Monday, June 22, 2009

If You Eat, You Need to See Food, Inc.


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Robert Kenner (director), Barbara Kowalcyk, Joel Salatin, Eric Schlosser. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

One of the most abused terms in movie reviewing is “must-see.” It usually means nothing more than that the film the critic is writing about is especially funny, exciting or spectacular. But director Robert Kenner’s new documentary Food, Inc. is truly a “must-see” movie for every American who eats. It’s basically a horror tale — not in the gross-out sense (David Brancaccio, host of the PBS-TV series NOW, joked when he interviewed Kenner on the show that “there are people who are gonna think, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be sitting in a slaughterhouse for the next 90 minutes’” — which you won’t be) but in the sense that Kenner joked he had thought of calling the film Invasion of the Food Snatchers.

The “food snatchers,” according to Kenner, are giant multinational corporations who over the past 50 years have not only taken near-complete control of the U.S. food industry (and are pushing towards controlling it worldwide) but have reorganized it according to industrial methods of production. While they still merchandise their food with old-fashioned imagery of family farmers growing it with love and care under sunny skies, the reality is that today’s “farm” looks more like a factory than the pastoral scenes on the food packages. Scenes shot with hidden cameras — the giant corporations that own your food system don’t want you to know how they operate — show dead chickens and cows being strung up on giant conveyor belts and sliced by assembly-line workers, many of them undocumented immigrants (they come cheap and can’t complain about low wages and dangerous conditions for fear of being deported) whose bosses consider them as disposable as the meat animals themselves.

What’s more, the food these gargantuan factories produce is increasingly standardized, artificial, tasteless and even dangerous. According to Kenner, that has its roots in the fast-food revolution sparked by the McDonald brothers and continued by Ray Kroc after he bought them out of the company that still bears their name. McDonald’s built an empire of cheap restaurants, first by applying industrial methods to food service — including a squirting machine (you see it in action in the film) that put just the “right” amount of ketchup on the burger — and making restaurant cooking so low-skilled anyone could do it, which means they could pay people minimum wage and accept a high turnover of workers. Then, as the company expanded nationwide, McDonald’s management insisted that a McDonald’s hamburger must taste the same no matter where it was sold — Downey, California (where the first McDonald’s was built), New York, Miami or Shanghai — and that meant that the meat processors who sold it to them had to ensure that McDonald’s would get a uniform product or McDonald’s would simply not buy from them anymore.

Some of Kenner’s most grotesque footage shows how the meat from thousands of cows gets ground up and turned into a giant vat of raw ground beef. Defenders of industrialized food often claim that it’s safer than the products of genuine family farms because its production can be controlled more carefully — but, as Food, Inc. points out, it’s actually more dangerous because one sick cow’s meat can contaminate hundreds of tons of ground beef and spread across the country through the power of a fast-food chain. Bacteria like the deadly E. coli are not only killing hamburger eaters but, through the runoff from the farms where those cows are grown and the factories where they’re killed and their meat is processed, they’ve contaminated spinach and other vegetable products even though in nature E. coli doesn’t infect plants.

One of the heroes of Food, Inc., Barbara Kowalcyk, learned about E. coli the hard way. She and her family were coming home from a vacation when they stopped into a fast-food place and ordered three hamburgers. Her 2 1/2-year old son Kevin got sick and was dead within two weeks, and it was only after he died that doctors learned from an autopsy that E. coli had killed him. Kowalcyk responded by becoming a two-person lobbying campaign with her mother, Patricia Buck, going to Congress to get them to pass “Kevin’s Law.” This was a bill that would give back to inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to close down a meat-packing plant that repeatedly produced E. coli-tainted meat. In a country where the politicians actually gave a damn about the people they supposedly represent, this would have been a no-brainer — but Kowalcyk and Buck, who started their effort in 2002 (one year after Kevin’s death), still haven’t been able to get “Kevin’s Law” through Congress.

The overwhelming power of the food industry is a running theme of this film. Not only does the industry have the power to poison people and the political clout to ensure that they never have to worry about being punished for it, they’re extending their control over the food supply in other ways as well. One key section of the film tells the story of Monsanto, a giant corporation that used to make things like DDT and Agent Orange (the defoliant the U.S. used in the Viet Nam war which killed or sickened a lot of its own troops) and got into food when it invented a weed killer called RoundUp. The problem with RoundUp was that it killed not only the weeds but a lot of the crops as well. To “solve” this, Monsanto hooked up with some scientists that had developed a way of genetically modifying soybeans so they could withstand RoundUp.

