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Review: “Food, Inc.”

As most of my readers know, we recently welcomed twins into our family (by “most,” I mean “my wife,” who definitely knows about this). With our current arrangement, I stay up and feed the tikes at around 10:30 while Janelle goes to bed early. Between bottles and burping and changing diapers and waiting for them to fall asleep, I got about a good hour there every night. So, I’m going to try and find some interesting documentaries, TV shows, or movies to watch and them review them on the blog. First entry: Food, Inc.

I had actually seen this documentary before, but sister-in-law Elise had not, so we watched it while putting the kids down Wednesday night (yep, right before Thanksgiving). The movie exposes how Big Money corporations and skewed government policies warp our food production system with a whole litany of negative side-effects. They cover a wide-range of topics and angles: everything from E. Coli deaths to chicken farms to natural farming to copyrighted, genetically-modified soybean seeds. They give you an inside look at cow lots and pork slaughterhouses as well as the human stories of those affected by all of this.

In fact, though its title might suggest otherwise, Food, Inc. is largely focused on the human costs that our food system incurs. This is not a granola-munching, tree-hugging hippie fantasy about the wholesomeness of “real food” and nutrition. It’s an exacting portrait of how regular people everywhere suffer from the way we put food on the table. There is a sad-story of a mom who lost her son to E. Coli and is now trying to pass a law to let the USDA shut down contaminated meat plants, but most of the other human costs are much more subtle but equally pernicious. Chicken farmers, who already have to watch their genetically-modified poultry struggle to even walk because their breasts grow abnormally, have become immune to antibiotics because of all the antibiotics they have to feed to their animals. Meat-packing plants–once one of best working-class jobs–is now one of the most dangerous and thrives on the cheap, illegal labor of migrant workers. Farmers are entirely beholden to giant seed companies and restricted, by law, from saving their genetically-modified seed, and produce pittance for their families  while their suppliers rake in the real profits.

The message reiterated over and over is an economic one: our current system is riddled with inefficiencies and distortions that makes bad calories cheap and forces others–poor workers, the environment, or the animals themselves–to pay the actual cost. One problem is the corn bills, which abnormally lower the price of corn and made all other food relatively “expensive.” Corn has been transformed into all types of ingredients and products: everything from soda pop to cow feed to batteries to crackers and juice. Cheap corn feed for cows brings down the price of meat, but it also makes the meat more susceptible to intestinal diseases. So the meat has to be sanitized with ammounia, which means you need to create a a cleansing plant to handle that problem. Meanwhile, 80% of E. coli bacteria could be eliminated from the cow’s system if you just let them eat grass for a few days before slaughter. Its a bizarre, Rube-Goldberg device that produces cheap meat and a whole litany of other problems.

And lest you argue that cheap food is good for America’s poor, they make a crucial point: “cheap food” is almost always bad food. They follow a Mexican-American family who go from the fast-food restaurant to the supermarket, trying to figure out how to spend their scanty dinner money. And it’s obvious: hamburgers offer more calories for your buck than does a head of brocoli. If you only have a couple dollars of spend, what would you choose? Sadly, living on a diet of hamburgers and soft-drinks has led the dad to contract diabetes, and they have to add huge medicinal costs to their scanty budget. That’s a really frustrating scene: the family would like to eat healthy, they recognize the problems of eating fast-food all the time, but it simply cannot afford to because we’ve prioritized one type of crop over another. Obeisty, usually considered a “First-World problem,” is really a problem of the poor.

But if Food, Inc. is trenchant in their critique of our modern food system, they are much less insightful when exploring alternative ways of raising animals and growing crops. They visit the famous Virginian farmer from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore Dilemma, but his natural, homesteading farm is only given a glossy overview. And the treatment of Stonyfield Farm, a large organic company, is vetted less thoroughly than some of the other companies they looked at. Pollan in his book is much more exacting of large organic companies, which are hardly the solution the CEO of Stonyfield Farm argues they are.

Still, if you’ve ever wondered exactly where Fruit Roll-Ups come from or why meat is cheaper than some breads, you will find Food, Inc. to be a fascinating, if not exactly a “delectable,” ride through modern food production.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. lachelle
    November 28, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    Nice review. All the food docs/books get muddled in my head, but I don’t think I’ve seen this one. While you’re documentary-ing I’ll suggest two of my favorites: The Cove (documentary meets James Bond) and National Parks: America’s Best Idea (or something like that, a Ken Burns marathon).

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