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Journalist says we're 'basically guinea pigs' for a new form of industrialized food

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Sixteen years after "Food, Inc.," investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, along with bestselling author Michael Pollan, are back with "Food, Inc. 2," a sequel to the documentary that sparked a national conversation about the economic, environmental, and health impacts of our industrialized food system. "Food, Inc. 2" focuses on corporate consolidation, which Schlosser reports gained steam during the pandemic. He's been reporting for years on how a handful of companies now control our nation's food system, stifling competition in ways not seen, he says, since the great trust and monopolies of the late 1890s. His latest article for The Atlantic, titled "Do We Really Want A Food Cartel?," delves into how mergers and acquisitions have created a market that is inefficient, barely regulated, unfair and even dangerous. Schlosser has written several books, including "Fast Food Nation," "Reefer Madness" and "Command And Control."

Eric Schlosser, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: Well, you and Michael Pollan initially didn't want to do a sequel to "Food, Inc." Is that right?

SCHLOSSER: Yeah. I mean, we both have written about food and then moved on to other subjects. And, you know, I liked the film "Food, Inc." I think it had an impact, and I think it was very well done by the director, Robby Kenner. And then the pandemic happened. And we were...

MOSLEY: What did you see come out of the pandemic that changed your mind?

SCHLOSSER: Well, you know, I was really stunned by how the meatpacking workers of America were being sacrificed in order to keep production going. At the beginning of the pandemic, America's meatpacking plants and prisons were really the vectors for COVID into rural America. And this is when COVID was really deadly. And a public health official in Colorado realized that a big meatpacking plant in Colorado was having a COVID epidemic and trying to prevent the spread into the local community, so he wanted to shut down the plant. And then the meatpacking industry realized we don't want local health officials shutting down our plants. So they went to the Trump administration, and they got the Trump administration to write an executive order, issue an executive order, saying basically that local health departments could not shut down meatpacking plants even if all the workers were getting COVID.

And it was remarkable. It was absolutely remarkable how this one industry was able to keep going and sacrifice its poor immigrant workers. And at the same time, there were on television, you know, images of thousands and thousands of hogs being slaughtered and dumped into ditches because they couldn't get them to the right meatpacking plant at the right time. And we just saw how this food system was actually quite fragile. And it took a shock to the system like the pandemic to show how fragile it had become because of how concentrated it had become and in the control of just a handful of companies.

MOSLEY: Let's talk about that for a moment and the details on how fragile it has become. So the numbers you lay out in your article and in the documentary are pretty staggering. Four of the largest beef companies control 85% of the market. Only a handful of companies control the cereal market, and the cost to consumer is really interesting because, I mean, Americans are used to fewer choices. I'm thinking about the impact of Walmart on smaller businesses.

SCHLOSSER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: The trade-off was that the prices were cheap. But you write that in reality, we are actually paying more because we have less choice. Can you explain this?

SCHLOSSER: Well, what's happened is when you have concentrated power over any market, those who have the power get to dictate wages to the workers and also what they pay to their suppliers. And in the food system, that would be farmers, ranchers. And if you look at what's happened in the last 40 years in the United States, we've had remarkably stagnant wages for ordinary Americans, and we've had a huge decline in the number of farmers and ranchers. And the middleman is able to take the profit. And that's why you need competitive markets. That's what capitalism is supposed to be about. But what we really have is a form of corporate socialism.

And once four companies control about 40% of a market, you don't really have competition anymore because they're able to signal to one another price, you know, increases. They're able to signal to one another how much they want to pay suppliers. A good analogy would be, let's say you want to sell your house. If you're going to sell your house, you want 50 to 60 people really eager to buy it. But if there's only one or maybe two, you're much less - much more likely to get a lower price. And that's what America's farmers and ranchers have now faced in the last 40 years. And it's devastated the countryside as a result.

MOSLEY: You give an example when it comes to choice of something that once you lay it out, it's pretty staggering. Supermarkets - Kroger dominates the market. But when we go to the grocery store, we go right down any major city street and we see several grocery stores - we actually think we're looking at different stores with different options. And what you report is that really, that's not true.

