school districts turned a blind eye to the issue, partly out of necessity; many schools were desperate for money and found easy solutions by turning to soda companies and fast-food companies, who were all too eager to come inside.  We need to invest in farm-to-school programs and reform the federal school lunch program so that kids actually want to eat the meals, and we need to kick these fast food companies out. Because the fast food in school cafeterias is generally sold a la carte, it does not need to meet any nutrition requirements, and it most often doesn’t. 

SB: There seems to be two fundamental questions at the core of the movie Super Size Me , the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and this one, namely, “Do fast food consumers want to know where the food and drinks they get comes from?” and “Should they know the origin of the food?” Am I correct in guessing that you and Eric would say yes to the second question but what’s your take on the first question?  

CW: On our trips to schools, one of the things the kids are the most fascinated about is that little cochineal bugs are ground up and often used to color their strawberry milkshakes. It’s not necessarily bad for you, we tell them, but it’s a clear sign that the food we’re eating now is profoundly different than the food that their parents or their parents’ parents ate. Young people are usually intrigued by it.  

A lot of the kids don’t want to know where their food comes from at first, but they usually seem grateful to have some more information after they’ve read the book. Little more than two generations ago, a book like ours wouldn’t have been necessary because young people were generally already acquainted with where their food came from.  Only 2% of Americans farm or fish for a living now, and by the time a processed fast-food comes to our mouth, it has been through so many stages of production that it is more of a highly-manufactured good than a foodstuff.  

SB: Do you think to many fast food consumers ignorance is bliss about the source of their food? 

CW: Yes. The subtitle of our book is “Everything You Don’t Want To Know About Fast Food.” In the $3 billion plus you see in fast food advertisements every year, there may not be a single advertisement that shows in a direct, candid way how the fast food is made, and I don’t see anyone clamoring for one.  

SB: You have some truly alarming statistics in this book, such as that the consumption of soda by the average American teenage boy has doubled in the past 30 years and that 20 percent of American children between ages 1 and 2 drink soda every day. What was the most shocking statistic that you encountered? 

CW: For me, it was when we did the math and realized that if you lined up all the hamburgers Americans ate every year, it would circle the earth 32 times. Recently, I was driving down a 100-mile stretch of Interstate 81 and imagined lining up burgers along the whole way — and realizing that such a line would only represent a small fraction of the total amount. 

SB: Are you suggesting that the rise in obesity is connected to the rise in fast food consumption? I’m sure fast food companies would try to refute that argument. 

CW: Eric and I both believe very much in personal responsibility and that people must hold themselves responsible for what they eat — and what they choose not to eat. We also believe in corporate responsibility, and that these companies are responsible for how they market their food, who they market it to, and the quality of the food they sell. We feel they shouldn’t aggressively market hamburgers and milkshakes to children who are forming taste preferences that will stay with them for life — and that these companies should not aggressively market to low-income communities unless the products are healthful, particularly in the wake of the growing prevalence of Type II diabetes in many of these communities. 

Thanks again to Charles for the interview.    

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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