“How much do we really know about the food we buy at our local supermarkets and serve to our families? That is the question filmmaker Robert Kenner poses in Food, Inc., a film premiering on June 12.
The way we produce and consume food has changed more in the last fifty years than it has in the ten thousand years before that, but the image we are sold, on food packaging, in advertising and so on, is still that if a quaint agrarian America, with pictures of red barns, happy farmers and healthy fields. This is a pastoral fantasy and the reality is very different.
We no longer have any seasons in our diet, everything is available in the supermarket year round, shipped in by boat, truck or plane from all corners of the world. The average supermarket today has somewhere around 47,000 different products, the majority of which are being produced by only a handful of food companies. Thanks to chemical engineering, the produce is always fresh and there is more white chicken meat than ever. But we are purposefully kept in the dark about what is actually in the food we consume. 70% of processed foods have some genetically modified ingredient, but current legislation does not require that this be stated anywhere. SB63 Consumer Right to Know measure requiring all food derived from cloned animals to be labeled as such passed the California state legislature before being vetoed in 2007 by Governor Schwarzenegger, who said that he couldnâ€™t sign a bill that pre-empted federal law.
Our governmentâ€™s regulatory agencies, the USDA and FDA are often run by people with one foot firmly planted inside the very food giants from which they are supposed to protect us. Producer Elise Pearlstein says â€œWe discovered that the food industry has managed to shape a lot of laws in their favor. For example, massive factory farms are not considered real factories, so they are exempt from emissions standards that other factories face. A surprising degree of regulation is voluntary, not mandatory, which ends up favoring the industry.â€ During the Bush administration, the head of the FDA was the former executive VP of the National Food Processors Association, and the chief of staff at the USDA was the former chief lobbyist for the beef industry in Washington.
Seven years ago, Barbara Kowalcyk lost her 2 1/2 year old child Kevin, who died from an E. coli infection he contracted after eating a hamburger. She has since, along with her mother Patricia Buck, become a food safety advocate, fighting to give the USDA the power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meats. In 1998, the USDA implemented microbial testing for salmonella and E. coli 0157h7 so that if a plant repeatedly failed these tests, the USDA could shut down the plant. After being taken to court by the meat and poultry associations, the USDA no longer has that power. Self-regulation is again the recommended method of choice. In 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2006, they conducted only 9,164. â€œWe put faith in your government to protect us, and weâ€™re not being protected at the most basic level,â€ says Kowalcyk, who says sheâ€™s tired of being met with pity when telling the story of her childâ€™s death. She wants to protect others from suffering the same fate and has pushed for the â€œKevinâ€™s Lawâ€ bill since 2002. It still has not passed.
E.coli 0157h7 is basically a new strain of this deadly bacteria, thought to be a result of feedlot cows being fed corn instead of the grass that they are intended to eat. The bacterial makeup in their rumen changes and acid-resistant strains of the bacteria form. â€œCows are not designed by evolution to eat corn. Theyâ€™re designed by evolution to eat grass. And the only reason we feed them corn is because corn is really cheap and corn makes them fat quicklyâ€¦ The industrial food system is always looking for greater efficiency. But each new step in efficiency leads to problems. If you take feedlot cattle off their corn diet, give them grass for five days, they will shed eighty percent of the E. coli in their gut,â€ says Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eaterâ€™s Manifesto and An Omnivoreâ€™s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. This is not done though, and CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operators) instead look for high-tech solution, such as spraying the meat with ammonia to get rid of the bacteria.
My belief that Monsanto may just be the most evil company in the world, is firmly re-established. Prior to renaming itself an agribusiness company, Monsanto was a chemical company that produced, among other things, DDT and Agent Orange (the first a very efficient killer of plants, the second of people). In other words, established to produce products that kill they continue to do so quite efficiently. Although they are trying to make us believe that they are just like us, that is very much not the case. In 1996 when it introduced Soybean seeds resistant to their popular pesticide Round-Up (aptly named Round-Up Ready), Monsanto controlled only 2% of the U.S. soybean market. Now, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contain Monsantoâ€™s patented gene. This is an extremely scary statistic. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney at Monsanto from 1976 to 1979.Â After his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion in a case that helped Monsanto enforce its seed patents. Engineered seeds are considered intellectual property and Monsanto investigators (a team of 75 or so, many ex-military and police) go after every farmer suspected of saving seeds, since this ancient and very sustainable practice is now considered patent infringement. Monsanto also compiles a black list, with names of all farmers not considered friendly or cooperative. They sometimes sue farmers, knowing that they will never actually win but can settle out of court and often destroy small farmers that cannot afford the legal bills associated with going up against a giant agrobusiness.
