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What I Watched Last Night: Food, Inc.

Since forever, science and industry have been on a mission to develop some sort of life form capable of doing nothing but growing or shitting money. By the looks of Food, Inc., the Robert Kenner documentary released in 2009 and shown last Sunday night on PBS's POV, the American food industry has made astounding headway toward accomplishing that goal.

I've never been particularly concerned over who makes my food, how it's slaughtered and processed, or how it ends up at my grocery store. I've never exactly been picky about what goes into it, either; I love a good hot dog, a nice bologna sandwich, and I've rarely met a hamburger I didn't like. I like it that way. But Food, Inc. made me reconsider what constitutes good food made good and fast and cheap.

Yet therein lies the dilemma I've been dealing with for years since I'm not affluent and do my own food shopping. I know anything off a Wendy's dollar menu is cheaper and tastier than a whole head of lettuce, and takes no prep time; I also know that's why so many of us have become lard-assed Type II diabetics. Yet the same foods that are better for us (no pesticides, no growth hormones, no genetic engineering, no feedlot raising, etc.) cost three to four times more than the regular stuff. To me, $10 for a gallon of milk and $6 for a pound of ground beef isn't exactly a consumer-friendly way to cultivate mass appeal.

As it turns out, that's because food that could be better for us is far more expensive because it isn't government-subsidized like the regular stuff, and most everything abusive and wrong continues largely because the country is full of people just like me shrugging, "Ah well, whatcha gonna do?"

Food, Inc. is one of the most engaging documentaries I've seen in a long time, so I barely noticed the thing is 93 minutes long. That's why it wasn't a chore for me to learn that America's food supply is run by a small handful of corporations with more money than God. Worse, that supply runs on standards of self-policing and inspection that can border on "until a shitload of people die from it all at once, we're all good." It's no wonder people go vegetarian - even though that's no guarantee leafy greens won't kill you, either.

But people are indeed getting sick and dying from commercial food contamination. So a chunk of the film is devoted to Barbara Kowalcyk, whose young son Kevin died from a hamburger infected with E. coli O157h7, and her campaign to pass "Kevin's Law" restoring the U.S. Department of Agriculture's power to shut down plants that produce meat contaminated by salmonella and E. coli O157h7. Otherwise known as the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act of 2003, the measure died in congressional committee.

I wasn't totally surprised by the occasional footage of downer cows trying to walk on useless legs or being pushed around by a forklift, chickens being raised in cave-dark warehouses or hyper-fattened to the point where they can't walk anymore and die, or even the look into the open, digestion-in-progress stomach of a live cow.

What surprised me was why E. coli even exists in beef products in the first place. It's not simply because feedlot cattle spend their lives shoehorned together knee-deep in their own shit like bovine Lucy Ricardos squishing grapes to make the world's biggest cowpie. It's not like they're scrubbed clean before taking a bolt gun to the forehead and sent down the line either, so there's no sure way for cow shit not to be a contaminant. Duh.

Rather, it's because a good bit of that shit is crawling with E. coli that started surfacing in new strains when the industry turned cattle into corn eaters. (As it happens, corn is used one way or another to manufacture damn near everything on the planet. We're even teaching farm-raised fish to eat corn. Really.) Corn fermenting in cattle stomachs provides a great E. coli habitat; grass doesn't.

"Cows are not designed by evolution to eat corn," says Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. "They're designed by evolution to eat grass. And the only reason we feed them corn is because corn is really cheap and corn makes them fat quickly . . . If you take feedlot cattle off their corn diet, give them grass for five days, they will shed 80 percent of the E. coli in their gut."

Thoughtfully, the film reminds us that grass-fed cows in open fields don't stand around in their own mess 24/7. Yes, I'm aware that all the water devoted to irrigating all that grazeland is helping fuck up the planet. But so is all the water needed to irrigate vegetable cropland. Either die from thirst or die from E. coli; the world's an imperfect place.

More disturbing, though, is Food, Inc.'s look at the astounding financial and political reach and power of intimidation that meat and agribusiness corporations have, and how food has been transformed from something we once cared fundamentally about into just another industrial product created with roughly the same regard Samsung has toward TV sets. It's the money, stupid - and our corporations aren't stupid about how to make mountains of it, often at the expense of the people helping create those mountains.

One of these corporations that caught the attention of Food, Inc. was Smithfield, which runs the world's largest hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The plant blows through 32,000 hogs a day and has the benefit of a seemingly bottomless supply of disposable, low-skilled immigrants - many bused in from within a 100-mile radius - to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the country for the kind of wages George Pullman would envy. Meatpacker IBP even buses in workers directly from Mexico.

The industry also seems to be content to spend mountains of smart cash on lawyers in order to make mountains move. Say what you will about Monsanto Monsanto cornering 93 percent of the American soybean-seed market with its patented, herbicide-tolerant Round-Up Ready Soybeans (genetically engineered to resist Round-Up, the world's leading herbicide made by - surprise! - Monsanto).

But there's something a bit goon-squadish about having a team of 75 investigators out roaming the heartland to root out farmers who may be cleaning and saving their own seed to plant next year - a practice as old as farming itself - or may have genetically-modified seed on their conventional-seed land that might have blown in from a neighbor's field. There's even a Monsanto farmer blacklist.

"If you save your own seed, you're gonna get a call from somebody from Monsanto," says Troy Roush of the American Corn Growers Association, who had his own legal problems with Monsanto.

Indiana seed cleaner Moe Parr got one of those calls. It's rather disheartening to see the film follow Parr as Monsanto turns him into toast.

Food, Inc. is decidedly one-sided because the corporate interests - Smithfield, Perdue, Tyson, Monsanto - declined to be interviewed. The closest thing to a two-sided account I've found on my own related to this film is this ABC Nightline segment.

Still, Food, Inc. never gave me a sense that I was watching alarmist nutjob propaganda. Maybe in a way I was, but nobody struck me as unreasonable, and I never felt like the sky was falling or that I have to turn into some sort of deprived food Luddite tomorrow to save myself from Darth Vader and the Death Star.

It just reminded me that the ultimate power for change lies with the consumer, and I can start helping change things by consuming something different a little at a time.

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Visit the What I Watched Last Night archives and see what else we've been watching.

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Submissions and comments welcome.



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Posted on April 30, 2010


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