Chewing the Fat

Q & A: Eric Schlosser talks books and burgers with 'Ad Age'

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"Fast Food Nation" sold more than 1.4 million copies, was translated into 20 languages and soon will be a major motion picture. Its author Eric Schlosser, along with "Super Size Me" creator Morgan Spurlock, has had a major impact on the menu development and marketing strategy of McDonald's, Wendy's and Co. Kate MacArthur talked to Mr. Schlosser about expectations for his new film, his attitude to fast-food ads and ... his favorite burger.

How much impact do you expect from the book and movie?

I'm not so megalomaniacal to think anything I do or write is going to change the world. The marketing budget for "Chew on This" is going to be significantly less than the $3.5 billion that McDonald's is spending on marketing every year. But I am optimistic and when I was doing the initial research for "Fast Food Nation" seven or eight years ago, a lot of the issues I was investigating seemed to be off the radar and now they're the subject of enormous debate and conversation, which is good.

Have you heard from McDonald's about the movie or book?

No. They and the meat-packing industry use surrogates. I've been attacked by people from the National Restaurant Association and the Center for Consumer Freedom. Fast-food chains and companies themselves won't engage in substantive debate.

What about all the things McDonald's has done in the past two years to improve its food quality, advocate physical activity and communicate those things?

McDonald's dedication to getting children to eat healthy has arisen in the last two years. It's in response to fear of litigation and the embarrassment of the film "Super Size Me." I question their sincerity. They could be doing much, much more. They have done cross-marketing with Teletubbies as has Burger King, aimed at pre-verbal children, toddlers. That to me is the height of irresponsibility. They haven't been using Teletubbies to get kids to eat carrot sticks. I don't think we should expect much personal responsibility from toddlers.

What about parental responsibility?

That's very much the industry's argument and I agree, but these companies are deliberately entering the schools because parents aren't in the schools and that's a way of getting around parental responsibility. I think they also need corporate responsibility and they've done a lot of work to get around corporate responsibility. Children under the law are a separate category of citizens deserving greater protections and the companies that market food to children have much greater responsibility for what they market.

Does McDonald's deserve any credit for partnering with nutrition experts?

It's window dressing. One of every five American toddlers eats french fries every day and that is a public-health disaster in the making. I'm not an anti-hamburger fanatic or an anti-french-fry fanatic. I think children need to be protected from eating unhealthy things for kids.

McDonald's fared pretty well during "Super Size Me," though.

I think the 21st century is going to have very different attitudes toward food than the late 20th did. [McDonald's] is having trouble in China and not growing in Europe.

Your press materials say you don't eat fast food, but you're a fan of In-n-Out burger, right?

I won't buy anything from the major fast-food chains, simply because I don't want to give them any money. But my favorite meal is still a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate shake. In-n-Out is a company with real integrity, and the fries are great. I don't hesitate to eat there.
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