Movie Review: Food Inc.




Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc., a documentary on the food industry released in the summer of 2008, shatters a few myths about how we eat. One is that our food comes not from bucolic farms but from a factory system that holds farmers in an economic grip so tight they dare not deviate from prescribed modern methods. The second is that Wal-Mart sets an example that might save us all.
Yes, Wal-Mart. Surprise, surprise.
If you subscribe to the theories that modern hair loss is tied to excessive beef or agro-chemical consumption, there’s plenty to consider in this film as well (not that the film touches on alopecia – diabetes, the obesity crisis and underregulation and overconsolidation of the food industry are the foci of this exposé). We’re clearly a culture of carnivores, and the sheer volume of animal flesh we consume shares the blame.
Food, Inc. follows the investigations of acclaimed food industry critics Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), who chronicle the effects of the modern food industry on the human diet. It goes something like this: A consolidation of manufacturers and beef packers (e.g., Tyson Foods, Perdue, Smithfield Farms), court rulings providing unprecedented control over seed stocks to Monsanto Company, and consumers’ willingness to cede control over their diets to fast food and convenience food manufacturers have created a dangerous situation. A large majority of the 47,000 products found in the average grocery store are tied to corn, soybeans and wheat, and those products have a nutritional profile essentially as bad as products found in fast-food restaurants – high fat, salt and sugar content, with very little fiber.

Farmers are told to use factory-farming methods: For example, cattle are fed corn, which leads to higher E. coli content than when they more naturally consume grass; chickens live their truncated 45-day lives in crowded, dark barns and have enormous, genetically manipulated breasts too heavy for their legs to support. Corn and soybean farmers are beholden to Monsanto, which has unprecedented legal and economic power (90 percent of the market share with a combination of genetically modified seeds and herbicides, according to the movie). Meanwhile, today’s Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, in pursuit of deadly microbiological pathogens, conduct far fewer plant inspections, with greatly reduced authority, when compared with a generation ago,
The net result for consumers: many more incidences of deadly food-borne illnesses; cheap and readily available foods that are essentially a processed interpretation of corn, soybeans or wheat; and enough nutrient-scarce calories to make two-thirds of the adult population overweight or obese.

Perspective of a pragmatist

When I watched the film, I was not terribly surprised by any of this – and not just because I’ve been writing about food and nutrition for the past seven years. The fact is I formerly worked in a public relations capacity for both McDonald’s Corporation and the NutraSweet Company, a Monsanto subsidiary, in the 1980s and 1990s.
It’s my impression that neither company, nor the other firms cited in Food, Inc., is inherently evil. They are simply doing what the free enterprise system requires of them: to use the lowest-cost inputs (corn, soybeans, wheat) to produce the highest-economic-value outputs (grain-fed beef, sodas sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, etc.). To do any less would disappoint shareholders, reduce market strength and consequently toss executives, food scientists, marketers and loading dock foremen out of their jobs.
After all, companies just want to make money. And they did right by consumers for decades, producing safe, flavorful foods that were affordable to just about anyone. In the United States, the poorest segment of the population skews higher in obesity – although clearly, body fat does not mean the same thing as being well fed. The film shows how hardworking families naturally default to convenience foods because they perceive it to be easier and cheaper.
If the product sells profitably, why wouldn’t a food industry company keep doing what it does best? Matters of human health are simply not their responsibility or economic liability.

Fighting back by making better-informed choices

Food, Inc. does offer hope. A manufacturing-distribution alliance between Stonyfield Farms and Wal-Mart illustrates a successful paradigm shift. Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, is a rare hybrid: concerned about natural foods enough to produce an organic yogurt from grass-fed dairy cows yet knowing that the company has a greater positive impact with a broader retail presence. Wal-Mart agrees and carries Stonyfield yogurt in its stores.
“The irony is that the average consumer does not feel very powerful,” says Hirshberg. “They think that they are the recipients of whatever industry has put there for them to consume. Trust me, it’s the exact opposite. Those businesses spend billions of dollars to tally our votes. When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we’re voting.”
Wal-Mart’s chief dairy purchaser, Tony Airoso, agrees. “If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen,” he says.
Which gets back to my own experience in food industry marketing. The keenest eyes are fixed on what is selling. If a large portion of the market makes better-informed choices – less processed food, more healthy ingredients – there will be a change in what is offered.
Consumers who simply eat what’s within reach, without considering their personal health, are victims of predominant forces in the food industry. People who learn to cook, who study the benefits of a plant-centric diet and who consume smaller portions of animal proteins have greater control over their health. It’s work, yes, but probably not as hard as many think. Nor is it as expensive in the short or long run: if you get diabetes, you or your health care provider will spend between $22,000 and $30,000 per year on medications and other treatments. That’s a minimum of $517 billionspent annually in the United States on the 23.5 million adults who are officially diagnosed as diabetic – with a prediabetic population that might triple this population and expense over time.
Fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes and organic yogurt are cheaper. Spread the word.