But Monsanto’s “RoundUp Ready” soybeans came with an elaborate command-and-control agenda attached. To use them, you had to sign a contract not only that the only herbicide you would use would be RoundUp (a C.Y.A. Monsanto put into the deal to make sure there’d be a captive market for their product even after its patent on RoundUp expired) but that you would buy a whole new batch of seeds each year for that year’s planting. Saving seeds from one year’s crop for the next year’s planting — something farmers have been doing since agriculture was invented — was now illegal. What’s more, because Monsanto’s modifications to the soybean gene were themselves patentable, Monsanto has claimed — and won in every case — that even if you didn’t buy their seeds and didn’t want their genetic modifications in your crop, if your soybeans contained their genetic modifications because pollen from a field that was planted with Monsanto seeds crossed over into your field, you were therefore in violation of their patent and they could sue you and claim ownership of your crop.

One of the most fascinating characters in Food, Inc. is Moe Parr, who ran a seed-cleaning operation to wash the debris off harvested seeds so they can be saved and planted the next year. Monsanto declared him a public enemy and sought to put him out of business by litigation — and after finding out it would cost over a million dollars to defend himself, he settled with Monsanto and got out of the seed business altogether. Monsanto’s aggressive defense of its seed patents is reminiscent of the Mafia in a 1930’s gangster movie; they stake out farmers whom they suspect of saving seeds, hire detectives and pay handsome bounties to farmers to turn each other in. As a result, Parr and others who tried to resist Monsanto’s total takeover of U.S. soybean farming found that people who’d been their friends for 50 years would no longer talk to them. What’s more, Monsanto has asked the U.S. courts to declare the very existence of seed-cleaning illegal as an infringement on their patents.

Food, Inc. details a lot of other ways the giant corporations have taken over the food business and suppressed any opposition or even discussion. One of the most sinister is so-called “food-libel laws,” state laws that make it illegal — and, in some cases, a felony — to disparage corporate food products in public. Most Americans first heard of these laws when a cattle raisers’ association in Texas sued Oprah Winfrey because in 1996 she’d done a show with some people talking about the unhealthy ways beef cattle were raised, and she’d blurted out on air that after hearing them she’d never want to eat a hamburger again. She was forced into a years-long legal battle, which she turned into a public-education campaign; when she had to travel to Texas for the trial, she did her show there and kept commenting on the issue. Oprah, who’s probably the world’s richest woman of African descent, could afford the multi-million dollar cost of this legal battle; almost nobody else could.

Another tactic of the multinational corporations that control your food supply is relentless opposition to labeling laws. One would think even the most diehard lassiez-faire Libertarian would at least endorse a requirement that the people trying to sell you something at least tell you what’s in it. After all, Adam Smith, who was to capitalism what Karl Marx was to socialism, said in the 18th century that one of the essentials for a free market was that buyers and sellers must be honest with each other about the real nature of the merchandise. But the food corporations, aware that a lot of people would choose not to buy their products if they knew what was in them and the horrible conditions under which they are produced, have fought tooth and nail for the right not to tell them. Thus, when genetically modified ingredients were introduced into processed foods, European consumers got warning labels and Americans didn’t — and U.S. food companies invoked the World Trade Organization’s secret tribunals to have the European labeling laws thrown out as a restraint on “free trade.”

The main clout the food companies have to write the laws the way they want them, drive out competition and keep consumers in the dark as to exactly what they’re eating comes not only from their campaign contributions to politicians but also the so-called “revolving door” by which most of the officials who supposedly “regulate” the food supply come directly from the companies they’re allegedly regulating. Either that or they come from law firms used by the food companies — like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In the 1970’s Thomas worked at a law firm and handled cases involving Monsanto; in 1991 he wrote the majority opinion in the case that gave Monsanto the clout to have even accidental contamination of a crop by their modified soybean genes declared a patent infringement — the precedent Monsanto has used to put Moe Parr out of business and take over virtually all soybean cultivation in the U.S.

Though there are a few omissions — like the potentially catastrophic effects of growing only one variety of crop, which could lead to the disappearance of an entire food source and the starvation of billions if a pest evolves with a particular taste for it — Food, Inc. is surprisingly comprehensive for a 94-minute documentary. The film vividly shows how the food industry has essentially turned every farmer in America into a sharecropper, forced to grow a certain way, pay exorbitant prices for their equipment and supplies, live their lives in permanent debt and go along with the secrecy imposed on them by the industry or lose their livelihood altogether. It also depicts how food itself has become increasingly processed, divorced from its roots in nature, in ways that are making us fatter and less healthy — thanks largely to government policies that subsidize artificial foods and jack up the price of natural vegetables and produce — and it shows how the lower your income, the fewer choices you’ll have and the less healthy your food will be.

Like a lot of other documentaries in its genre, Food, Inc. is quite a bit better at telling us how awful everything is than it is at giving us ways we can fight back. Much of it is based on the research of two people who are extensively interviewed in the film, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser (who’s also listed as a co-producer) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, and the filmmakers’ “what you can do” advice is pretty much what you’d expect: cut down on meat consumption, stop drinking sodas and other sweetened beverages, shop at farmers’ markets if there’s one close to you, and buy organic. But Robert Kenner is too good a director to ignore what’s happening to the label “organic” as more and more “organic” food producers are being acquired by the same multinationals that control the rest of our food supply.

