A recent study calculated the environmental costs of a 50-cent fast food hamburger to be 400 times its price at the register.
Question: If consumers felt the real costs that go into making a Happy Meal, would they change the way they eat? Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, I don't think the externalities need to be felt by the consumer, but by the corporations. So there was a study, actually after I published my book that tried to quantify the environmental costs of a 50-cent hamburger, fast food hamburger. Putting the human health costs, putting aside the question of animal welfare, and the number they came up with was $200 per 50 cent burger. It's not a hypothetical, it's not an imaginary number—that's what it actually costs. You know, it's the number one cost of global warming; in fact, a recent study has suggested that it's responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than everything else in the world put together and as the U.N. has said, it's one of the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem in the world, locally and globally. So we are paying for this. And you're right, it's spread out and there's a distance between consumers and this cost. When we go to the cash register, it sure seems cheap. So there are people in this country who don't have access to alternatives, who live in what are called "urban food deserts." And ask them to eat differently is unfair. We have to ask people to change according to their abilities. So most people watching this, I imagine, are able to find other kinds of food. Now, it's true that buying good meat is dramatically more expensive than buying cheap meat. But always the cheapest way to eat is vegetarian and always the healthiest way to eat is vegetarian and always the most environmentally sustainable or sensitive way to eat is vegetarian. And people should peruse a menu the next time you're in a restaurant and look at what the least expensive options are and they're almost certainly going to be vegetarian options. Question: How does the food industry manipulate language to deceive the consumer?Jonathan Safran Foer: Well the industry is incredibly manipulative. They recognize that people care about these things. Cage-free and free-range eggs are not the fastest growing sector in the food industry in America. And it's not because the egg distributors have a good conscience and suddenly want to try to promote these alternative methods. It's because people recognize that putting cages—chickens in a cage so small that they can't turn around or flap their wings—they recognize that it's not right. It's not right for reasons that are really self-evident. And so even though this food doesn't taste any better, even though this food isn't any better for our health, people are buying it. And not just in Berkeley and not just in New York. They're buying it everywhere in the country. So the problem is that this extraordinarily manipulative and deceitful industry has found ways to take advantage of our concern. To ask us to pay more money for something that is in fact, not better at all. So in the case of eggs, for example, free range eggs, you know, you've probably seen "free range eggs" in every supermarket you've been in, in the last year or two. They're everywhere. You've probably even seen them on menus. Free range is not legally defined. The U.S.D.A. doesn't define "free range" when it comes to eggs. It means nothing. You could keep 100 hens in your toilet and sell their eggs as free range. Legally. And ask people to pay more money. So this should make people angry. You know, it makes me angry; it makes everybody I've told about it angry. "Cage-free" is defined, but only in the most literal sense; they're literally not in a cage. It doesn't mean you can't have 60,000 of them in a windowless shed pressed body to body. So what we need is some very clear legal terminology that is enforced. And we need to get those totally deceitful pictures off of the packaging. You know, when was the last time you saw a windowless shed on a pack of eggs? Never. You see a farm or maybe a farmer with a pitchfork or hay or grass or a barn. And it's total crap. It has absolutely no correspondence to reality.
Recorded on August 26, 2010Interviewed by Max Miller