The Oscar nominations are in and I'm thrilled to see that Food, Inc. is up for best documentary. If you haven't seen this film yet, add it to your Netflix queue or, for those who prefer instant gratification, watch it right now (it's one of the movies Netflix lets you play instantly on your computer). Here's our review:
Odds are, the last burger you ate contained meat from hundreds of cows and was cleansed with ammonia to kill potential pathogens. And many of the victuals you’ve consumed today were likely made from genetically modified corn. These are just a few of the disturbing food revelations served up by the enraging and engaging documentary Food, Inc. The film explores how corporations have transformed food, the very stuff that is supposed to nourish us, into something that’s hurting us.
Even if you’ve read Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, you’ll still be horrified. These two venerable authors narrate as director Robert Kenner takes viewers inside concentrated animal feedlots, where cattle stand knee-high in manure; on hidden-camera tours of slaughterhouses; to soybean and corn fields cultivated with Monsanto-owned seeds; and even to Capitol Hill.
The film touches on animal abuse but focuses primarily on how food production affects people. Kenner tags along with a family to a fast-food joint and a supermarket. The dollar menu at the restaurant feeds the family of four for less than $12. At the supermarket, the diabetic father laments the high cost of produce (the pre-diabetic younger daughter is denied a pear because they’re too expensive), while the mother points out that the soda, at four two-liter bottles for $5, is affordable. As Schlosser says, “We’ve skewed our food system to the bad calories.”
On Capitol Hill, food safety advocates Barbara Kowalcyk and her mother visit with lawmakers to push for passage of Kevin’s Law—named after Kowalycyk’s son who died at age two after eating a hamburger tainted with a deadly strain of bacterium, E. coli 0157:H7. The law, which has repeatedly failed, would give the USDA the authority to close down plants that regularly churn out contaminated meat.
A visit with Joel Salatin in the Shenandoah Valley does offer some relief. A small-scale philosophical farmer of sorts who sells at farmers’ markets, Salatin is not beholden to big corporations. Wearing a straw hat and suspenders, he talks about his grass-fed cows and to his pigs, and slaughters chickens in the open air. I was hoping for more examples of people like Salatin working outside industry to grow and promote healthy food, but the film shifts quickly back to the bad side of food production. The section on Monsanto is particularly infuriating and damning, exposing the company for relying on Gestapo-like tactics to ensure that farmers aren’t saving the company’s patented seeds.
Kenner also looks at the organics industry going corporate. Wal-Mart is carrying Stoneyfield Farm’s dairy products. Colgate owns Tom’s of Maine, the natural toothpaste brand. Frustratingly, the implications aren’t hashed out. And at the end of the movie, I wanted more than the quick list of steps I could take to fight big business. The film had me fired up, and somehow suggestions to “buy local” and “read labels” didn’t match the climactic climb. Still, overall the film is worth watching. For those who know little about the origins of their meals, it’s a superb appetizer; and even for those well versed in the dark side of industrial food production, it offers plenty to chew on.