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Food, Inc. (2009)

WARNING: ORGANIC SPOILERS

My girlfriend, Patricia, who can barely tolerate meanness let alone cruelty to animals, saw the documentary “Food, Inc.” with me last night, and there were moments when she had a rough go of it. Caring boyfriend that I am, I wish she’d had it rougher. I wish she’d run screaming from the theater. I wish we all had. Maybe we would have if we’d been able to get a closer view of a big factory farm or slaughterhouse. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that we can’t. This is a public interest issue, a public health issue. What have they got to hide? Special sauce? Secret recipe? One of the farmers, selling to Tyson, says his chickens never see the light of day. In a way, neither do we.

Yes, I’m already the converted—I’ve read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” reviewed Greg Critser’s “Fatland,” saw “Super Size Me”—but I still need to be preached at. You begin to forget if you don’t take communion. Just the other day I had two cheeseburgers at Dick’s. I thought: Why not? Then last night I watched an industry executive bragging about the ammonia they put in meat filler, which is in 70 percent of meat sold in this country. I thought: Oh, right.

“Food, Inc.” doesn’t take cheap shots but I wanted it to hit harder. Sometimes it goes for the soft, lefty emotional appeal. Here’s the mother of a 2 1/2 year-old boy who was killed by E coli in 2001 and who now lobbies Congress (fruitlessly) for greater regulations in the meat industry. Here’s an immigrant family that can only afford the fast food that is making them sicker. Both stories are sad. So are billions of others. Give me facts. Show me footage. Make me throw up.

Filmmaker Robert Kenner got my attention right away. He strolled us down the clean aisles of a modern supermarket in haunting, dreamy fashion—like something out of a David Lynch movie—while the narrator (Eric Schlosser) said the following:

The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.

That’s scary enough. Then I realized I’m 46. My entire lifetime encompasses this warped timeframe.

They give us facts. In 1970 the top five beef producers produced 20 percent of the nation’s beef. Now the top four produce 80 percent of it.

A chicken in 1950 took 90 days to reach maturity. Now it takes 49 days. And they’re twice the size. Some have grown so large so quickly they can’t even walk. We see them stumbling. It feels like we’re messing with the plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick.

Our government subsidizes corn, which is put into almost everything we eat, and which is shipped around the country to feed cattle. An organic farmer points to his cows in a field and talks about the natural cycles. The cows eat the grass, then shit on the grass, which fertilizes the grass, allowing the grass to grow so they can eat it again. We’re messing with this plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick. Now we truck in tons of corn to feed tons of fenced-in cattle and truck out tons of manure. Industry claims this is an efficient system, but it’s not as efficient as God’s or Nature’s. It also leads to disease.

We get footage of the E coli breakouts. Remember Jack in the Box in 1993? That was a big deal. Then, in rapid fashion, and for diminishing attention spans, we get breakouts in ’98, ’01, ’02, ’06. Unless we’re directly involved, we’ve stopped paying attention. It used to be just meat. Now it’s spinach. Runoff from factory slaughterhouses is making even our vegetables deadly.

Kenner has trouble focusing because the subject, like the runoff, gets into everything. So NAFTA legislation allows a flood of cheap, government-subsidized corn into Mexico, which puts 1.5 million Mexican farmers out of work, which forces many north, here, to work in our factory farms and slaughterhouses. Until of course the illegal-alien thing becomes hot. Then they’re rounded up and shipped back, in careful intervals, so as not to disturb production. The labor issue is definitely a consequence of the bigger subject—why and what we’re eating—but it still feels peripheral. It still feels softy lefty.

Here’s the focus. Industries are now cloning animals but they’re not required by the FDA to label the product “cloned meat.” The California legislature passed a resolution requiring the labeling but Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Hasta la vista, baby.

Here’s the focus. Monsanto created and, in the 1980s, successfully patented a genetically-altered soybean called Roundup Ready, which is resistant to their herbicide Roundup. They own the seed. In 1996, 20 percent of soybeans in the U.S. were Monsanto’s; by 2008, 90 percent were. They sue any farmer who keeps one of their seeds, or onto whose farm a genetically altered seed is blown by the wind. Other soybean seeds are now disappearing (forever?) in favor of Roundup Ready. Monsanto is putting God out of business.

Here’s the focus. In 13 states, the food industry can sue people—such as Oprah in ’96—who make disparaging comments about their products. It’s called veggie libel laws. To fight you need Oprah’s money. Imagine if the film industry could sue a critic who disparaged its product. The mind reels.

Here’s the focus. For much of the last 20 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, industry regulators (heads of the FDA, etc.) have been of the industry. They have ties to the Monsantos of the world. Their interests are not our interests. Military-industrial complex? Pikers.

That’s the kind of thing I wanted more of. I wanted a concentrated, close-up look at what our food is and why.

At the same time, maybe it’s better that Kenner didn’t hit too hard. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost said of poetry. Kenner does. He leaves it to us to provide the pressure.

Here’s mine. Here’s me letting off steam. If a company like Monsanto can patent a genetically altered soybean, then force them to call it something besides a soybean. In all of their packaging, in all of their marketing, the term “soybean” cannot be used. Because a soybean is God’s product, Nature’s product, not Monsanto’s product. Let them call it a crapbean. Let’s pass that legislation.

The scariest people in the doc tend to be industry people who speak their mind, who have no broad overview. “Everything we’ve done in modern agriculture is to grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper,” one says. This is how business people think, and should think, but there should be balance from elsewhere and we’re not getting it. Why we’re imbalanced.

The business of business is to speed up the assembly line, to push things through the system at a faster and faster rate, and in doing so, they’ve created a product that is not the product. This is everywhere, in all business. So rather than wait for homeowners to pay off their mortgages, we’ve turned mortgages into mortgage securities, which banks sell to investment banks, who then sell them to investors, which frees up the banks to lend again. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling. So with our food. We’re pushing chickens and soybeans through the system at a faster and faster rate, but what we’re pushing through is no longer chickens and soybeans. It’s something else. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling.

The doc ends with a plea for individual responsibility. Everything you buy and eat is a vote. Be careful how you vote. I agree. But more needs doing. Government needs to be on the side of consumers rather than just business. At the least, we need to be able to know what’s in our food. “Food, Inc.” is a start for those who need a start. It’s communion for those who don’t. Check it out. The situation is worse than you think.

—June 20, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard