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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Weekly Column

August 12, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner



Who bears the responsibility to ensure the existence of a responsible food system? Is it the individual or the corporation?


Jon Steinman


It's clear that North Americans are beginning to look to their dinner plates as a place to begin living more responsible lives. However, and as is often repeated as part of this column, eating more socially and environmentally responsible foods is not an easy task.


In 2001, a critical literary analysis of the industrial food system was released. Entitled Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser took apart the food system of today and effectively captured just how deeply systemic our food supply has become. It's this system that Schlosser suggests has been aggressively constructed by corporate interests and that changes to this system are therefore the responsibility of corporations, not just individuals and our food purchases.


In November 2006, Schlosser addressed an audience at Princeton University where he introduced this idea. As was the focus for his book, Schlosser used McDonald's as the perfect example to help illustrate his vision of corporate responsibility. He has long been suggesting that the company is systematically destroying human health, the environment and culture. It's therefore no surprise that since the release of his book, Schlosser has become McDonald's enemy number one.


Schlosser believes that McDonald's has played a critical role in helping shape the food system we now rely upon today. He suggests that if McDonald's is indeed the founder of our modern food system, then perhaps we need to look more closely at whether the company should then be held responsible to reverse the system they have had such a heavy hand in creating.


While one could argue that McDonald's has simply been doing business as usual and has been responding to consumer demands, Schlosser shared a shocking quote with the Princeton audience that painted a pretty clear picture that the company itself was instead founded upon manipulating its customers. The quote he shared was uttered long ago by McDonald's founder Ray Kroc: "We have found out that we cannot trust some people who are non-conformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry. The organization cannot trust the individual. The individual must trust the organization," read Schlosser to the shocked audience.


"The system that Kroc laid down for McDonald's was all about uniformity, conformity, and centralized control of production," stressed Schlosser. "And this has had a profound impact on our food system in a very brief period of time," he added.


The failures of our industrialized food system are becoming increasingly apparent as North Americans seemingly learn of a new food safety concern each week. From E.coli contaminated spinach, to Mad Cow Disease or contaminated apples from Mexico, our food system is clearly failing.


Schlosser again points the finger at McDonald's. "When there were a handful of McDonald's in the 1950s, it really didn't have a big impact on how food was produced in the United States," said Schlosser. "But today, McDonald's is the largest purchaser of beef, pork, chicken and potatoes. These are the staples of the American diet. It's also now the largest purchaser of lettuce and even of apples," he added.


When a company has such power, it becomes quite clear that small-scale farmers in our local areas are up against a formidable challenge. Policies, distribution and retail interests are not designed to accommodate localized food systems, even if demand for such products is there. Through recognizing such systemic issues, Schlosser therefore believes that it's delusional to think that by only changing the way we eat, we will change the world.


"For the last 25 years we have been preached a gospel of personal responsibility and personal freedom. And I believe in that," said Schlosser to the audience. "But I'm now worried that my own work has stressed this element too much. And this whole idea that every purchase you make is a vote and that we all must be responsible and ethical consumers; I agree with that. But at the same time, there's a pressure on all of us to be morally pure, to really think we can change the world by what we buy. I think that changing the world by what you buy will only go so far," he concluded.


This idea of corporate responsibility is not a new one. "Before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring," as Schlosser indicated, "companies could just dump their chemicals into a stream, and if people were sickened downstream, the company didn't have to pay for it."


This is no longer the case.


One of the big triumphs of the environmental movement, which followed Carson's book, was to force these companies to assume their internal costs. "I think that's what we have to do with these food companies now," suggested Schlosser. "We need to make them pay for their costs they're imposing on society."


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. Recordings of today's topic can be found at (


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