Food Inc.: A Scary Movie

Jessica Harlan by Jessica Harlan | June 10th, 2009 | No Comments
topic: Green Living

A new film from investigative journalists Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), along with producer/director Robert Kenner, digs deep into the U.S. food industry. Along the way, they uncover some very uncomfortable truths about the agriculture and meat industries, as well as the government’s seeming unwillingness to protect the American public from their dangerous and unethical practices.

In Food Inc., you learn how factory farms have created a system where animals are bred to mature and fatten faster, while their bones and internal organs can’t keep up. They’re fed a diet of corn (even farm-raised fish), which their bodies weren’t intended to digest, resulting in illness and the spread of new strains of the E. coli virus. Watching footage of crowded, filthy feedlots and feces-caked cows being processed through the huge, super-efficient slaughterhouses at a mindboggling rate, it’s easy to see how E. coli and other illnesses find their way into our food supply. A mother’s account of her two-year-old son’s death from E. coli is juxtaposed with videos of him frolicking in a lake weeks before he died, and her attempts to pass legislation to prevent future outbreaks. One ground beef processor even boasts onscreen of his company’s solution to E. coli — washing the meat in ammonia.

The pork, cattle and chicken industries are under the stronghold of only a few major food companies, a monopoly that has given them the power to coerce farmers into following their rules. The consequences: loss of business, and possible financial ruin.

As the film shows, the plant-based agriculture industry is no better. The film depicts how Monsanto (former producer of Agent Orange) has a stranglehold on the nation’s soybean crop because of a patented gene, forcing farmers to buy new seeds each year, rather than saving seeds. Undercover employees enforce the seed patents with the threat of expensive lawsuits.

Food Inc. is filled with affecting, disturbing images. Cute baby chicks, not unlike the ones whose downy heads my daughter patted during a recent visit to a farm, scramble to stay upright on a fast-moving conveyor belt as stony-faced workers process them for the short lives they’ll live in a dark, crowded chicken house. Another scene follows a lower-income family on a grocery shopping trip; when the younger daughter asks to buy a pear, but is told by her parents they’re “too expensive;” instead of fresh produce, this family subsists on cheaper dollar-menu fast food.

The cynic in me couldn’t help feel a bit manipulated — would a parent truly deny their kid a piece of fruit, or is the family exaggerating their situation for the camera? — but it certainly served its purpose. By the end of the film, I felt drained, discouraged, and convinced that my own two-year-old should become a vegetarian so she won’t meet the same fate of the little boy stricken by E. coli.

Are we helpless against these corporate titans, and a government that won’t stand up to its people? The filmmakers don’t think so. Their call to action at the end of the film encourages viewers to “vote” at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a Web site lists 10 things you can do to change our food system, from not drinking sodas to buying local and organic. The film also has a companion social action campaign in which the producers will be involved with the Childhood Nutrition Act and the Menu Labeling Initiative, producing a bilingual high school curriculum to teach students food literacy, and will target underserved communities with a program that connects schools with local farms in an effort to educate students about better nutrition and improve cafeteria meals.

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