Doco wants you to think before you eat

Food, Inc.
Directed by Robert Kenner
Written by Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein
Runtime: 94 minutes
DVD available for order online

In the past decade, a growing concern has emerged about our diet — specifically the high animal fat, refined carbohydrate-based, Western diet. As our waistlines have expanded and our life expectancy has begun to fall, this examination isn’t a moment too early. Director Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. is the latest documentary to take up the topic of what the industrialisation of food and its production has meant for the health of the people who consume it.

Following on from the works of authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and the documentaries Super Size Me and King Corn, Food, Inc. chronicles several different cogs in the industrial food machine — from battery hens too large to walk more than a few steps, to corn growers who lose money growing corn until they receive their government subsidy and a family of four who have to choose between a $1 cheeseburger or a dollar for two pears for dinner. To say it’s a confronting film is an understatement, and even though Australia doesn’t have some of the same problems (such as an overwhelming reliance on highly processed high-fructose corn syrup), that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to be gained from viewing the film.

Fast food and corn

It begins by examining how the rise of fast food chains began to shape and change the products grown by US farmers — and how biodiversity has suffered as a result. Kenner takes the audience into the world of farmers who face an uphill battle to make ends meet while working for some of the world’s biggest corporations. We meet chicken producers who object to the darkened battery farms they are forced to run by their contracts. If they speak publicly, as one woman does in the film, they face losing their contracts and, given the market share of some of these companies, that’s a death sentence for their livelihood.

The film also highlights the role of corn in the industrialisation of the US food system. Starting in the 1970s under the Nixon administration, secretary of agriculture Earl Butz re-engineered the farm subsidy program to encourage farmers to “get big or get out”. This meant farmers began planting corn fencepost to fencepost, operating at a loss until they receive a government subsidy based on the amount of corn they produce. Over time, science found a way to use the vast surplus of corn (and later soy): they would engineer it into food additives, sweeteners etc., or simply feed it to animals stuck in the hell of concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). The animals in the CAFOs aren’t meant to eat grain as their primary food because it causes ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems, but luckily for them, they aren’t destined to live very long anyway.

Kenner visits the largest slaughterhouse in the world, run by the Smithfield Packing Company in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The conditions for the animals and the workers are painful to watch. We also meet a union organiser working with some of the Smithfield workers. These meat workers face some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country, but because of the poor labour market, most don’t speak out. Further complicating the problem is Smithfield’s habit of encouraging undocumented workers from Mexico to travel to North Carolina to work in its plants, only to turn them over to the immigration authorities once they’ve served their purpose. A repeated theme of the film is text appearing on screen after a major expose of a company’s practices to explain that the company refused to take part in the making of Food, Inc.

Consumer power?

The biggest flaw of the film is its conclusion — that consumer power is enough to change the many flaws in the industrial food system. At the end of the film, various messages appear, imploring the viewer to take action. The advice — contact Congress, eat local, plant a garden etc. — will be familiar to most of us. Naomi Starkman, a media consultant and aspiring farmer who helped create the messages, told the June 3 New York Times, “I want people to feel like they can do something. You make a choice three times a day on what you want to eat. That is power.”

But the film contradicts this illusion of power with its profile of a family who have to choose between the father’s diabetes medication and healthy fresh food for the family. It further clouds its own argument with a segment featuring “reformed” hippie Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm yoghurt company, the third most popular yoghurt brand in the US. Stonyfield Farm’s products are completely organic and Hirshberg cites the fact that Wal-Mart carries the brand as proof that it is possible for everyone in the US to eat healthy organic foods and, by using their buying power, reform the system. He actually explains: “We’re not going to get rid of capitalism … we need to be much more urgent.”

Additional digging further debunks the Stonyfield argument. Using its own web site and list of suppliers, I could find only one distributor of its products in the entirety of metro-Detroit — one of the poorest cities in the country and one almost entirely devoid of reliable public transport thanks to decades of targeting by the Big Three auto companies.

Change the system

Australia faces a different obstacle to affordable healthy food in the vast duopoly over the food market by supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles. According to a 2007 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, the two chains control up to 80% of the Australian grocery trade, up from 30% in 1975. A Horticulture Australia Council survey revealed that 85% of growers were unwilling to raise issues with major retailers “for fear of retribution”.

So is the answer to just join a food coop and buy only local, organic food? Of course not. Amy Muldoon in the current issue of International Socialist Review writes: “... organic sales currently account for only 3 percent of the food consumed in the US; local food netted a mere $4 billion (compared to almost $17 billion for organics) ... Individual efforts to eat right may help some (mostly middle-class) consumers to live a healthier lifestyle, but consumer choice does little more than redirect some of the profit stream — it does not challenge the economic basis on which the food industry is built.

“Even if sustainable, organic methods completely replaced toxic industrial methods, a free market in food still operates under the pressure for profit. Those who can afford to eat may not suffer from the rampant health problems fueling the current crisis, but the market cannot and will not provide for those who cannot afford to buy.”