Last weekend I saw Food, Inc., a documentary narrated by Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation). While readers of these books will be familiar with the film's topics and conclusions, this brutally honest examination of industrial food production will be a wake-up call for most viewers.
The film first examines milk, egg, and meat production, with footage of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), slaughterhouses, and meat processing plants. Any reasonably observant person knows what to expect in these scenes: cows knee-deep in their own waste, sick chickens suffocating to death in crowded warehouses, animals sliced apart at breakneck speed. While the filmmakers do not explicitly advocate reducing or eliminating consumption of animal products (neither Pollan nor Schlosser is vegetarian), I don't understand how anyone seeing this gruesome footage could draw a different conclusion. It compels you to watch a cow, caked in feces and too sick to walk, being driven into the slaughterhouse by a tractor, and says: this is your cheeseburger, your meatball, your roast beef sandwich. When confronted with PETA brochures, it's easy to dismiss these images as sensationalist. If someone else presents the truth about factory farming, maybe the message will get through.
An aspect of factory farming that deserved more attention in the film is the widespread use of pharmaceuticals. Because food animals live in crowded, filthy conditions without access to fresh air or appropriate food, they're uniformly pumped full of antibiotics. Not only are these antibiotics passed along to humans who eat meat, eggs, and milk, their concentrated use encourages the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (A measure restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock was recently proposed in the House of Representatives. It's supported by the Obama Administration, the American Medical Association, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, but opposed, predictably, by the National Pork Producers Council. Read about it here. I'm skeptical about its chances, because restricting antibiotics without losing many more animals to illness would require providing them adequate space and healthy feed. That would make meat more expensive, a repercussion few legislators are brave enough to stand behind.)
The film contrasts large-scale meat and dairy production with scenes of Polyface Farm in Virginia, where poultry and livestock graze and socialize until they're gathered up for slaughter. While farmer Joel Salatin discusses his guiding principles, behind him a group of pigs wag their curly tails as they nose through a pile of compost. Is this free-range method of farming healthier for the animals, and the humans who eat them? Certainly. But a scene of the presumed Good Guys slitting the throats of living, kicking chickens and hanging them upside-down to bleed to death over a plastic bucket is hardly reassuring. I can't imagine anyone leaving the theater craving nuggets.
The film next looks at the effects of industrial grain production on the land and on Western diets. Pesticide run-off poisons the water supply, monoculture depletes nutrients in the soil. As grain production increases, the American diet becomes less diverse, and more dependent on corn-derived pseudo-foods like high fructose corn syrup. Unless you've read Omnivore's Dilemma, you'll be amazed at how many of your calories come from corn and soy. Cameras accompany an overweight working-class family to the grocery store, where they buy calorie-dense hamburgers and soda and tell their daughter to put back a peach.
Farmers supplying grain and animals to multinational corporations complain of crushing debt and constant intimidation. When patented genetically-modified seeds ride the breeze to another farmer's fields, Monsanto calls it stealing and files a lawsuit. The film reveals how Big Agriculture uses its considerable legal and economic muscle to prevent small farmers and consumers from speaking out about food safety and inhumane treatment of workers and animals. The mother of a child killed by E. coli-contaminated beef, fearing a lawsuit, is unwilling to discuss on camera how the experience has changed her family's eating habits.
Food, Inc. is a frightening, uncomfortable, vitally important movie. Anyone in the industrialized world who eats food should see it. For those of us already trying to make healthy, sustainable food choices, it offers affirmation. I hope it frightens others out of complacency.