I enjoy watching the Food Network to learn about various types of food. I also enjoy eating and like to think of myself as an enlightened consumer. So I was naturally interested in this Oscar-nominated documentary produced by and featuring Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) that provides a broad and in-depth look at some of the problems and challenges facing the food industry in the United States.
They first look at the problems of the food industry and how these can harm and even prove fatal to the public. The move to mass-production of food over the last 50 years has led to a consolidation of companies that want to produce the most amount of food on the least amount of land for the cheapest price. That in and of itself is not a bad thing: later on you will see organic food companies mass producing their healthy products like yogurt. The problem comes about when companies insist on feeding corn to their livestock, which makes the animals get bigger and fatter more quickly. Corn is also engineered to make synthetic products like high fructose corn syrup and ascorbic acid that add a considerable amount of fat to many of the products we eat, including peanut butter, ketchup, and Sweet N’ Low. When livestock are fed a high fat diet rather than grass, and are forced to live in very tight spaces, bacteria like E-coli spread and can pose a serious threat to humans. Many companies use chemically treated meat filler that is now put in most of the hamburger in fast food restaurants. One of the “treats” of the documentary is to see how the filler is made in a factory, where it is run through an ammonia chamber and then packaged and sent to meat processing plants. The problem is compounded by many of the big companies in the food industry. They resist all efforts to change, they lobby Congress and have been successful in getting their own people to run agencies like the FDA that are supposed to regulate their industry.
There is also the profound impact on people. E-coli has sickened thousands of people and even led to the deaths of young children. Diabetes 2 has become a widespread problem for both children and adults. In one scene in the film, “The Dollar Menu” a poor family comes to terms with their reliance on fast food, which is cheaper than healthier food they find in the grocery, but is more expensive in the long run when they consider the high cost of medications to control high blood pressure.
The challenges and opportunities of the organic food market are also examined. Though many organic farmers provide healthier products, many of them, like the comical farmer from Virginia interviewed while he “processes” a soon dead chicken, have no means or desire to grow to meet demand. If people want to buy their food, then they have to either be lucky enough to live nearby or have the means to drive a considerable distance to buy food onsite. There are organic companies who have used mass production to become highly successful, like Stonyfield Farms. Their CEO, Gary Hirschberg, has the best quote when he states that organic food businesses, when going up against the big food industry corporations, needs to fight not as David going against Goliath, but as Goliath going up against Goliath – in other words, they need to get big enough to compete with the corporations. And no company was better for them than Walmart, an unlikely ally which is a great outlet for their products able to sell millions of dollars of food every year. The fact that Walmart does this for financial rather than ethical reasons does diminish this a little, but their willingness to consider organic products is an important first step, making them the only big company in the documentary to look at least somewhat good.
This is a thought-provoking documentary about the food industry that I recommend to anyone interested in where their food comes from. It concludes with 10 Things You Can Do To Change Our Food System that includes eat at home, have meatless Mondays, and buy organic food made with little or no pesticides. Some of the images are disturbing but not overly graphic. Many of these images, however, will stay with you and make you think twice about eating fast food hamburgers or chicken nuggets. Highly recommended.
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