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By Charles Lam
Eric Schlosser is Upton Sinclair with a modem, a muckraker extraordinaire whose 2001 book, Fast Food Nation, became the rare tome that transformed into a mainstream buzzword ala The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Catch-22. He'll be speaking in front of Taco Bell's Irvine headquarters this Friday as part of a daylong rally organized by the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW, you may recall, has urged a boycott of Taco Bell for over two years now, demanding that Taco Bell stop the exploitative labor practices that CIW members—all Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants—endure at the hands of Florida growers from whom Taco Bell buys its tomatoes.
Taco Bell officials have maintained throughout the boycott that the company can't be expected to monitor the actions of its contractors and thus has refused to meet with CIW workers. This and other policies, Schlosser says, proves that the world's largest producer of Mexican food treats its workers and customers with even less care than the animals that make up their ground beef.
OC Weekly:The sins you list against Taco Bell inFast Food Nation: using genetically modified corn in its taco shells; advertising to children via the Chihuahua; withholding overtime wages; forcing minors to work illegally past midnight; serving its meals in high school cafeterias; bland food. So, how does Taco Bell rank against other fast-food chains in terms of responsible ownership? Eric Schlosser:Now, the genetically engineered corn thing, I can't hold them responsible for that because that was an accident involving their supplier. As soon as Taco Bell found out, they withdrew it—that wasn't a deliberate policy. The overtime violations, on the other hand, they've never admitted it, but they settled out of court for millions with over 16,000 current and former employees. That shows a pattern of disregard for their workers. And now you can add the exploitation of migrant workers.
For me, in many ways, what's most disturbing is Taco Bell's involvement with the CIW and how they treated them. The allegations of immigrant exploitation weren't brought to their attention last week—the CIW brought this up in the beginning of 2001. When someone comes to you with allegations that your suppliers are using slave labor to gather your products, you'd think there would be an immediate response. But there hasn't been.
I called Taco Bell executives late last year, seeking their comment on the CIW matter for a new chapter I'm writing for the paperback edition of my latest book, Reefer Madness. They were unwilling to discuss it. They continually say that the actions of their suppliers are none of their business, that it's not their responsibility to take care of those migrant workers. But if you look at their website, you'll see that they have an animal welfare program where they boast that, quote, "we are monitoring our suppliers on an ongoing basis to determine whether our suppliers are using humane procedures for caring for and handling animals they supply to us."
So Taco Bell cares more about animals than humans.
I'm going to read their animal welfare statement this Friday. They've had a fairly strict animal welfare policy for over a year now. But when it comes to human beings, they're going to ask suppliers to monitor themselves? This is unacceptable.
InReefer Madness, you criticize America's dependence on illegal-immigrant labor for agriculture, an issue you had already covered inFast Food Nation in regards to workers in the meatpacking industry. Do you find, then, a correlation between exploited immigrants in the service section and the sub-par food and service practiced at most fast-food chains?
The exploitation of illegal immigrants is the labor model that many modern-day industries decide to imitate. It started in California agriculture and spread across the United States. The fast food chains saw how agriculture functioned. And now it's in fast food chains, which want cheap, very malleable labor. Bush's guest worker program would allow not only farmers but also fast food chains to apply for visas. Fast food chains are using the argument that no Americans would apply for their jobs, that they need to import workers. It's just a horrible idea, which allows for even more exploitation. What these companies should do is simple—they should increase their wages, and service will improve. Do that, and they won't have a shortage of American workers.
You conclude the afterward to the paperback edition ofFast Food Nation by warning about the dangers of mad cow disease at a time where the disease was isolated to Europe. Flash-forward to this past winter, when mad cow finally hit the United States. And now, last month's discovery of bird flu in Texas. Do you consider your comments to be prophetical?
I've felt strongly for years that we were at risk for mad cow and that there was a good chance that it was already in this country. They were many journalists who thought that, but we were cut out of the mainstream media, and the USDA has done everything possible to attack our credibility. I wasn't soothsaying, I was just trying to report the facts.
I just read an article saying that an Arkansas meatpacking plant wants to test all their livestock for mad cow disease using a new testing method just introduced in Japan. You'll know whether a cow is infected within an hour. The USDA is threatening them with criminal charges. This one company is saying that they want to test for mad cow, and the USDA is saying they want to prosecute them? The USDA should be insisting that everyone should adopt that test. But they won't do that—they don't want to embarrass the rest of the meatpacking industry. The food industry continues to operate in this Alice in Wonderland world where the one company that wants to reform will be sued by the agency in charge of it.
Nevertheless, you endFast Food Nation with the hopeful statement "Despite all evidence to the contrary, I remain optimistic." In light of mad cow, bird flu and exploitation of workers, do you still maintain high hopes of reform within the fast food industry.?
I have high hopes that people are becoming much more aware of the food they eat and the consequences in eating it and demand changes in the system. I think that the system is obsolete and its either going to profoundly change or vanish. Most fast-food chains are already cutting back on operations. In the years to come, you're going to see them shrink.
You're speaking on behalf of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has been advocating a boycott of Taco Bell for more than two years. Although you advocate boycotting fast-food chains in your book, don't you find it self-defeating for the workers to ask consumers to refrain from buying from the very company whose profits ensure their livelihood?
That issue has been a tough one from the beginning of labor organizing. But I think that the short-term harm that may be caused by a strike will be offset by the long-term causes of ending slavery. This is 2004, and ideally, you'd think that labor laws would help the CIW folks. But Governor [Jeb] Bush has done next to nothing in helping the workers, and the federal government only marginally more. In the absence of that, you have to hold [Taco Bell] responsible by boycotting.
How do you think the CIW's campaign against Taco Bell is shedding light on the fast-food industry as a whole?
I think that they've done a great job. They're reached out to universities and spread the word. If any change is going to come, it's coming from young people. It's easy to get people to care about what's inside their taco, but it's so hard to get the general American population to care about those at the bottom of society, especially if they have a different skin color and speak a different language. There aren't many other groups who have been doing, so the CIW deserves that much more praise.
What do you think, then, is the most effective strategy Taco Bell lovers can take in order to ensure better working conditions for the Immokalee workers?
People should stop frequenting Taco Bell and should write a letter to Taco Bell's president telling them why. Anyone who cares enough should contact the CIW and find out what they can do to help.
Where will you be eating Friday? (Laughs)I have no idea. I don't plan my meals that far in advance. But I can guarantee you it won't be at Taco Bell.
ERIC SCHLOSSER WILL SPEAK IN FRONT OF THE TACO BELL CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS, 17901 VON KARMAN AVE., IRVINE. FOR INFORMATION ON THIS AND OTHER COALITION OF IMMOKALEE WORKERS EVENTS, LOG ONTO WWW.CIW-ONLINE.ORG.