What really gets straight to my heart are the stories of the people in the film. There is Moe Parr, the seed cleaner who owns one of about six remaining seed cleaning machines in the country (he says each county used to have at least three of these), helping farmers that have not yet given into Monsanto clean seeds for saving. Monsanto sued him on the grounds that he provided farmers a way to infringe on their patents. Parr is a sweet old man who has done this forever and says his friends will no longer talk to him for fear of having Monsanto come after them too. After four months, he settled out of court since he could no longer pay his legal bills, and were put out of his seed cleaning business.
There is Carole Morison, the Maryland chicken farmer who, against the recommendation of her contractor, Perdue, speaks out against the terrible conditions she observes as a result of antibiotics and high-tech breeding practices forced upon farmers by the large chicken companies. It used to take a chick three months to grow into adulthood, but with the chemicals put into the feed, this now only takes 45 days. Chickens are also designed to develop oversized breasts to meet the consumer demands for more white meat, their bones cannot keep up with the growth and some of the chickens can no longer stand. Many die before they are brought to market. Morison lost her Perdue contract and is let with few options but selling the family farm.
There is also the Latin family of five, where the parents work hard to earn a living and often find no time for cooking, leaving fast food the most viable option. Their money will buy them each buy a burger and soda off the dollar menu. We get to come with them to the grocery store, where the youngest daughter admires the pears and says â€œI want that!â€ The big sister weighs the pears, does the math and deems them too expensive. This is the unfortunate reality for many Americans today, no time to cook and no money to spend. The ironic thing is that they spend hundreds of dollars every month on medicines for the fatherâ€™s diabetes, something that could have been prevented by eating a proper diet. These are the connections that people do not make, but the fact is that cheap food is more expensive in the end.
There is also Eduardo PeÃ±a, the union organizer trying to help the thousands of nameless, faceless illegal immigrants that make up the workforce of most meatpacking plants. Many are Mexicans and used to be corn farmers before NAFTA made cheap U.S. corn widely available and put these small local farmers out of business. Meatpackers place ads in Mexican newspapers and often provide bus transportation for them to come over as well. Yet, it is always the workers that are punished, never the companies. Many of them have agreements with law enforcement to allow a certain number of arrests every months, at times that will not disturb the food production. These workers who have been here for as long as ten years, producing the food that we all eat, making around $10,000 a month are arrested, deported and uprooted without any thought of psychological implications.
Then there are those who provide hope and positivity. Gary Hirschberg who has a background at The New Alchemy Institute, said he was tired of preaching to the choir and realized the only way he was going to win this fight was to beat the food conglomerates at their own game. He started Stonyfield Farms in the early 80s, with seven cows and lots of ambition. Today, Stonyfield is the third largest yoghurt provider in the country. We see Hirschberg meeting with Walmart executives, among them is Tony Airosa, the retalierâ€™s chief dairy purchaser, who is an enormous change agent, no matter what your feelings toward Walmart may be. Airosa says â€œActually, itâ€™s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If itâ€™s clear that the customer wants it, itâ€™s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.â€
Finally there is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, made famous in Pollanâ€™s book An Omnivoreâ€™s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. His farming practice is grass-based, letting cows graze free, mowing and fertilizing while they eat, just as nature intended. People drive for hours to buy the food Salatin produces. He says he never wants to grow beyond the point where his business becomes unsustainable or too big for him to handle. â€œI never want to be in a Walmart,â€ he says. There is no doubt that Salatin does farming the right way, without fancy technology and chemicals.
He concludes, â€œImagine what it would be if, as a national policy, we said we would be only successful if we had fewer people going to the hospital next year than last year? The idea then would be to have such nutritionally dense, unadulterated food that people who ate it actually felt better, had more energy and werenâ€™t sick as muchâ€¦ now, see, thatâ€™s a noble goal.â€”