Though Kenner doesn’t stress the point, his film contains a fascinating debate (of sorts, since they never appear together) between two organic food producers. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms comments with evident embarrassment on old videotapes showing him as a young idealist criticizing capitalism, and boasts that he was able to build the third largest yogurt producer in the country and ultimately sell out to an Italian food conglomerate that allowed him to keep running it. He boasts that not only did he get his yogurt into Wal-Mart — which, in an otherwise relentlessly anti-corporate movie, is depicted surprisingly positively — but that, thanks to consumer pressure, Wal-Mart has withdrawn all milk containing recombinant bovine growth hormone and therefore, for once, the clout of a major multinational has actually made the food supply healthier. By contrast, Joel Salatin of Polyfield Farms in Virginia says in so many words that marketing his free-range, grass-fed livestock to Wal-Mart would be like selling his soul.

Food, Inc. is a film that’s going to provoke reactions, and not always the ones the filmmakers intended. Kenner shows footage of how chickens are killed on Salatin’s farm — they’re put head-first into a funnel, their necks are wrung and their throats are slit — and clearly means us to read that as the healthier alternative to the way it’s done at an industrial chicken processing plant. But the audience at the June 18 preview screening at Landmark Hillcrest in San Diego got equally grossed out by both scenes. Still, very little of Food, Inc. is even potentially disgusting, and much of it is surprisingly moving, especially the depiction of the people who’ve been victimized by the “food snatchers” and how they’re fighting back. If you give a damn about what you put in your mouth, you have to see this movie.


Facts from Food, Inc.

Source: The Food, Inc. press kit.

In the 1970’s, the top five beef packers controlled about 25% of the market. Today, the top four control more than 80% of the market.

In the 1970’s, there were thousands of slaughterhouses producing the majority of beef sold. Today, we have only 13.

In 1998, the USDA implemented microbial testing for salmonella and E. coli 0157h7 so that if a plant repeatedly failed these tests, the USDA could shut down the plant. After being taken to court by the meat and poultry associations, the USDA no longer has that power — and a grass-roots lobbying campaign started in 2002 to get Congress to restore it has so far failed.

In 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2006, the FDA conducted only 9,164.

During the Bush administration, the head of the FDA was the former executive vice-president of the National Food Processors Association.

During the Bush administration, the chief of staff at the USDA was the former chief lobbyist for the beef industry in Washington.

Prior to renaming itself an agribusiness company, Monsanto was a chemical company that produced, among other things, DDT and Agent Orange.

In 1996 when it introduced RoundUp Ready Soybeans, Monsanto controlled only 2% of the U.S. soybean market. Now, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented gene.

Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney at Monsanto from 1976 to 1979. After his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion in a 1991 case that helped Monsanto enforce its seed patents.

The average chicken farmer invests over $500,000 and makes only $18,000 a year.

32,000 hogs a day are killed in Smithfield Hog Processing Plant in Tar Heel, N.C, which is the largest slaughterhouse in the world.

The average American eats over 200 lbs. of meat a year.

30% of the farmland in the U.S. is used for planting corn.

The modern supermarket now has, on average, 47,000 products, the majority of which is being produced by only a handful of food companies.

70% of processed foods have some genetically modified ingredient.

SB63 Consumer Right to Know measure requiring all food derived from cloned animals to be labeled as such passed the California state legislature before being vetoed in 2007 by Governor Schwarzenegger, who said that he couldn’t sign a bill that pre-empted federal law.

Corn products include: ketchup, cheese, Twinkies, batteries, peanut butter, Cheez-Its, salad dressings, Coke, jelly, Sweet & Low, syrup, juice, Kool-Aid, charcoal, diapers, Motrin, meat and fast food.

Corn, which is the main ingredient in animal feed, is also used as a food additive. Those products commonly include: Cellulose, Xylitol, Maltodextrin, Ethylene, Gluten, Fibersol-2, Citrus Cloud Emulsion, Inosital, Fructose, Calcium Stearate, Saccharin, Sucrose, Sorbital, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Di-glycerides, Semolina, Sorbic Acid, Alpha Tocopherol, Ethyl Lactate, Polydextrose, Xanthan Gum, White Vinegar, Ethel Acetate, Fumaric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Baking Powder, Zein, Vanilla Extract, Margarine, and Starch.

1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes; among minorities, the rate will be 1 in 2.

E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks have become more frequent in America, whether it be from spinach or jalapeños. In 2007, there were 73,000 people sickened from the E. coli bacterium.

Organics is the fastest growing food segment, increasing 20% annually.