Confident home cooking

Review: Food, Inc.

by Nick

This weekend, I’m reviewing a cookbook movie that has received a lot of press lately. Let’s dive in and see if it’s worth your $10.

I was very happy to see that Food, Inc. had come to a theater near me. It was totally ridiculous that a movie targeting, to a large extent, Washington and the crazy business that goes on here was not actually debuting here. In fact, I’ll go out on a very large, very wobbly limb and say that the sudden decision to show the movie in DC had to do mainly with my Tweet from a few weeks ago.

Thanks for listening guys.

I’m glad I was able to see it (and at a theater that sells beer no less) because there has been a lot of talk about this movie over the last few weeks in the food blog circle. There’s been a lot of reviews raving about the movie and there has been at least one very well written pre-buttal of the movie that made me excited to see it.

For those interested, the pre-buttal I’m speaking of is a week long series of posts from Joe Pastry which you can start reading here (start at the bottom of the page for best reading). Joe does a good job of addressing the counterpoint to many things discussed in the movie. While I disagree with some of his points, I must say he had a much more thoughtful answer to the movie than one major company targeted in the movie, Monsanto.

Speaking of Monsanto, before I get into a full review of this movie, I have to mention their response to the movie which I found to be almost comical. Frankly, they should hire Joe to write their PR materials. Not only is their page based on basic lies, but it also includes an awesome quiz to help you understand their view.

I frankly don’t respect any company that feels the need to use quasi double negatives in a true/false question:

“True/False: Monsanto did NOT decline to participate in the film, Food, Inc.

My head just exploded. Did you try to participate or not and is this question true or false? I have absolutely no idea. Seriously though, I encourage everyone to go to the Monsanto site and take the 7 question quiz they give even if you haven’t seen the movie but especially if you have. If you’re like me, the way they word questions and answers will leave you with a distinct feeling that something is up.

Ok seriously, the movie now.

Variety Variety Variety. The movie starts out with a monotone narrator talking over sweeping views of corn fields which segways into sweeping views of supermarket isles. These isles are what a large majority of America see on a weekly basis and most of us say to ourselves, “Wow. Look at all this variety.”

And that is partially right. The average supermarket has over “47,000 products” on the shelves. And if you think about it that is about right. How many different kinds of potato chip can you think of right now? I can think of at least 20 just off the top of my head which I will spare you the pains of reading. But there are obviously hundreds.

The movie starts this way, I think, because its goal is to ultimately question where this stuff comes from. And by stuff I mean the food. The meat. The produce. The other stuff that is vaguely food. How does it get to our plates (or cars) and do we think we are eating something that we are not?

They also hint on some questions that will be elaborated on later like “Why are there so few bones in the meat section?” What does it say that “boneless” has become a good thing?

Fast Food to All Food. I really enjoyed this section of the movie. Eric Schlosser leads us on a brief history of the fast food industry and how huge fast food companies like McDonalds influence food all over the country. While it is obviously complicated, and I think the movie does a fantastic job of explaining it in decent depth, the short of it is a simple economic fact: If you are buying millions of dollars and pounds of anything (beef, potatoes, etc.) you can largely dictate the terms on which those things are produced.

Corporate Food. A huge portion of this film is dedicated to investigating the food being produced by major corporations (eg: Tyson’s). There are some pretty dramatic scenes of chicken coups and slaughterhouses and how these farmers and laborers are indebted to these large companies.

There was one very telling quote during this part of the film which I’ll paraphrase below because I was only able to scribble it down in a dark theater:

“In a way, we aren’t even producing chickens, we are producing food.” – Richard Lobb, National Chicken Council

So what? Well, it turns out that if you are thinking of something as a product rather than an animal than it can lead to some bad consequences…

One thing that became very clear to me during this middle section of the film is how technology has affected food production in the last 50 years. It has done some amazing things. It makes it possible to produce a large amount of food at very low prices, but it also enables things like disease to spread wildly.

It’s a two way street. The movie argues that these corporations feed a lot of people and enable the consumer to get cheap food, but they also make that food with very little concern to worker relations, food quality, or in some cases, safety. People keep buying it so they keep making it.

The Ideal. If you have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then you’ll know all about Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms. When I first read about him I thought that he would be perfect for a movie. Turns out I was right.

If you don’t know who Joel Salatin is, he’s a simple farmer with a simple idea: Produce great food by working with land the way it was intended to be used. Let the cows eat grass and then crap in the field and then the crap will fertilize new grass which the cows will eat again later. He’s a blunt man, but also the perfect spokesperson against corporate food production. He makes a very good argument that while his method might be slightly more expensive, it produces a better product and is actually more efficient in the grand scheme of things. Which makes sense, you know, because that is how it is supposed to be.

Basically every line that Mr. Salatin says is a perfect tagline. There is a pretty good section where he is discussing food costs, and this is something I agree with him on. I’m paraphrasing again, but his argument is why are people willing to buy a more expensive car but not a more expensive egg? People will park their Mercedes and then question why his eggs cost $3 a dozen when they can buy eggs at the supermarket for $1.29/dozen. All while sipping their 99 cent Coke.

The answer has something to do with how people have become desensitized to food quality differences. But at the end of the day, some eggs are better than other eggs and some steaks are better than other steaks.

From Seed to Supermarket. This part of the film has to do with Genetically Modified Crops and is honestly an area that I’m not very familiar with. If you read Joe Pastry’s pre-buttal he makes some good arguments why these things are actually good and helpful and make sense. I do think that this is one of the weaker areas in the film because it is such a complicated issue. It has to do with very difficult patent laws and health codes and at the end of the day I just think it isn’t quite as simple as the movie makes it out to be.

I’m not saying that the argument that the movie presents is wrong, but I think it is just a larger subject than they have time to discuss in a 90 minute documentary.

Isle Hopping. If I had one argument against this movie is that it is maybe too ambitious. It is a huge sweeping film covering everything from labor issues, to corporate food production, to genetically modified crops, to policy issues, and it goes on. It is really intense. The film is broken into maybe 6 or 7 major sections and my problem is that each section could literally be its own 90 minute film.

Now, I think that the makers of this film would argue (and maybe correctly) that these issues are all interconnected so it is impossible to cover only a small subset of the problem. But from someone who cares deeply about a lot of the issues covered in the film, a part of me would rather watch a really in depth documentary on one section (like King Corn maybe) than such a broad stroke film.

What’s the Takeaway? There are two messages that this film gets across crystal clear. And I think these two messages are so important that I think literally everyone should see this movie.

1) Knowledge really is power. If anything, this movie succeeds because it will get people talking. And questioning. And hopefully it will get some of these companies to start being honest with us about the food we are eating.

2) When you buy, you vote. The hard lesson from this movie that is implied throughout the entire film is that when you buy anything at the supermarket, you are literally voting. At the end of the day, none of this will change if the economic incentives exist to continue as is. But what does that mean for the average person?

Well, it means that if you want change you are going to have to accept higher food costs. There is really no other way around it. Unfortunately, eating whole, healthy foods is more expensive in this country right now then buying fast, processed food. Obviously, a lot of people in America don’t have the extra money to buy real produce and that’s unfortunate. But small decisions can have a big impact and any time you make a concerted effort to buy a carrot instead of a Cola, you’re sending a message.

Even if you don’t agree with everything this movie has to say, everyone should see it.