Monday, May 3, 2010

Food, Inc.: A Review


Welcome to the Jungle...

I have a strong constitution. When I was in college, I managed to read The Jungle while eating steak and hamburgers. OK, when the kid falls into the vat was a bit gruesome I admit, but overall I don't worry too much about where my food comes from. Food, Inc. shows me that I have been taking this situation rather lightly, that I should think about such things. We should all care about food safety, and while Food, Inc. makes its points with passion, at times it can't help going over-the-top.
Director Robert Kenner builds his case: a small group of (Evil) Multi-National Corporations, controlling the food industry (specifically the beef and corn industries) have formed a cabal where they...
  1. Have taken over the government
  2. Are trying to literally KILL us all
  3. Destroy the American farming system
  4. Are trying to literally KILL us all
  5. Torture animals
  6. Are trying to literally KILL us all
  7. Import illegal immigrants to use as slave labor, and
  8. Are trying to literally KILL us all.
When I say "literally", I'm using it in the correct way: they are plotting, like the Daleks on Doctor Who, to exterminate all humanity, so long as their profit margin isn't affected. How are they trying to literally KILL us all?

First, by allowing all forms of poisonous material to enter the food supply. Second, by forcing people to eat fast-food by making the costs of vegetables too prohibitively expensive for the poor to afford. Third, by controlling government (in this case, the Evil George W. Bush--the greatest EVIL of all time) to stop any real reform. Fourth and finally, by using Mafia-like tactics to crush all and any opposition to their world domination.

We begin with Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, who tells us about the McDonald Brothers. By creating an assembly-line style to food, they brought on the rise of food factories, places where the mass production of beef, potatoes, even apples were created en masse to meet the demand of the corporations. This brought about a near-monopoly where the Top Four food companies control more than 80% of the processing plants, up from when the Top Five controlled a mere 25% of the market in the 1970s. With the demand of the corporations as well as Fat Americans, there has been a freakish increase in the growth of chickens...along with appalling conditions in which they are bred.

Food, Inc. also goes into how the industry has used their power in government to push for vast overproduction of corn, which they use on all sorts of products (I was surprised that batteries and diapers also have corn as part of their material). This nexus of large corporations with a cozy government brings about lax oversight (food safety inspections going from 50,000 in 1972 to 9,164 in 2006) and even death: the tragedy of Kevin Kowalcyk due to contaminated meat is featured as are the efforts of his mother Barbara and grandmother Patricia Buck to bring passage of Kevin's Law (which would grant the USDA the authority to shut down plants that repeated produce contaminated food).

We also go into the machinations of the Monsanto Corporation, which if the film is to be believed may be the most evil company in history (they did manufacture DDT and Agent Orange, so we can draw our own conclusions). They apparently intimidate farmers and bring them into financial ruin if they do anything the company does not approve of.

Food, Inc. is not a documentary in the strictest sense of the word. It's raison d'etre is to convince us of something: in this case, that a small group of companies have too much control over what we eat, and that this industry is too interested in maintaining a low cost/high profit enterprise structure to care about consumer safety, which they'd gladly sacrifice to maintain the status quo. There is much information to process, and overall the film provides some shocking and disturbing knowledge.

The overproduction of corn to use as food for cows and even fish is surprising. The conditions the animals are kept in to bring about what was described as making things "Faster/Fatter/Bigger/Cheaper" is appalling, as are how the underpaid employees brought in through questionable means are treated.

There are moments of hope in the film. I've found a new hero in Polyface Farms owner Joel Salatin. He is a voice of wisdom and sanity within the lunacy of an industry drunk on greed and power. His operation is small but thoroughly natural: he grows his animals the way in a natural way, not in a factory but out in the open and has no interest in making a vast fortune if it means bringing damage to his stock or the environment. Yet he doesn't appear as a wild-eyed hippie but as a smart farmer, to coin a phrase, a true son of the soil.

His farm is put in sharp contrast to the Smithfield Hog Processing Plant (the largest slaughterhouse in the world). There, the conditions are unhealthy, unnatural, and ugly. The simplicity and efficiency and cleanliness of the former is shown against the appalling nature of the latter. Also featured are the efforts of all things Wal-Mart (formerly the most EVIL corporation of all time, until Monsanto came along). They see the economic benefits of going organic in their food production as opposed to the environmental and health benefits, but in this case, commerce and conservation CAN work hand in hand where both sides benefit.

Food, Inc. is a good film, a strong film, a film that may fulfill its motive to motivate change within the food industry to make it more responsive to its consumers (us) and the world at large. However, there were things I didn't like in it. Chief among them is the section "The Dollar Menu", which featured the story of the Gonzalezes.

Here, we are treated to an overweight Hispanic family who is figuratively if not literally forced to buy fast food all the time. Mama Maria doesn't have the time to cook and there is not enough money to do so. They virtually have no choice in the matter if the film is to be believed. It's much more economically sensible to pay $11.48 for 5 cheeseburgers, 2 chicken sandwiches, 2 small Sprites, and 1 LARGE Dr. Pepper than buy broccoli at $1.29/lbs. As the father said when looking at it, "Too 'spensive, man".

This part looked to my mind far too staged, as if they were directed to show us how awful it was that they had to wolf down on Burger King while driving because the lettuce was too pricey. The diabetes the father had incurs great bills, and they have to decide between healthy eating and medicine.


I grew up in similar circumstances to the Gonzalez family. I'm the product of a poor (well, OK, slightly middle-class) Hispanic background. Strangely enough, we ALWAYS had vegetables at our house (I LOVE broccoli, and managed to get my fair share of carrots, corn, and potatoes. Hate squash though). I also didn't recur to fast-food every day, and to be frank, the idea of going out to eat Sunday-to-Sunday at Burger King, or McDonald's, or Wendy's, or anyplace like that would be appalling and incomprehensible to any of the Aragons past or present. Something like that would be a privilege, not a right. We were (and are) by no means rich. However, we always had a sense of priorities, and understood from the get-go that vegetables and fruits were VITAL. Whatever sacrifices my mother made when I was a child to provide good food she made, which is something that I don't think the Gonzalezes are able or willing to do. They seem to fall, to my mind, into a mindset that they have to depend on others for sustenance. We firmly believe you need to depend on yourselves (and yes, God).


It was THIS that sunk Food, Inc. from a documentary into an advocacy film: a movie made not to show something and let us make our own decisions but made to convince us of a certain viewpoint and to do something about it. Like all advocacy films, it ended with a call to arms: among the things it told me to do was "Buy food that's organic", "Buy foods that are grown locally. Shop at farmer's markets. Plant a garden", "Cook a meal with your family and eat together", and "Tell Congress to enforce food safety standards and re-introduce Kevin's Law".

Now, while I may agree with all these points, I've never been fond of any film (especially ones called documentaries) lecturing me on any topic, regardless of whether I am on their side or not. That whole scene struck me as either fake or forced, and either one is not pleasing. Food, Inc. straddles the line between documentary and propaganda, and this subject is too important to attempt to cross it. Finally, Mark Adler's score was becoming intolerable to me: constantly ominous and foreboding whenever it talked about the malevolent corporations bent on our destruction.

Having said all that, Food, Inc. is a strong film about a vital and pressing problem. This is a film that talks about a subject we all should care about. I'd highly recommend Food, Inc. for watching and discussion.  In short, we should be eating all this up.


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