Released in the U.S. last June, the documentary film Food Inc. is the latest in a growing succession of best-selling books and popular movies about the politics of the modern U.S. food industry, including: Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001), Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004), Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and In Defense of Food (2008), and French documentarian Marie-Monique Robin’s Le Monde selon Monsanto (The World According to Monsanto) (2008).
The film, directed by Robert Kenner, and narrated by Schlosser and Pollen, gives an overview of the various dangers and ills posed to American consumers and workers by our current factory-farm model of food production. In no great depth, unfortunately, it covers most of the major issues consumers care about: foodborne illnesses such as E.coli found in hamburger meat, the effect of large companies’ purchasing power on farmers and small farms, immigrant workers lacking basic rights, genetic engineering, organic and local food efforts, and the environmental unsustainability of factory farms. The (much more interesting) frame of the film, however, is examining how companies such as Monsanto and Tyson are able to keep consumers coming back for more, when participating in such a harmful production system is becoming less and less interesting. Now, sales-pushing corporate dishonesty is nothing new. This is the problem in the first place with any mass industrial system, whatever it is producing. But you may be surprised to find how far, or how low, these companies can and will go to shield the truth from consumers who dare to look, and how deftly they and their Washington cohorts change laws in their favor. For example, food libel laws in several states make it illegal to publicly criticize food manufacturers. Even an expression of dissatisfaction is grounds for a lawsuit!
Controlling vast portions of the markets allows huge companies to reshape the consumer market as well as consumer behavior. 90 % of the meat produced in the U.S. is slaughtered by 4 companies. Wal-Mart leads the list of 5 companies that control 50% of supermarket sales. Conglomerates are very effective at lowering prices—good for the consumer—but they also essentially control the market, deciding what is bought and sold, what is available to the consumer. If Wal-Mart decides to stock its produce aisles with locally-grown beets (which it is doing in certain areas), it will create enough demand that it’s in the best interests of local farmers to supply beets. Unfortunately, organic foods are not yet in such high demand. Our American grocery stores are flooded with cheap meat, corn syrup-sweetened beverages and snacks, and processed foods. The companies that provide these products have enormous political leverage and influence. Corn and soy crops receive heavy government subsidies, driving down the cost of cattle, poultry, and dairy products (as a result of cheap feed), and also processed foods. Thus the food that most people buy (understandably, the cheapest available), and that children learn to develop a taste for, is by no accident the kind of unhealthy food that is mass-produced, and that contributes to the continued growth of McDonalds and Frito-Lay. Health problems posed by mass-produced meat are quietly passed by and health code violations overlooked by FDA officials. The bigwigs at the FDA and the chairmen of food companies are often one and the same. Hardly the objective eye we’d expect to be regulating our food safety.
Food companies today, the film reiterates, rely on a lack of transparency to sell their products. They fight GMO labeling, calorie counts, product history. It all comes down to how well you, as the consumer, know your food. What’s in it? Where did it come from? How will it affect your body and your health? Companies want to distract you with the price tag, but insist on looking beyond. The final message of the film is that despite corporate power, consumer behavior can change the system. Fight for labeling and be aware of what you’re eating. Most Americans sit down to dinner with a bag over their heads—maybe this film will poke a couple eyeholes in it.