SCHLOSSER: Right. And you know, when you go to the supermarket, there are thousands of products and you think they're independent companies, but they're made by a handful of companies. The Biden administration right now is trying to block the merger of Kroger's and Albertsons. These are the two biggest supermarket chains, but you wouldn't necessarily realize it because they operate under dozens of different names. So I'm just going to give you some of Kroger's, for example, supermarkets - Ralphs, Dillons, Smith's, King Soopers, Fry's, QFC, City Market, Owens, Jay C, Baker's, Harris Teeter, Pick 'n Save, Metro Market, Fred Meyer. And then Albertsons is Safeway, Vons, Shaw's, Tom Thumb, United Supermarkets, Pavilions, Carrs, King Foods (ph) - on and on and on. So you think you have a choice of dozens of different supermarkets, but it's only two. And if this merger is allowed to go through, it'll only be one.

MOSLEY: One example you give when we walk down the aisles in the grocery store is the choice of coffee. There are rows and rows of coffee. But you're saying that that's really like false choice.

SCHLOSSER: Yeah, it's amazing. There's a wonderful new book called "Barons" about the food industry, written by Austin Frerick. And he told me in the book something I had no idea, that there's one company called JAB Holding Company, and it's controlled by this very secretive family in Germany, the Reimanns. And JAB Holding Company sells more coffee than Starbucks. So JAB owns the following brands - Peet's, Caribou, Compass (ph), Stumptown, and Intelligentsia, Keurig and Green Mountain Coffee. So you think you're getting these little coffee brands, but it's owned by this German, Luxembourg-based company. And back to monopoly power - three companies, Starbucks, Dunkin and JAB, control more than 80% of the coffee shop-sold coffee in America.

MOSLEY: So much of our identity is actually tied to those different brands, too. We think that we're getting choice, but it's actually a false choice.

SCHLOSSER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: There are other ways that we have seen how consolidation creates a fragile market. You give this example of infant formula and the infant formula shortage we saw in 2021. So as you report, there was an emerging pathogen that was found in powdered infant formula. And this pathogen can be really dangerous. It can be deadly. So in 2021 the source of the contamination was linked to Abbott Nutrition. Can you explain first how big of a player Abbott is in the baby formula market?

SCHLOSSER: Well, again, it's what we would call an oligopoly. It's not a monopoly. A monopoly would be one company. But in baby formula, we have four companies that control 97%, maybe 99% of the market, which means you don't really have real competition. There's this one baby formula factory in Sturgis, Mich. It's gigantic. It's bigger than 12 football fields. And they had a problem there. They had pretty consistent levels of contamination, with a dangerous cronobacter that can kill 40% to 60% of the infants that are infected with it. And there were some illnesses tied to this one factory, and the factory was shut down.

And when that one factory was shut down, the United States lost about 20% of its capacity to make infant formula. And for certain specialty formulas that, you know, certain preemies need or even adults with certain gastrointestinal problems, maybe 70% to 80% of the formula was being made at this one building. So overnight, suddenly, infants in the United States can't eat and mothers and parents were forced to scramble to find food for their kids. And this, to me, is an extraordinarily good symbol of what happens when you have an overly concentrated monopoly or oligopoly controlled food system. It's not only wrong, but it's fragile.

MOSLEY: So that factory was shut down, but the FDA was initially slow to react to these reports. Why?

SCHLOSSER: The FDA is the federal agency responsible for 80% of the food that we eat. They're not responsible for meat and a few other products like the USDA is. So the FDA is our food safety guardian and their food safety section has the same number of employees today as it had in 1978, and the United States has about 100 million more people. The FDA has been deliberately underfunded for decades. Industry groups have fought against any sort of tough enforcement of food safety laws.

And so the FDA got a warning in October that there was potentially dangerous infant formula coming out of this one plant. There was a whistleblower within the plant who sent a 34-page memo outlining all the production problems at the plant, and the FDA didn't do anything about it. They just - they met with him, they dismissed his concerns and this plant just kept on shipping out questionable product. And I think ultimately what's so outrageous about this case is, you know, if you're a libertarian, you can make arguments about, you know smoking is dangerous and you still are going to smoke. But we're talking about the most innocent and vulnerable members of our society. We're talking about...

MOSLEY: Babies, yeah.

SCHLOSSER: ...Infants. And the ones who are most vulnerable to this pathogen, probably 1 to 2 months old. And this company was using equipment - one of the FDA officials who then began touring America's infant formula plants said that again and again, he'd go into these plants, and the machinery was older than he is. And he's in his early 60s. And this plant was using equipment that was 60 years older. There were leaks, water leaks. It had all kinds of incredible food safety lapses. But because of the concentrated power of these companies, they're allowed to keep shipping it.

And by the way, that company, Abbott Nutrition, remains one of the largest manufacturers of infant formula. Nobody from that company was sent to prison. Nobody, you know - to my knowledge, nobody was fired. But they were running a company - they were running a major factory supplying one-fifth of our formula in completely unsanitary conditions. And this reminds me of the late 19th century when Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle." That's what you get when you have unchecked corporate power.

MOSLEY: And we should say Abbott Nutrition actually insists that neither the FDA nor the CDC could find any definitive link between the company's products and illnesses in the children. But since then, the government has instituted some safeguards. They now say that cases of babies getting sick from this pathogen must now be reported to the CDC.

SCHLOSSER: Yeah. And again, that was - this is a pathogen that's primarily spread - or the main source of spread that we know is infant formula. But nobody was even counting how many cases were occurring except for Michigan and Minnesota. And I just want to say about Abbott Nutrition - they found this type of deadly pathogen in that plant, but they couldn't find the exact genotype that the infants who were sickened. But they did shut down the plant from February until July and made some major changes to their operations. There's no question. I read the inspection reports of that plant, and you would not want your infants having their food manufactured in the conditions that were described by the whistleblower and the inspection report. It's kind of unbelievable to me that a factory making infant formula could be allowed to continue in that state.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking to investigative journalist and author Eric Schlosser about his new article for The Atlantic that explores how mergers and acquisitions have decimated competition within food systems and supply chains. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULAN LAGE GROUP'S "IOWA TAKEN")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to investigative journalist, author and filmmaker Eric Schlosser about his most recent article in The Atlantic, "Do We Really Want A Food Cartel?" which explores how mergers, acquisitions and very little regulation have all but decimated competition within food systems and supply chains. Schlosser also has written books including "Fast Food Nation," "Reefer Madness" and "Command And Control."

The title of this article is "Do We Really Want A Food Cartel?," which is pretty provocative because it signifies that these companies are colluding with each other and also agreeing to compete with each other in order to dominate the market. Is that what's happening right now?

SCHLOSSER: And agreeing not to compete - absolutely. I mean, we had a handful of companies that controlled the American economy in the late 19th century and in the early 20th century, and then we got antitrust. We got trust busters. These big trusts, like the Beef Trust, were broken up. You know, Upton Sinclair wrote about the Beef Trust that controlled beef all over the United States, and today - the 85% control of the market by the four meatpacking companies today is bigger than the Beef Trust of 1906, when Upton Sinclair was writing. But that was broken up. In the 1970s, the four biggest companies controlled maybe 23%, 25% of the market. And if you were a rancher, you had a competitive marketplace for your cattle.

And one of the statistics - you know, one group of statistics that's just, I think, appalling is since the Reagan administration - because it was the Reagan administration that really got rid of active antitrust enforcement. Since the Reagan administration, we've lost half of our cattle ranchers, we've lost 90% or more of our hog farmers and our dairy farmers. And the rural America is being depopulated. And when you look at a lot of the devastation economically, small communities, you know, losing their stores or even barely existing - and I think a lot of the political extremism in this country is also connected to this sort of monopoly power. We haven't just lost farmers and ranchers, but one of the most outrageous things is what's happened to the minimum wage.

MOSLEY: I mean, what you're saying here is that farming is an identity. In the documentary, you all spoke to family farmers who say that they not only feel that they're not valued but corporate farming is killing the entire idea of the family farm, which, I mean, is really tied to our identity. I think about, in "Food, Inc.," how you pointed out how we see these depictions of farmers on so many products. We have this idea that our food comes directly from these farms in places like mid-America, but that's not even true anymore. One family farmer said in the doc that we treat food as a commodity. So...

SCHLOSSER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: When you go to these small farming communities, can you just describe what it looks like? What has changed in the last 30, 40, 50 years not only with their land but with their communities?

SCHLOSSER: Yeah. I mean, the scale has just increased enormously. I mean, you look at dairy, for example. I mean, you might have had dairy farms with a hundred cows, 200 cows. And today you have - and those would have been in places like Wisconsin, Vermont, places with a lot of rain and a lot of grass, and you'd have grass-fed animals. Today, you have these mega-dairies that have 20,000, 30,000 cows at one facility. And they're in places like Arizona, inland California. And they're not, you know, relying on the grass that surrounds the facility. They're relying on gigantic fields that are being fed by aquifers that are being depleted. It's a nightmare. And you don't - when you're getting your carton of milk, you may have a picture of a lovely little dairy farm with a barn, but it's not coming from that place, most likely. It's coming from someplace with 20 to 30,000 cows whose, you know, waste is not being treated the same way that human waste is treated in cities.

