It’s really a scandal in this country. Part of the price of cheap food is that workers who produce our food are really made to suffer. They end up doing this backbreaking work. The average farmworker family, according to the [Agriculture Department], makes about $13,000 a year, and we’re talking about a family here with mom and dad both working in the fields because the work is sporadic and poorly paid.
Q: How does this treatment affect the food cycle?
A: We are able to gorge ourselves much more for less money than a generation ago. In the end, our health is going to suffer, the obesity and diabetes rates will probably continue to rise. The economy will suffer because the amount of money we spend on food keeps going down, the amount of money available to pay farmers and farmworkers keeps going down. It’s a dysfunctional system that is really not sustainable. Unless we change it, it’s going to be bad for all of us.
Q: According to the book and film, it’s tricky to say something about the food industry.
A: Yes, there are 13 states that have food-disparagement laws, which means the laws of free speech are modified. The standard for proving libel is set much lower so that writers or broadcasters can be sued for criticizing food products in those states. Even if a broadcaster or writer wins the case, they may end up spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process of defending themselves. Some of these disparagement laws contain a provision that even if you win the case, you may still be held liable for court costs. They’re really designed to have a chilling effect on people.
Q: Has this worked?
A: Oprah Winfrey was sued in 1998 for a show talking about mad cow disease. She actually won that case but said afterward that she’s never going to talk about this topic on her show again, that she couldn’t tolerate the legal threat. If someone as powerful and wealthy as Oprah is intimidated talking about food safety issues, you can imagine that the regular person or journalist who doesn’t have her platform or wealth will probably find it easier to avoid the topic.
Q: Did working on the book affect your eating habits? Or can you even talk about it?
A: I’m not going to make any disparaging remarks about beef so they won’t come after me! What I will say is that I’ve been eating less meat, partly because of what most of our meat and poultry go through. That certainly has stuck in my mind and made it harder to enjoy meat, though I do still eat it at times.
Q: How do you feel?
A: I do find that it’s easier to control my weight when I eat less meat. I feel a little more energetic and healthy.
Q: What can we do to, literally, clean up our acts?