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The Lens: Bitter taste

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 8, 2009 - A choice everyone makes each day is “What should I eat?” That choice just became a little more complicated with the persuasive new documentary “Food, Inc.”  Despite the seemingly endless choices in the supermarket aisles, a handful of large corporations control most of what is available. Apparently we are not in good hands, even from the standpoint of food safety. It’s frightening but not hopeless, insists director Robert Kenner, though change won’t come easily. 

This documentary is neither as witty nor as confrontational as the work of documentarian Michael Moore. It includes interviews with Michael Pollan of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which many viewers may have read. “Food, Inc.” nevertheless supplies much additional evidence about our food quandaries. 

Among the documentary’s several heartbreaks is the case of Kevin, a 2-year-old who died from e-coli in a fast-food hamburger. In the six years since Kevin’s death, his mother and grandmother have become unpaid lobbyists for food safety, hoping to spare others from Kevin’s fate. What they have found is no apology from the meat company responsible and toothless regulations at the USDA. Government agencies charged with food safety are staffed by cronies from the regulated companies – the old revolving door familiar from the military-industrial complex. They also found laws written by the regulated companies that protect industry, not consumers. Even “Kevin’s law,” a meat-safety proposal that seems like a no-brainer, has gotten nowhere in the Congress in the six years since the child died. 

“Food, Inc.” will put almost anyone off hamburgers for a while. Cattle, designed to eat grass, are instead fed corn, which is sold below the cost of production because of government farm policy. Feeding corn requires huge amounts of oil to grow and transport the corn. It also seems to require factory-like conditions at feedlots, where animals stand crowded, knee deep in their own feces. Conditions at the slaughterhouses are appalling for animals and human workers alike. 

Cheap corn has distorted the food marketplace in ways beyond cattle, pigs and chickens. Farm-raised fish have been trained to live on corn. Corn or its byproducts are ingredients in many, many items in the store. The film suggests that we read the food labels; the film doesn’t make the point that food companies fought labeling every inch of the way and that there is still no labeling of genetically modified foods because of corporate influence. 

Swift Inc. runs the largest slaughterhouse in the world in impoverished Tar Heel, N.C. Swift quickly went through the local labor pool. The company began busing workers in from Mexico, farmers who had been put out of business by cheap American corn and NAFTA. This huge facility is largely staffed by illegal immigrants who dare not protest their conditions. The immigration police arrest and deport a few workers from time to time but never enough to slow production at the plant – and, of course, there are no penalties for Swift. (Perhaps this pattern will change with the new Obama administration.) 

This documentary does not address the demise of the family farm or the growth of agribusiness thereby. It does show that small chicken ranches that contract with Tyson or Perdue are being squeezed by the big companies, which require industrial methods such as crowding chickens in buildings where they never see daylight. Big companies also require ranchers to “improve” their facilities at great cost, so ranchers are deeply in debt and cannot escape the large company’s contracts. One brave rancher who stood up to Perdue lost her contract. None of the large companies the film addresses was willing to be interviewed. 

“Food, Inc.” is not all doom and gloom. Stoneyfield Farms started small and is now an enormous supplier of organic foods. If consumers demand better food, they will get it, argues the CEO, who adds that Wal-Mart has stopped selling milk with hormones because of customer preference. There are also small operators such as a man in Virginia who raises cattle, pigs and chickens the old-fashioned way. Would that we all could buy our meat from him. The film advises shopping at farmers markets. Would that everyone could do that, too. Also, would that everyone could afford to buy organic foods. 

Very disturbing to a St. Louisan is the villainous role played by Monsanto, which famously patented a soybean seed. Farmers must buy new seed from Monsanto each year. A whopping 90 percent of soybeans are under Monsanto’s control – and growing. According to the documentary, Monsanto employs 75 people – not including its team of lawyers – to track down people who operate independently. Farmers whose fields may have been invaded by some Monsanto seeds blown by the wind are guilty until they prove themselves innocent. It’s a sad story that the government has always, always sided with Monsanto in these disputes. 

One food group that gets short shrift from this documentary is vegetables. Only potatoes, spinach, broccoli and tomatoes are even mentioned. The last is worth a film unto itself. One remembers a lawsuit in the 1980s in the state of California. The United Farm Workers and a consumer group sued the state for financing the University of California at Davis' efforts to develop a (tasteless) tomato that could be harvested by machine, depriving farm workers of work and the rest of us of edible tomatoes. Since tomatoes are no better and farm workers no better off, perhaps the suit failed, but it would be nice to know the whole story. 

Despite its omissions, one hopes that “Food, Inc.” will find an audience ready for political action as well as more careful shopping. The film ends with suggestions for the latter, but viewers might also be hungry for the former. Suggestions for political action would have been welcome.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.