And what's terrible - what's really terrible is this country has a great tradition of family farming. And with family farms, there's a multigenerational commitment to the land when it works. And what that means is you're going to take care of the land because your ancestors had it, and then, you know, your offspring are going to have it. And there's something very different about farming from other businesses because this is how we feed ourselves. This is the most important - you know, one of the reasons I wrote "Fast Food Nation" 20-whatever years ago and why I've, you know, been involved in these two documentaries is the food industry is the most important industry. Without food, we can't do anything else. And so instead of having these families with a multigenerational investment in the land, we have these gigantic corporations that treat the land - if it's profitable to farm it, let's farm it. If it's profitable to put a parking lot and a mall there, let's do that. And once you've drained the aquifer, there may not be any more water coming back into it.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist and author who recently wrote an article for The Atlantic titled "Do We Really Want A Food Cartel?" We'll continue our conversation after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DENNIS WILSON'S "COMMON")

MOSLEY: This is I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us, I'm talking to investigative journalist and author Eric Schlosser about his new article for The Atlantic, "Do We Really Want A Food Cartel?" In the article, Schlosser explores how mergers and acquisitions have all but decimated competition within food systems and supply chains. Schlosser and author Michael Pollan are also featured in the new documentary "Food, Inc. 2," a sequel to the Oscar-nominated documentary "Food, Inc.," which also explores how corporate consolidation has gone unchecked by our government, Schlosser argues, leaving us with a vulnerable food system designed mostly to increase profits. Schlosser has written several books, including "Fast Food Nation," "Reefer Madness," and "Command And Control."

Eric, it feels like all of this could have been predicted because if it's directly tied to spurring innovation, having more competition, I mean, that is the American way. We've seen it throughout history. Why is there such a lack of incentive for politicians to do the same within the food industry?

SCHLOSSER: Well, there's an enormous amount of money being given by the food industry. The food industry is one of the biggest lobbyists in D.C.

MOSLEY: You say bigger than the defense lobby.

SCHLOSSER: That's right. And you see again and again how the public interest is being ignored to support private interests. I think if we were to have a poll in the United States, how many people want really safe infant formula and really safe food? Ninety-plus percent...

MOSLEY: The majority. Everyone. Yeah.

SCHLOSSER: ...Would want safe food. And yet the FDA - you know, when "Food, Inc.," the first one, came out, Michael Pollan and I got involved in pushing for reform of the FDA. It was called the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. And it finally got passed. And yet it wasn't funded. So, as I said, the Food Safety and Nutrition Department of the FDA, responsible for our food, hasn't had an increase in employees since 1978. And that's because the government gets controlled by the industries it's supposed to regulate. It's called regulatory capture. And it's a huge problem. And one of the solutions is going to be getting the money out of politics. And corporations are not people in the same way that people are people. And they shouldn't be able to donate millions and millions to political candidates.

MOSLEY: One of the things that I've heard you talk about is that after "Fast Food Nation," the wealthier got smarter. They changed their habits. And then companies then focus their marketing power towards poorer communities. I want to complicate this a little bit, because this is almost two decades ago now, and I want to know what still feels true. How has this been complicated in the last few years now that consumers have become smarter?

SCHLOSSER: Sadly, it's just gotten worse. And we really have two food systems right now. We have one food system that didn't really exist so much 25 years ago that is providing healthy, organic, more sustainable food. We've had a real rise in farmers' markets, and you can think of chains like Whole Foods that had nowhere near the same influence. And so for people who are wealthy and well-educated and willing to spend the time and have the time to spend on their food, they really have a new food system, which I think is terrific. But, you know, for most Americans - they don't have access to that food system because of the ways in which wages have been stagnant and obesity has just continued to get worse. And now we're seeing that, you know, ultra-processed foods, which we address in the documentary, are terrible for you. It's not just, you know, obesity, but all kinds of cancers. And about 60% of the food that Americans are now eating are ultra-processed. So in many ways, it's gotten worse.

