Food Inc - movie review

by Farmer Liz
I finally watched Food Inc. when it was screened on SBS1 a few weeks ago.  I know I’m really behind, the film was first released in 2008!  I haven’t read Michael Pollen’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma yet either, but I have read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which was also featured in the film.  I was already aware of most of the information covered by the film, which aims to expose our industrialised food system.  It covers a broad range of food topics and is a good, and suitably shocking, introduction for anyone who previously had no idea how bad the food system really is.  For those who are already knowledgeable in this area, it may leave you with more questions than answers and a feeling that there is so much more to this discussion that could not be covered in a single film, but that's not such a bad thing either.

The film starts with chicken farmers in one of the southern states of the USA.  The first farmer isn’t allowed to film inside his chicken house, but the next farmer shows the gruesome reality of mass produced cheap chicken.  Not only are the chickens treated badly (no room to move, even if their over-sized bodies could move further than a few steps, lying in their own faeces, piles of dead chickens removed every day), but the poor farmer is in a debt spiral and has no control over her own business.  Next time someone asks me why we “bother” to raise and kill our own chickens when we can buy a hot chicken from the supermarket for $5, I will refer them to this part of the film, it is certainly worth the effort and we get to eat real chicken. 

Next the film turns to corn and the fact that it is an ingredient in just about everything we eat due to the government subsidies in the USA.  We are lucky in Australia that we don’t have such subsidies and so corn and soy have not become such a huge part of our food (yet).  I was disgusted by the “food engineer” who was so pleased with the clever invention of high-fructose corn syrup – this stuff is literally killing people, it is not food!  (see Sweet Poison for more information).

From hidden corn in human food, the film then moved to corn in animal feed and the connection to the mutation of a human pathogenic form of E.Coli bacteria (E. Coli O157:H7, more references here), which can cause severe food poisoning resulting in death.  This is where I think the film spent too long with a mother who was lobbying for increased food safety testing following the food poisoning death of her son.  First, it irritated me that the grandmother was drinking a can of Pepsi, clearly these people had not entirely rejected industrial food production.  Actually they just seemed to want to regulate the industrial food system, rather than avoid it.  Towards the end of this segment, the film shows a meat processing plant that “cleaned” the meat with ammonia, yuck!  I don’t understand why people are buying premade hamburger patties anyway, these are very easy to make yourself, from mince bought from a local butcher, or even minced yourself – we used to buy whole rumps from the supermarket when they were $5/kg and mince them at home.  Anyway, I don’t think any amount of regulation of any food processing companies is going to help reduce food poisoning when the system itself is so completely flawed.  The best option is to grow your own, or at least buy local from small producers, the less we support the big food processors the better, because all they do is cut costs and hope that there are no deaths linked to them.

One of the saddest moments for me was the family that could not afford healthy food.  I think the situation in Australia is slightly different, because I’m pretty sure that I can cook healthy meals cheaper than buying takeaway, as we don’t have $1 burgers here (as far as I know, I don’t tend to go to those places).  Last time I bought fast food out of absolute necessity, I was shocked by how expensive it was.  I really just wanted to visit that family and teach them how to grow their own, how to shop for cheap healthy ingredients and how to cook them so that they didn’t have to rely on cheap fast food.  The worst part was that they recognised that the cheap food was costing them in the end in the form of medical bills.

Joel Salatin also features in this film, and he has so much good stuff to say on this topic, he could have taken up the entire film if someone had let him.  Really his appearance was all too brief, but it did give an example of what can be done outside of the industrial food system, for anyone who was thinking “yes, but how else can we produce food so cheaply?”.

Throughout the film, the treatment of animals is shown to be absolutely shameful; they are treated as part of an industrial mass-produced system, rather than sentient beings with thoughts and feelings.  Even as serious is the treatment of workers, which is briefly discussed in a few segments.  Most of the meat-packing and vegetable-picking workers are illegal immigrants with few labour rights.  The food factories are dangerous, operating at ridiculous speeds, and there is little time for human safety precautions, let alone humane treatment of animals.  Its clear that a society that doesn’t even treat its workforce with respect has no chance of respecting animals either.

The other really sad moment was when they showed an elderly gentleman with a seed cleaning rig who was being sued by Monsanto for “helping farmers to break patent” on their GM seeds.  This made me so angry.  Monsanto has no right to prevent farmers from saving seeds and from continuing farming practices that have provided us with food for hundreds of years.  Sure they should be able to profit from their patent, but if their horrible GM genes spread to other people’s seed, they are the ones who should be sued for letting those genes lose in the first place.  I heard Joel Salatin with an excellent quote along the lines of “if my dog got out and impregnated your dog, I wouldn’t be able to charge you for the puppies”, which is exactly what Monsanto is trying to do and it seems very difficult to afford to win the case, even though the accusation is ludicrous.

A nasty reminder was the segment on organic produce owned by large multi-nationals.  I don’t believe that organic food can retain its integrity when its produced alongside “conventional” chemical food, even if its not in the same factory, the decisions are made in the same board room.  How can organic food retain its purity, both the product and the intent, when its being produced by people who will also happily fill food with chemicals in order to make a quick buck?  Food companies try to conceal the real ownership of organic brands, so it can be a struggle to figure out who is really producing organic products.  The simple solution is to not buy processed foods at all, organic or otherwise, they are not good for you anyway.  If you buy simple local ingredients from as close to the source as possible, at least you can be more certain of the origin the product.

The film didn’t get a chance to cover other relevant issues such as laying hens, the reality of some "free-range" production not being free at all, mass produced pork, sow stalls, soil degradation, water pollution, pesticides and food additives.  There are so many factors that make our food system mentally and physically unsafe, for the workers, the farmers, the consumers and the animals themselves, the film has highlighted a selection of the most accessible that, I hope, will inspire viewers to find out more.  The solution to all these problems is simple; we need to care where our food comes from, who produces it and how.  We need to buy local whenever possible.  And we need to pay attention to law changes that my erode our right to know what’s in our food, and ask for changes that can help farmers to produce good food.  Remember that real food is produced by farmers, not by factories.

Did you watch it?  Will you watch it?  What do you think?

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