Every Foodie’s Watch list. Part 1: Food Inc

I have long promised to do a review of some of the most exciting food documentaries I have come across in quest for revelations and insights about our modern food environment. There is indeed quite a few movies that are worth mentioning, reviewing and, of course, watching, but I will start with the ones that, in my opinion, most comprehensively cover the subjects they are addressing.

“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10 000” – this highly intriguing statement opens up the first documentary I am going to review. It is a movie called “Food Inc”, produced by Robert Kenner, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, who piece by piece assembles the jigsaw puzzle of various flaws of our current food system and offers an uncomplimentary insight into the workings of the industrial food business.

The movie first takes you through the aisles of a modern supermarket, where product offerings come nowhere  close to nature and yet, the “spinning of the pastoral fantasy” is a new sales strategy with images of farmland and green grass found in abundance on the packages of the most Frankensteinian food creations. The movie traces the origins of the industrial food production back to the emergence of the fast food industry and its world-famous pioneers, McDonald brothers, who have been the first to turn a restaurant kitchen into an assembly line with all the benefits of a factory system – low wages, fast service and, of course, big profits.

We then find ourselves on a stifling factory farm where striking images of the horrible conditions of modern poultry farming are supplemented by revelations of one of very few fearless farmers who dared to let the reporters in.  The issues of animal abuse, human labour exploitation, expulsion of small farmers out of business by increasingly powerful food corporations are brought to our attention before  we meet a familiar face – Michael Pollan, the author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma (and several other best-selling books), who continues the discussion of the issue of environmentally unhealthy and progressively unsustainable industrial food production. He debunks the myth of the “unrestricted variety” of product choices on the modern food market by highlighting how just a handful of giant corporations produce the lion’s share of the foods we eat from just a handful of crops. He attributes the vulnerability of the modern food chain and its susceptibility to bacterial contamination and food poisoning to the pernicious methods of mass production – factory farms, the practice of feeding corn to cattle, concentration of food supply, etc.

Having paid a visit to a supermarket and witnessed some of the terrible conditions of factory farming, we are transported to a pasture farm, where another hero of Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, a self-defined grass farmer Joel Salatin, is waiting to share his own approach to food production, animal rearing, nature and environment. He talks about the hidden costs of cheap food and its untold toll on the ecological and human health and shares his experiences of alternative, grass-based and nature-bound, food production.

As a hint at my next post, the subject of genetic modification, biotech industry and its powerful giant, Monsanto, has not been left out of the documentary’s focus. The movie adds some depth to the issues of seed patenting, revolving doors, implications of transgenic crops for the farmers and more. No more details on this as I am going to review a very informative documentary on genetic modification in my next post.

Another interesting topic discussed in the movie is the so-called veggie libel laws, formally known as food disparagement or food libel laws, which are laws that essentially allow food companies to hold people liable for making uncomplimentary comments about food products. The most well-known case of food libel litigation is probably a lawsuit filed against Oprah Winfrey for her public remarks about beef and hamburgers made in a discussion of a mad cow disease.  While the law in as many as 13 US states allows food companies to easily sue any food critic, consumers are to a large extent deprived of such a possibility with a ban on “frivolous” lawsuits  against food industry being enforced in many parts of the US.

But to me, at the heart of this eye-opening documentary are two human stories – one of a mother who lost her little son to an E-coli infection that stroke a child after he had eaten a hamburger. Now a food safety advocate, she is fighting relentlessly for improved food safety standards. The other story comes from a family, which, although struggling with diabetes, is forced to live on a diet driven not by health considerations, but cheap prices, and for whom a hamburger and a soda from a cheap fast food outlet is a daily menu.  However disheartening, these stories don’t leave a consumer’s mind undisturbed and foster the rethinking of our place in and approach to the modern food environment.

The movie ends on a spirit-lifting note with remarkable transformations of the tobacco industry being mentioned as a proof of the power of human action and will and an example of societal changes we, as consumers have the power to bring.

Direct link to the documentary.


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