And I just want to talk for a second about the minimum wage, because that's really what brought me into the food world. The first thing I wrote about food was about migrant farm workers in California and how they were being exploited. When you look at the bottom of society, you learn a lot about that society. And the food system is where some of our poorest workers are employed, whether they're farm workers or fast-food workers. The minimum wage in the United States, the federal minimum wage, has not been increased for 15 years. That's the longest period without an increase since the minimum wage was introduced in 1938. And the reason that we got a minimum wage in the United States is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at the height of the Depression, believed if you work, you should be able to live on your earnings. The minimum wage should be a living wage. And it's a basic idea.

MOSLEY: I'm just wondering, for those states that have set their minimum wage higher...

SCHLOSSER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Washington state, for instance - have we seen measurable improvement in quality of life for people who live in those states that have raised the minimum wage?

SCHLOSSER: There's no question. And I want to address that. So if you were to go back to 1968, what the U.S. federal minimum wage was, and adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage in 1968 was almost $15 an hour. You know, it's $14.65 to be specific. Today - and today - so that's in today's dollars...

MOSLEY: That's right.

SCHLOSSER: ...Fifty-six years ago, $15 an hour.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

SCHLOSSER: Today's federal minimum wage is $7.25. What that means is that the poorest workers in the United States have had a pay cut of 50%, and some states have - I think 34 states have a minimum wage that's higher than the federal. But there's only six states that have a minimum wage that's higher than it was in 1968. And that explains a great deal of what's happened at the bottom of American society. Now, I totally support this - you know, Fight for $15. There's a fight nationwide to have at least a $15, you know, an hour minimum wage. That's great. And what we would basically be doing is bringing American wages back to what they were 56 years ago.

MOSLEY: ...Fifty-six years ago. Corporations like McDonald's - you know, they were at the forefront of fighting against this...

SCHLOSSER: Right.

MOSLEY: ...Saying that it would decimate them. You report how Walmart and McDonald's have the highest number of workers on food stamps. What is the reality in those places where now they've had to pay their workers upwards of 15 to $20 an hour?

SCHLOSSER: Well, we still have a lot of McDonald's. And the question is, should we have companies that are paying poverty wages that taxpayers are subsidizing? The fast-food industry is outraged, outraged, that California has passed a $20 an hour minimum for fast-food workers.

MOSLEY: As of April 1.

SCHLOSSER: Right. And again, the minimum wage in 1968 was $15 an hour. So that's not, you know, outrageous to think that in 56 years the workers should get a real raise. But beyond that, before California passed that new minimum wage, the median income of a fast-food clerk or cashier in California was about $15,000 a year, and one-third of the fast-food workers in California were relying on public assistance - either, you know, Medicaid or food stamps. And meanwhile, the chief executive of McDonald's is making $20 million a year.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with investigative journalist and author Eric Schlosser about his new article for the Atlantic which explores how mergers and acquisitions have all but decimated competition within food systems and supply chains. Schlosser and author Michael Pollan are also featured in the new documentary "Food, Inc. 2," a sequel to the Oscar-nominated documentary "Food, Inc.," which is based on their reporting and explores how corporate consolidation has gone unchecked by our government, leaving us with a vulnerable food system designed mostly to increase profits. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN SONG, "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to investigative journalist, author and filmmaker Eric Schlosser about his most recent article in The Atlantic, "Do We Really Want A Food Cartel?" which explores how mergers, acquisitions and very little regulation have all but decimated competition within food systems and supply chains. Schlosser also has written books including "Fast Food Nation," "Reefer Madness," and "Command And Control."

I want to get back to the health consequences of the industrialized food system...

SCHLOSSER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...And this idea of ultra-processed foods. You all explore this in the documentary. There's this theory that ultra-processed foods, which make up a significant portion of the American diet, is directly linked to this compulsion for people to overeat, like, 500 more calories a day.

SCHLOSSER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Was that surprising to you? It was to me.

SCHLOSSER: You know, it wasn't as surprising because when I was doing the research for "Fast Food Nation" decades ago, and I visited a flavor factory in New Jersey where they were manufacturing...

MOSLEY: And what's a flavor factory?

