Is this Food, Inc. or Monsters, Inc?

An Oscar-nominated documentary about America’s food industry is simply ‘outrage porn’ for organic eaters.

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

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It’s a quiet Monday night in the London borough of Greenwich, home both of Greenwich Mean Time and a comfortable cinema with a liberal audience. They had come to see America’s food system (and by implication, Britain’s) condemned. This was going to be gorno for greenies.

Food, Inc. is an Oscar-nominated documentary by Robert Kenner, based on two best-selling books: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. In essence, the film describes how the modern food system has provided us with cheap food, but also suggests that this has come at an enormous cost.

In a CBS News interview in support of the film, Pollan sums up his position, and pretty much sums up the film, as follows: ‘We’ve been on this quest since World War Two to make food as cheap and abundant as possible. That’s been the direction of all our agricultural policies, to drive down the cost of food, which is always popular. Especially since the Nixon administration, we’ve been in overdrive, using subsidies to drive down the price of corn and soy, which are the building blocks of fast food.’

He continues: ‘In real dollars, we’re spending less on food than anyone in history, only about nine per cent of our income. It’s succeeded, but it’s almost succeeded too well. It’s making us fat, we have a terrible problem with obesity and type-2 diabetes. And there are lots of hidden costs. How do you get food that cheap? You have to brutalise the workers and brutalise the animals, shooting them up with drugs and feeding them inappropriate diets.’

In other words, cheap food means mistreating animals and workers and wrecking the environment in the name of producing food which is causing a lot of ill-health. The question is whether these claims are valid and whether the alternatives offered are actually any better.

The film opens on a contradiction: while the food we eat is often packaged as ‘fresh from the farm’, with comforting pictures of ranchers, farmers and picket fences, these images bear little relation to the industrial system that actually produces this food. Corn and soy are grown on megafarms by small groups of workers using hi-tech equipment, fertilisers and pesticides. In the US, much of this production uses genetically modified (GM) crop varieties.

Meat is produced increasingly in concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), where cattle are kept in close proximity, stand in their own waste and eat a diet of corn and soy, which is unnatural. Chickens, bred to produce freakish quantities of breast meat, are crammed into huge closed sheds, suffering injury and even premature death as the rest of their bodies struggle to keep up with this prodigious accumulation of muscle. The modern, intensively reared chicken is ready for slaughter in just six weeks rather than 10.

The film then argues that the animals are slaughtered and processed in conditions that make the control of deadly infections like E.Coli O157 more difficult. Frequently, this demanding, tedious and sometimes hazardous work is undertaken by illegal immigrants who are too desperate and too scared of detection to complain about low wages or poor working conditions.

The food produced from this is cheap, but not necessarily very healthy, argues the film. Around 34 per cent of Americans are classified as obese (considerably more than in even the unhealthiest regions of the UK). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about eight per cent of Americans have diabetes, with the majority of cases in later life being type-2 diabetes, which is strongly associated with obesity. Type-2 diabetes is disproportionately found in African-American, Hispanic and other minority communities. As one Hispanic family notes in the film, they’d like to eat a healthier diet, but when a head of broccoli costs the same as a huge bag of corn chips, it’s easier and cheaper to fill up on foods that they know will get eaten.

It’s not a pretty picture, then. But we should approach this litany with caution. Even the poorest Americans and Britons can now rely on having enough to eat, and usually get enough of the major vitamins and minerals, too. Life expectancies have been rising as well, suggesting that health isn’t all that bad. While the film suggests that there is an ‘epidemic’ of young people developing type-2 diabetes, the NIH figures suggest only about 0.2 per cent of people under 20 have diabetes. Even then, the figures may reflect a growing awareness in the medical profession that it is possible for young people to develop the condition. The high prevalence of diabetes in minority groups suggests that the problem of diabetes may be more complicated than simply a matter of poor diet or excess weight alone.

