Monday, June 22, 2009

Film Review: Food, Inc.

On a muggy and misty Friday afternoon, after my macrobiotic lunch at Masao's Kitchen, I finally settled in to watch the documentary, Food, Inc. I've been anticipating this for a long time, and ever since I read The Omnivore's Dilemma about a year ago, I've been waiting to see how that book and others like it would or would not cross over into mainstream consciousness. While chomping on my GMO popcorn (which I thought was "funny" and ironic when I bought it  . . . and disgusting when I was about halfway through the film) and a smuggled cookie from Masao's, I and a small handful of concerned citizens -- all "older folks" who have probably read the books The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation  -- sat in contemplative, respectful silence to watch a film we likely already knew the content of. Like the dutiful choir, we eagerly accepted the preaching of the latest by director, Robert Kenner, and the authors, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser.  The question for me is: does this film have the power to transcend the faithful and reach the unconverted?

The main point of this film is to show how the vise-like control of the agriculture industry by a very few (4 to 6), huge corporations is rapidly destroying the integrity of the American food supply at every level. The film, like Sinclair's The Jungle in its time, descries the sloppy mess that industrialization and monoculture have brought to the table. Many images of factories with byzantine braids of conveyor belts, pipes and gears, feedlots of previously unimaginable scale punctuate the film to remind viewers of the reality of most supermarket food. For example, with so many steers in such disgusting conditions all funneling through the thirteen slaughterhouses in the country, we see for ourselves how one hamburger can be a composite of a thousand animals, making the ultimate source of food-borne illnesses practically untraceable. 

My blood boiled as I watched the heartbreaking and infuriating story of a mother who lost her child to an e-coli infection from a simple hamburger. The mother tells  that as the child went into kidney failure, he was denied water as it would have been almost instantly fatal. When the family dabbed a sponge lightly soaked in water on his dry lips, he bit the head off of the sponge in his panicked instinct for liquid. The industry has tried to stop the mother from trying to enact legislation to improve oversight in the meat industry.

The film is peppered with more disturbing stories. One sequence shows a low-income family trying to make ends meet. Despite the presence of diabetes and obesity in the family, they resort to eating fast food every day because it is literally cheaper than real food. The film follows the family into a supermarket where the little girl excitedly begs her mother to buy pears. Not candy or ice-cream -- healthy, yummy pears. The older sister weighs the fruit to see how much they would cost, "Too much," she tells her dejected sister, "You'd only get two or three [for a dollar, the amount she is allowed]." 

There is something very wrong when a healthy two-year-old dies from a hamburger and a little girl can't eat a piece of fruit. Unfortunately, I think people hear these stories in a flash on the news and don't really stop to consider what it all means. I'm not sure the average American watching the news imagines the suffering of a boy like Kevin or questions with compassion why a chubby girl is denied a healthy snack. 

Probably even more invisible to most Americans is the true plight of American farmers and farm workers. Several farmers are interviewed for this film, some of them with their images obscured because they so fear the businesses who apparently believe they own them. And the farmers can seemingly do nothing except express their outrage at the futility of trying to buck the system. In the current system, the farmers need to have contracts in order to sell the food they grow, and if they fail to follow every whim of the industry giants who offer the contracts, the farmers will be out of luck and maybe even sued.

And for the farm workers, most of whom are undocumented workers from defunct farms south of the border (defunct because they could not compete with subsidized American grains and produce), they are offered no protection from immigration officials by the very companies that recruit and hire them.

Two alternatives to this system are offered by the film, both of which are familiar to readers of OD. The first is Joel Salatin, a sustainable farmer in Virginia. His farm, Polyface, represents the “old school,” local, agrarian ideal. On his farm, the animals live lives that seem in harmony with their instincts: cattle graze on grass, chicken scratch in the fields, and pigs wallow languidly in precious mud. Unlike the industrial slaughterhouses, Salatin allows the film crew to film the slaughter of chickens in his open-air facility that he claims is much more sanitary and humane than any of the industry-standard facilities. Despite the fact that we know Salatin and his sons are taking care to be as humane as possible, it’s still a bit disturbing to watch the slaughter. The chickens are obviously terrified (there’s one shot of a chicken awaiting the inevitable with an unmistakable look of horror on its face). If this is humane, then one is left to wonder what atrocities must be going on down in the factories. Contrasting sequences of animals being kicked and prodded (as in the case of one cow whose legs are collapsing underneath it as it is forced to join the ill-fated rest) in huge warehouses where excrement and sick animals are brought to a messy end are also shown, though without the completeness of Salatin’s operation. It’s actually what we don’t see, but rather hear or imagine– the screaming pigs on the kill-floor, for example – that is shocking. 

And who are the workers in charge of the most brutal, messy and dangerous work? Certainly not well-paid industrialists. No, it is the undocumented worker and the marginalized individual with no other skills that is forced to process thousands of animals each week. Doing this kind of work must have a psychological effect. And the fact that we allow for these abuses, both of the animals and the workers, underscores a comment made by Salatin: "How we view animals reflects how we view others." 

The other alternative presented is the story of Stonyfield milk and yogurt products. This is an example of “big” organic. Here, we see the efforts of an ex-hippie farmer who concluded that in order to effect real change, his operation had to go mainstream. One result of going big is getting a contract with WalMart. As one of the dairy farmers cheerily tells the awkward, fake-smiling WalMart executives that she and her family have been boycotting WalMart for years, I was left wondering if it is worth it to get in bed with such fellows. One of the execs, standing in front of a green, mist-covered field, waxes reflective: "It's easy to get behind organics when it's clearly what the customer wants." Hmm. 

The impact of the dilemma presented by these two alternatives is perhaps not made hard enough. I’m afraid most viewers would come away thinking that Salatin was a bit of a kook (well, he might be) and that the way to go is big organic. Actually, neither system can completely fix the complicated problems of the food industry, but I’m not sure the film makes that point clear enough. Like other reviewers, I feel that the film doesn’t offer very much in the way of a solution. The suggestions that conclude the film don’t seem to be enough to really challenge the enormous power of the industry.

Is it enough? Enough to change the habits of consumers? Make them call for change? Well, as the movie ended and I turned around to leave, I noticed how few people were in the theater – maybe ten people in total. Granted, it was a Friday afternoon, and I’m hopeful that the evening shows were probably more populated. But since this film has such a limited screening schedule, I wonder if it will raise enough alarm. Maybe that’s why the film is so gutsy – the industry officials who could shut this sort of thing down don’t bother, thinking perhaps that it will only reach a handful of “radicals” and old folks with nothing to do on a workday but watch movies.

We shall see. I’ll be looking for news of legislation, increases in organic and local farm sales and litigation against the companies that are the only ones benefiting from the current system. I’ll also be voting with my dollars at the farmer’s market, the co-op and the local and organic markets. I hope it’s enough.

Read my other posts about this film and topic:

10 Things You Can Do . . .

The Future of Food

Rules from In Defense of Food

Morning Edition interview with Pollan and Kenner

Book Review of The Omnivore's Dilemma

1 comment:

A.W. said...

Part of the problem is that the United States feels so large and spread out, it is difficult to galvanize a significant enough size of the population to cause real change.
The big food retailers maintain their business by ensure they have what the costumer wants when the customer want's it, regardless of what is required to produce it. You mention how most people don't know the food manufacturing processes. Additionally I bet most people don't know What produce would be in season in their local area at any given time of year. Its important to educate people about the issues with the food system, but also to show them alternate ways of thinking about food. Then they may want something different from the status quo. and then again they may not.