Food, Inc.

by Cynthia Fuchs

21 April 2010

The story of chickens grown to sell is only one example of market-controlling and bio-engineering in Food, Inc.

Something Has to Be Said

POV: Food, Inc.

Season Premiere
Director: Robert Kenner
Cast: Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Barbara Kowalcyzk, Joel Salatin, Carole Morison
Regular airtime: Wednesday, 9pm ET

US: 21 Apr 2010

It’d be nice if y’all could see what we really do.
—Vince Edwards

“It’s not right what’s going on,” says Carole Morrison. “And I’ve just decided I’m going to say what I’m going to say. I understand why others don’t want to talk. I’m just to the point that it doesn’t matter anymore. Something has to be said.” Morrison’s what they call a “grower” for Perdue Chicken. She raises birds to be turned into food. Her story is grim: birds live short and dreadful lives, immobile and crowded into long low warehouses, fattened until they can’t walk.

The story of chickens “grown” to sell is only one example of market-controlling and bio-engineering in Food, Inc. You may think you know some of these stories, for instance, that most food in the U.S. is produced in facilities that are more like factories than farms, that junk food is less expensive than healthy food, that the FDA is not doing its job. But Robert Kenner’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, airing on 21 April to open the 23rd season of PBS’ terrific documentary series, POV, means to disturb you, and so it gives you details of these stories you think you know.

Like the shots of chickens toppling over themselves, each example is tragic, pathetic, and infuriating. And each is occurring every day. “The idea of this world is deliberately hidden from us,” asserts Eric Schlosser, whose investigative work, including the book Fast Food Nation serves as a central source for the film, along with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The movie begins with a quick trot through fast food history, naming the McDonald brothers as primal-scene villains, as they brought the assembly line to the restaurant kitchen (see also: Super-Size Me), with the “unintended consequence” of a “handful of companies controlling the food supply.” As the film puts it, “Even if you don’t eat at a fast food restaurant, you’re eating food produced by the system.” 

For example, those chickens you eat at home or in more expensive establishments. The industry works like this: corporations like Perdue and Tyson contract growers like Morrison and Kentucky-based Vince Edwards. He extols the virtues of his Tyson contract (“It’s all a science, they’ve got it all figured out”), but then he is, off-screen, advised by Tyson reps not to show the inside of his windowless chicken houses to the film crew. As the film notes in an intertitle that “Tyson declined to be interviewed for this film” (a tack taken as well by Smithfield and Monsanto), it turns to Morrison, whose outrage at the way she and her chickens are treated leads her to bring Kenner’s camera crew inside the warehouse to see crowds of chickens looking miserable: “Their bones and internal organs cant keep up with the rapid growth,” Morison explains, “They take only a few steps then plop down.”

Morison appeared as well in Frontline‘s Poisoned Waters, where she showed how the corporate processing of chickens not only makes for sick chickens, but also for a polluted environment. Here her focus—and that of the close-up shots—is on the chickens fattened and crammed together until they can’t walk and/or drop dead. Those who live long enough to be hauled off on the Tyson trucks are brutally killed (activities revealed by hidden cameras). She not only indicts the process, but also the company’s cunning control over farmers’ economic lives: as the growers must put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to put up houses, they go into debt, which means they cannot refuse the company’s orders. “To have no say in your business, she says, “It’s degrading. It’s like being a slave to the company.”

When the film reveals in a note that Morrison’s farm was “terminated,” you have to think: even as she’s righteous here, she’s also out of work, for not toeing a corporate-ordained line. Food, Inc. provides other stories to compound your sense that something is very wrong here. Tomatoes, for example, are genetically engineered. As the camera shows rows of fat red fruits in a supermarket, the voiceover reveals, “Although it looks like a tomato, it’s kind of a notional tomato, the idea of a tomato.” 

As Food, Inc. explains, these “tomatoes” are signs of a dodgy future already here. And it’s orchestrated—profitable and exploitative, of workers as well as animals and resources. It’s not a conspiracy, exactly, but it is the result of decisions made in the face of adverse information, decisions based on bottom lines.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Food, Inc. makes this much clear in the time it gives to organic farmer Joel Salatin. His Polyface Farms in Shenandoah Valley, PA is a model of good process: his cows eat grass (as opposed to corn, which fattens them but which they were not built to digest), living their short lives out in fields rather than factory-farms. Salatin spells out the broad cultural dimensions: “We’ve become a culture of technicians,” he asserts, “And a culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human being can foist on that critter will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures in the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentality.”

This would be the film’s argument, that mistreatment of animals (or crops and land and air and water or immigrant workers) is bad for individual bodies as much as it is for populations. And while motivated farmers like Salatin lay out helpful maps for alternative growing methods, Stonyfield Farms CEO Gary Hirschberg provides another way of thinking about distribution. If Salatin is happy not to expand his own operation, the film submits that someone needs to figure out a way to supply food to people who can’t get to or can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. His solution—at least for now—is to work with Walmart. Perhaps not an obvious choice, that mega-store is here presented as cooperative for the usual reasons: the reps say they’re responding to customers, and Hirschberg acknowledges it’s not a function of “moral enlightenment so much as economics.

Food, Inc. sees that food is, indeed, incorporated and there’s no turning back on that fundamental truth. It focuses instead on how to work with and through that truth. If it uses its own gimmicks and conventions to make the case—slick graphics and repetition, the emotionally wrenching story of Kevin’ s Law, advocated by Barbara Kowalcyk, mother of a child who died of E. coli poisoning because hamburger meat was not properly inspected or recalled—it makes the case. And that’s the first step in the work.

POV: Food, Inc.


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