SCHLOSSER: Well, you know, when you really process foods, you can destroy the thing in the food that we love most about it, which is how it tastes. So when you look at the label of these processed foods, there often and almost always will be natural flavor, artificial flavor. And these are chemical additives that return the flavor to the food. And these big flavor companies are mainly in New Jersey. They're chemical plants. And they're often owned by or run in association with perfume companies, because a great deal of what we experience as flavor is the smell of a food. So they add, you know, these flavor additives and, you know, they could make my - one of my books tastes like French fries just by adding the chemical to the paper. So I knew that this food was heavily manipulated. And when I wrote "Fast Food Nation" 20-whatever years ago, I thought the food was unhealthy because of how much fat and salt and sugar it had in it. And that may also be true, but now we're realizing there's something different about this ultra-processed food and how our bodies deal with it.

Part of it is the craving that it then creates for you because they're carefully adjusting the flavor, the fat content, what they call the mouthfeel. But there're also maybe just something about the chemicals that interact with our bodies in a very bad way. So the latest science is finding, you know, dozens of ailments that are linked to the consumption of ultra-processed food. And I'm not talking about a can of peas that's just, you know, peas and salt and water. But once you start looking at the label of your food and you see all kinds of chemical names and emulsifiers that you would not have in your kitchen, you may want to think twice about eating that food. We're basically guinea pigs for a form of industrialized food that nobody has ever eaten before.

MOSLEY: One expert in the documentary called it the loss of nutritional wisdom.

SCHLOSSER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: What else did you discover about this food science and the price that we're paying as we lose our taste for even eating plants - so eating things that are not ultra-processed?

SCHLOSSER: Yeah. Well, one of the things that these companies have done, in marketing to children, and it's not in the film, but, I mean, I explored it at one point. It's incredible. They put children into MRI machines and give them different samples of food to see the parts of the brain, the pleasure centers that light up. And they're very - they use focus groups of toddlers. They're carefully crafting these foods for children. And what that usually involves is much stronger, bolder flavors than you'd ever find in nature. So, you know, there's a culturalization process where little kids are thinking that strawberries taste like, you know, this strawberry yogurt that is super, super...

MOSLEY: Sweet.

SCHLOSSER: ...Loaded with sweetness and additives. And, you know, we're losing touch with a more authentic kind of diet. And, you know, Michael Pollan, I think, puts it best. You know, he - his advice is eat real food, not too much, mainly plants.

MOSLEY: Eric, these companies like Walmart - they've been trying things to help offset the harm. They aren't breaking apart their companies, but there have been reports that they are doing things like trying to offset their carbon footprint, for instance. Are these steps having an impact?

SCHLOSSER: I think they are, and I think that with great power goes responsibility, so these companies have the power to have a huge impact. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers that we feature in "Food, Inc. 2" - Walmart agreed to join something called the Fair Food Program, which would provide an extra penny per pound in tomatoes to tomato pickers in Florida but also have a very tough, worker-generated social responsibility program. When you look at migrant workers in the United States, so many of them are immigrants, recent immigrants - enormous amounts of sexual assault, sexual harassment, wage theft. And Walmart stepped up, and Walmart joined this wonderful farm worker program, as have other major companies. So some good things about having scale - changes can come very quickly.

MOSLEY: Getting back to to migrant workers and farm workers, it really has been - we've seen a tremendous rise in protest over the last few years. Really, the pandemic seemed to spark that, to really push that. What has been the impact of the rise of protests among these workers? You've been following this movement for so long. How would you categorize or describe this moment that we're in?

SCHLOSSER: Well, we have an anti-immigrant movement in this country, which is outrageous and appalling. And when you look at our food system, our food system is totally dependent on immigrant workers. And especially if you're having a healthy diet with lots of fresh food and fresh vegetables, almost all the fresh fruit and vegetables is harvested by hand. And in the meatpacking plants of America that, you know, I've been writing about for 20-whatever years, almost all the workers are immigrants.

These are the people who feed us, and to have politicians arguing that immigrants are a drain on society, that they're parasites, that they come to the United States to rob and steal - the crime rate among immigrants is lower than it is among native-born Americans. And I'm not saying we need an open border. We need to definitely deal with what's happening at the border, but we really need to appreciate the people who are feeding us as farm workers, as fast food workers, as meatpacking workers. And what's outrageous is we've allowed their income to decline in real terms over these years when, you know, these are the people who we are dependent on.

MOSLEY: Eric Schlosser, thank you so much for this conversation.

SCHLOSSER: Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: Investigative journalist and author Eric Schlosser. His latest article for The Atlantic is "Do We Really Want A Food Cartel?" Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new sci-fi thriller "The Beast." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOMEZ SONG, "BUENA VISTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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