How much do we really know about the food we buy at our local supermarkets and serve to our families? You are what you eat. It is a simple expression that bears scary implications as you. This documentary explores how modern developments in food production pose grave risks to our health and environment.
A word of advice: Don’t plan on dining out after watching this gut-wrenching expose of the food industry. Although the documentary spotlights the handful of agribusiness giants that control what the vast majority of Americans consume every day, it’s highly likely to kill your appetite for the rest of the day.
And, perhaps, make you wonder if any of the unhealthy and at times lethal practices that are rife in food manufacturing and processing in the US are happening Down Under. Given the current epidemics of obesity and diabetes in Oz, Food Inc. couldn’t be more topical.
'The industry doesn't want you to know the truth about what you're eating – because if you knew, you might not want to eat it," declares Eric Schlosser, one of this film's two principal talking heads and author of the book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.
Directed and co-produced by Robert Kenner (who won an Emmy for the PBS doco The American Experience: Two Days in October), the doco reels off some alarming statistics. Among them: Chicken are force-fed to the point where from birth to slaughter now takes 48 days, versus 70 days 50 years ago, and they’re jammed into cages so they can’t move and kept in perpetual darkness.
Produced below cost thanks to government subsidies, corn is an ingredient in a staggering 80 percent of supermarket products including batteries, nappies, cheese, headache tablets and soda.
Chemical giant Monsanto, formerly notorious as the manufacturer of Agent Orange, patented a gene that's in 90 percent of the nation's soybean seeds. Farmers are sued if they keep seeds for re-use.
Schlosser points to what looks like an ordinary vegetable and calls it a "notional" tomato, lacking in flavour and artificially coloured so it’s ready to be consumed year-round.
The film’s other major talking head, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, points out the production of food has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000. The widespread use of fertilisers and pesticides plus economies of scale have resulted in the demise of many small farmers and the rise of mega-corporations which are heavily-mechanised and employ cheap and often illegal labor.
In part, this film plays like a real-life horror movie with gory scenes shot in a pigs’ slaughterhouse by a hidden camera, sick cows being pushed around by a forklift, a researcher sticking his hand into a hole in a cow’s stomach, and offal being funnelled along a conveyor belt. Equally scary, Pollan estimates the meat in a single fast-food burger might have come from as many as 400 different cows.
One chicken farmer who bravely showed the producers that she refused to keep her chickens in the dark subsequently lost her contract to supply a giant chicken processor. The most heart-rending testimony comes from Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2-year-old son Kevin died in 2001 after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Now a food safety advocate, she campaigned for a law to strengthen the US Department of Agriculture's powers to enforce sanitation and safety standards. She declined Kenner’s invitation to list her eating preferences for fear of being sued.
There are some grounds for optimism, For example, the giant Wal-Mart chain struck a deal to buy organic yogurt from Stonyfield Farms because their customers demanded healthier food. And Kenner talks to an organic farmer in Virginia who defies the rules by gutting his chickens out in the open, free-ranges his livestock, talks to his animals and sells his products direct to consumers rather than via supermarket chains.
This is the kind of revealing, hard-hitting and disturbing doco which Michael Moore might have trained his beady eyes on – except he’d have ruthlessly pursued the top brass at the agribusiness giants, all of whom refused to be interviewed by the producers.