The problem of E.coli O157 is not a trivial one. USA Today reported earlier this month that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) seized 2.1million pounds of meat in 2009 over concerns of contamination, and estimated that E.coli O157 makes 73,000 people sick each year, killing 600. The film suggests that the problem has exploded thanks to cattle eating a diet of corn rather than grass, but that simply switching cattle to a grass diet for the few days before slaughter would help considerably.

Producers should be regulated to produce safe food. It’s hard not to feel for Barbara Kowalcyk, a food campaigner featured in the film, whose son Kevin died in 2001 after eating a contaminated hamburger. Kowalcyk has been trying to get a law passed that would allow the USDA to close plants that were persistently found to have E.coli O157 contamination. ‘Kevin’s Law’ has never made it through Congress. From this side of the pond, with a greater tradition of state regulation, the idea seems pretty reasonable. But we should also recognise that when new industrial methods are applied, unexpected issues will emerge that need to be dealt with. That doesn’t mean that new production processes should be rejected out of hand; we need to learn what the pitfalls are and respond to them quickly and effectively, not simply blame the food industry per se.

It’s also hard not to sympathise with illegal immigrants who constantly run the risk of deportation, even after spending years in the US. Food, Inc. criticises the hypocrisy of agencies that crack down on immigrants themselves while leaving untouched the companies that knowingly employ them. But immigrants are exploited in a wide variety of industries, not just food, and the work they are asked to do in the meat industry, for example, does not seem any worse than in many other sectors. Even a bad job in America is a better option for many than what they leave behind in, say, Mexico. Instead of attacking the food industry, the film would have done better to criticise America’s immigration laws which are the real reason why migrant workers are forced to accept conditions that are both financially and, in the case of slaughterhouses, literally shitty.

Many of the film’s other targets seem wide of the mark. GM foods have proven to be highly productive and have not been shown to cause ill-health. Yet the filmmakers suggest that foods containing GM ingredients should be labelled. It’s not clear why this should be done, except as a ‘yuk factor’ response to a new technology. The only consequence of such labelling is to make consumers unnecessarily alarmed about what they’re buying. While Monsanto’s ruthless defence of its patents has won it few friends, it remains the case that GM crops are very popular with farmers, both in America and elsewhere in the world. The notable exception is Europe, where the crops have been heavily restricted without good cause.

As I watched the film, what I found really irritating was how the mutterings and murmurings from the people around me in the cinema seemed to be generated more by each new supposedly dastardly act of big business, the promotion of GM crops or the plight of chickens than by the fates of the overweight Hispanic family or the migrant workers dragged out of their beds at dawn, handcuffed and deported. Food, Inc. all too often panders to a lazy, anti-modern reaction to the modern food production business – rather than try to fix the problems with our current system so that we get better food and working conditions for staff, while keeping the many technical advances that have been made, the solution is consumer pressure to get more local, organic food produced by small farmers. The cinemagoers of Greenwich, an area which is full of organic food cafés and shops, seemed suitably titillated.

Rather than providing a vision of a better food industry, Food, Inc. seems to have nothing better to offer than a retreat to the past. Ironically, the notion of a greener, organic, local food system is just as much a piece of storytelling as anything that the food corporations can offer us. For example, most of the organic food sold in Britain is actually imported – so much for ‘local’ – while the idea that we can truly get food security with organic agricultural methods that were past their sell-by date 100 years ago is just a con. Indeed, as the film shows, America’s giant corporations are eager to jump on this bandwagon if it means they can charge a bit more for what they sell. Even the retailing equivalent of Beelzebub, Wal-Mart, has been beefing up its range of organic food, while in the UK, McDonalds is one of the biggest purchasers of free-range eggs and organic milk.

On the way out of the cinema, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association were recruiting new supporters. Chances are they found a receptive audience amongst the relatively well-off denizens of Greenwich. But for me, Food, Inc. is a wasted opportunity, a flavourless morsel rather than real food for thought.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Watch the trailer for Food, Inc. here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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