Food, Inc.

Just as the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) made audiences everywhere aware of the threat of global warning, so Food, Inc. will be a major eye-opener about the U.S. agriculture industry.

“The way we eat,” says Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, “has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 10,000.” Begun by fast food leader, McDonald’s, who establishing assembly-line procedures in the restaurant business, our food has become more cookie-cutter uniform and less tasty, but faster to produce and unbelievably unhealthy.

Walking down the aisles in a supermarket, we are bombarded with advertisements that induce us to believe that our food and our relationship to it is part of a pastoral fantasy. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our food is almost totally removed from the small farm roots upon which our country was built. Instead, most of our food travels on average 1,500 miles to get to us. The 47,000-some products on our grocery shelves come to us not from lots of small farmers, but from a few behemoth multi-national food producers–who deliberately lie about what they put into our food.

A segment of the film visualizes what author Pollan wrote about in his book–it traces our food from its origin to the supermarket shelf.You might be astonished to learn how much of what we eat comes from corn. Most of our cattle, which evolution made grass-eaters, are now fed corn, which is cheaper and makes them fatter quicker. Same thing with pigs and chicken and fish. Yep, fish. They’re all fed on corn. Corn is found in thousands of products, one of which, high fructose corn syrup, plays a significant role in the country’s growing obesity problem. (Another excellent documentary that you can get in the library is King Corn: You Are What You Eat.)

You don’t have to be squeamish about Food, Inc. Yes, there are the requisite shots of the cruelty to animals in the meat industry. How could you cover the issue of food safety and not face what happens to the animals we slaughter? But the shots, mercifully, go by relatively quickly. As horrible as the way animals are treated, however, is what happens to the human beings who work in the slaughter industries. We can’t be compassionate people and turn a blind eye to the dangerous working conditions faced by these people and the role of illegal immigration policy that punishes the workers and lets the employers off scot-free. With every bite of meat we take from these producers, we are eating the misery of these people and encouraging their exploitation. Something to think about, eh?

One of the most enlightening segments is a clear explanation of how the food industry makes it easier to afford a fast-food hamburger with filler junk in it (and ground from as many as a thousands cows who’ve all been standing in their feces) than a healthy salad. It takes money to eat healthy. (Just compare the cost of organic fruit with fruit that comes from a mega-producer.) For many people, obesity and diabetes are products of their lower incomes. Is this something that should be true in the nation of plenty?

As Food, Inc. points out, the story of the American food industry, like all good stories, has heroes and villains. The heroes are many. There are authors Pollan and author/documentary film writer Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) whose investigative findings form the thread of the film’s storyline. There’s the chicken farmer who defied corporate orders and spoke to the cameras about the terrible condition the chickens are raised in–and subsequently lost her contract and her livelihood. Another hero, and tragic one, is Moe Parr, who used to run a seed-cleaning business on his three-acre farm until the lawyers from seed giant Monsanto sued him and put him out of business.

Surprise, surprise: one of the good guy turns out to be Wal-Mart. It seems Wal-Mart decided, not for health reasons, but for public relations reasons, that it was good for business not to sell milk with the growth hormone in it. Voila!Now no one sells growth-hormone infested milk. In one corporate decision, a major shift occurred. Proof that it can be done.

Most poignant of the heroines is soft-spoken Barbara Kowalcyk, who became an ardent food safety advocate after her son died from E coli poisoning–and no one would admit his death was caused by tainted food. She’s been trying for over seven years to get the so-called Kevin’s Law passed, which would improve the quality of meat inspections. You’d think such a law would be a no-brainer. Think again. Food protection laws are nearly impossible to achieve because of the restrictive power of the food industry lobbies. The lobbies do not want informed consumers. They want to keep up the veil of the pastoral fantasy.

The film’s villains don’t have a human face because they refuse on-camera interviews and threaten lawsuits. It’s actually against the law in some places in this country to photograph industrial farms. Even more scary, you can go to prison if you are found guilty of saying something nasty about some food products, even if those things are true. Oprah Winfrey spent years fighting the lawsuit against her for decrying the quality of hamburger on her TV show, but there aren’t too many people with wallets as full as hers to fight the food industry giants.

A few of the villains are identified. Chicken behemoths like Tyson and huge cattle and pig farms, one in North Carolina. Chemical monster Monsanto emerges from its veil of secrecy as one of the worst villains of all time. It has engineered almost all the seed used by farmers and then forces them, by patent law, to buy new seed each year even if Mother Nature enables the plant to re-seed. Rage is the proper reaction to the revelations of what these companies do to control food production and lie to consumers about what they do.

It’s not just corporations with their bottom line and efficiency experts who are affecting our food. Almost as awful are the toothless regulatory agencies that do less and less each year to protect consumers from bad food. It’s like the script of a Hollywood thriller — in the Clinton and Bush administrations, the regulatory agencies were led by the industry insiders they were supposed to regulate. So you can imagine how little protection the average American food consumer got. FDA inspections are almost ridiculous in their uselessness. E coli isn’t just from hamburgers anymore–now there are dozens of outbreaks every year, from things as innocent as green vegetables, which sicken and sometimes kill food consumers. Salmonella is another killer. Yet the FDA claims it doesn’t have a system in place to track the causes of the salmonella outbreaks. Are these people just plain vile or do they really think that we taxpayers are stupid?

There are several marks of a good documentary. One is that it covers an issue that needs to be revealed. You may read labels on food, buy organic, and think of yourself as a wise food consumer. I assure you, you probably do not know the full picture of our food industry–Food, Inc. told me more about the food industry in 94 minutes than I’ve ever learned anywhere else.

Another mark of a good documentary is that it is confident enough in its message that it doesn’t have to preach. Food, Inc. presents the facts and lets them speak for themselves. The film thus becomes persuasive not by preaching but by careful selection. It’s a masterful piece of documentary filmmaking, as low-key elegant as it is passionate.

If Food, Inc. were just a long list of blood-boiling revelations, you’d never want to eat again. But the film wisely and pointedly shows us that the picture, though grim, is not without hope. There are a growing number of farmers and food industry entrepreneurs (such as Stonyfield Farms) who are bucking the system with vision and grit and producing healthy products.

Most important, Food, Inc. convinces individual food consumers that we are not helpless. We are, after all, the same people who fought the seemingly invincible tobacco industry and made it behave with conscience.We can do the same thing with the food industry.

And one of the first steps in empowering ourselves as food consumers is to see Food, Inc. It’s showing exclusively at Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Road. Kudos to theatre management for their decision to show this film.

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