Food, Inc.

Skimming the headlines
★★
☆☆
Released: 
2008
Director: 
Robert Kenner
Starring: 
Various real-life folks
The Setup: 
Documentary offers a top-level survey of all that’s wrong with the food industry.
Discussion: 

I hate to always be down on recent documentaries, but again I find myself at the end of a film saying “I guess this is good for people who never read a serious newspaper or magazine,” and “I wish this had more in-depth information.” But this, an very popular documentary about everything that’s wrong with the American food industry, is another one of those vaguely disappointing docs, where information has to be padded out with folksy homespun wisdom from farmers and grieving mothers that is like, totally sad, but doesn’t really tell us much useful.

We open with a title sequence cleverly made out of labels on supermarket products. Then we have the first of our numerous chapter titles, “From Fast Food to All Food.” One interesting point the movie makes up front is that many food packages show images of farms and farmers, when this is just a fantasy that no longer exists. They discuss how McDonalds was the first to make a big effort of reducing costs by making a factory out of the food preparation process, hiring cheap labor that can easily be replaced, and eventually growing so large and buying so much potatoes and beef that they began to affect the production of foods in all areas, even supermarkets and areas we wouldn’t consider fast food. The doc discusses how there used to be a number of companies selling chicken, but now there are very few dominating all of the market.

We now turn to chicken farmers, and learn that chickens are kept in huge dark pens that no outsider [or film crew] is allowed into. There is discussion of all the steroids chickens are given to grow to “maturity” in half the time of a normal chicken. One farmer decides to let the film crew in, and we see chickens living without room to move about—at all—and so artificially fattened up that they cannot move more than a few steps before they collapse. The company who hires the farmers, in this case Tyson, constantly demands expensive upgrades to the barns, essentially keeping the farmers poor and dependent, because if the farmer doesn’t make the upgrades, they lose their contract and are essentially out of business. The farmer who let the cameras into her barn was dropped by the company a few weeks later.

Okay? Enough about chicken? Let’s turn our gaze to corn. We learn that because corn is subsidized by the government, it has evolved that corn products are in pretty much everything, even products you wouldn’t guess. It says that corn products also appear under a number of different names, so it’s not so easy to look at food labels and tell what you’re eating. And corn is being feed to animals, like beef, that it is not healthy for them to eat. Most cows are slaughtered for meat a few days before they would drop dead of ill health. Oh, and by the way, having corn syrup in everything is causing 1 in 3 children to have type 2 diabetes, a condition that only existed in adults a few decades ago. One of the better non-information segments covers a lower-class Latino family who talks about how they can feed their entire family fast food for the cost of what it would take to buy ingredients for a salad.

We find out feeding corn to cows breeds new and more virulent strains of E. Coli, but that the industry has become so powerful and embedded in government that at this point the FDA no longer has the power to shut down contaminated plants. At this point we divert for a long time to the story of a mother whose son was killed by an E. Coli outbreak, and is now an activist. It’s a personal story that brings the phenomenon down to earth… yet at the same time I wouldn’t mind if we had less footage of her talking and meeting with representatives and used that time for more in-depth information.

We learn that corn is even being fed to fish. And that an E. Coli-infected cow will return to health after eight days on a grass diet—yet the government wouldn’t pursue that option, they want a solution that MAKES MONEY while allowing them to continue feeding corn to cows, so they’ve developed a filler suffused with AMMONIA[!] that is now in 70% of American ground beef. Which of course invents a new technology and invents jobs and flow of money. This is the same way the only thing governments will pursue as solutions to global warming are “new technologies.”

We now divert to slaughterhouses that have to recruit within a 100-mile radius to find workers willing to work for that low pay, who are often immigrants, and that the meat industry brings in illegal immigrants to work, and, the film alleges, has them deported when they’ve been there a while, get injured, or start to complain.

Toward the end we get to the case of Monsanto, which makes genetically-engineered crops, and the way they pressure farmers to use their seeds. What they do is send agents in the middle of the night to sample the farmers crops, and if they find that the farm has been “contaminated” with Monsanto seed, the company throws vast amounts of money toward suing the farmer, which, even if they have a bad case, would cost enough to ruin the farmer. This is an issue that was covered in depth in the excellent documentary The Future of Food, and I was surprised to find a lot of the big revelations of that film to be missing or elided over here. For example, one thing Monsanto does is develop seeds that will die after one harvest, meaning that farmers need to re-buy seeds every year, at great cost. Another thing this film doesn’t mention is that, legally right now, a farm can be “contaminated” with Monsanto seed by it being blown off a passing truck, opening the farmer to a ruinous lawsuit. They describe the sad tale of a farmer sued for “seed cleaning,” which is all very tragic but… maybe you should explain what seed cleaning IS?

There is a long segment, which I found to be almost entirely useless, about rising interest in organic food and a guy who sells organic yogurt to Wal-Mart and the politics of that, etc. But this is leading up to the big “buy organic” message the movie is set to leave us with. By the way, one of the issues conspicuously absent is the attempt by makers of non-organic or genetically-modified foods to be allowed to label their food “Organic.”

Because the perceived challenge of documentaries from An Inconvenient Truth to this, is to not overwhelm the audience with the hopelessness of the situation, and leave them with the positive feeling that there is something they can DO. Here the message is that you need to spend more money to buy organic food, demand organic food in your store, lobby your congressperson, buy local, etc. One of the added benefits of all this, that I can attest that many people in New York and especially Brooklyn enjoy, is the ability to be smugly superior to everyone who isn’t quite as enlightened and concerned as you are, and to lecture them as to how they should behave.

So ultimately this is a top-level overview of a vast topic with many sub-sections of information. It’s like skimming the headlines of a food newspaper without reading any of the articles. If we lived in a perfect world, this would be a cable series and each of the chapters would occupy a full hour—the length of time each of these topics could fill and deserves. But we don’t live in that world, and I suspect the producers just want to get a message out that there’s big trouble with our food, in a way that will reach the most people—and I know they worked hard to get this seen, offering free screenings across the country, etc. Okay, noble cause and all, I have my doubts about how effective it will all prove to be, and whether they’re really reaching the audience they want to, or whether the audience they are reaching will make any changes because of it. Most people I know who have seen it reacted by saying “OMG, totally scary!!!” and had a salad the next day, but that was about it. And the people, like the family shown in the film, that can’t afford to spend more on organic food is NOT going to spend more on organic food. Not to mention the whole spate of larger, interrelated problems that also affect our food, that it’s not in the purview of this film to cover, but that merely buying organic is not going to make go away.

I don’t mean to be such a spoil-sport cynic. I guess my real beef is that there should be a special label denoting documentaries that are made for people who stay up-to-date on current, non-mainstream issues and have attention spans, and separate them from documentaries like this, meant for people who only watch TV news and never read anything—except text messages.

If you are in possession of an attention span and want some in-depth information about Monsanto and genetic engineering, I can’t recommend the documentary The Future of Food highly enough. It is jam-packed with info and presents a very well-rounded case. If you want to go non-narrative with your food documentaries, you can watch Our Daily Bread, though that’s definitely a specialized taste. Anyway, Food, Inc. is not bad, it’s just quite surface-level, and as I’m getting tired of saying, you could get the same, or more in-depth information in a fraction of time if you happen to still be able to read.

Should you watch it: 

If you want a quickie top-level overview of everything that’s wrong with the food industry. I would skip this and watch The Future of Food.