Food, Inc.: Piercing the Veil of Corporate Agriculture

If you’ve ever been curious exactly how America produces the cheapest and “safest” food on the planet, but not quite believed all the hype that fuels the empty advertising slogans on your television, then Food, Inc. promises to be the film that explains why there’s a serious disconnect between food propaganda and reality.

In exactly 93 minutes, director Robert Kenner manages to slice down to the bone the many myths of the U.S. food system in a riveting documentary that exposes how a handful of corporations determine what our nation’s children eat and how America’s addiction to cheaper, faster, and larger portions has managed to shorten the average lifespan of the next generation for the first time since the Black Plague.

Helping Kenner make his point are leading food journalists Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, who take us on a tour of how food is really produced in America and not the sanitized, red barn, picket fence logos that have become ubiquitous in today’s grocery stores.

Unfortunately, the way food is grown, slaughtered and processed today owes more to mechanized practices honed during the industrial revolution and the audience quickly learns that the corporate food industry is desperate to keep the American public in the dark about their unsavory practices.

“There is this deliberate veil, this curtain that’s drawn between us and where our food is coming from. The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating because if you knew, you might not want to eat it,” says Eric Schlosser, the bestselling author of Fast Food Nation who also co-produced the movie.

Instead of roaming freely out in green fields, as these animals have for thousands of years, today’s cattle are confined to giant feedlots while chickens, turkeys and hogs are crammed into factory farms, where disease and antibiotic resistant bacteria rage through the system of industrial animal confinements.

The High Cost of Cheap Food

The film opens with a voiceover from Michael Pollan, whose books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food have become foundational tomes for the growing food movement. Pollan calmly leads viewers down the aisles of an immaculate grocery store, rattling off facts about America’s food system that are greatly at odds with the pristine image that U.S. food companies are anxious for American consumers to swallow.

“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000,” Pollan says, brilliantly painting the picture of today’s food marketing schemes, which Pollan calls a “pastoral fantasy.”

“There are no seasons in the American supermarket. Now there are tomatoes all year around. Grown halfway around the world. Picked when it was green and ripened with ethylene gas,” says Pollan.

For those unsure what exactly is wrong with that reality, the rest of the film succinctly explains the high cost that the cheapest food system in the world has had in wrecking havoc on human health, the nutritional quality of food, the livelihoods of family farmers, the safety of farm workers, rural communities and the environment.

While this has all been covered vividly before by both Pollan and Schlosser, Kenner manages to condense exactly what is wrong with the American food system in just the amount of time it takes the average American to gobble up a giant tub of artery choking buttered popcorn and slurp down a vat of the nation’s favorite soda, chock full of high fructose corn syrup, a cheap commodity sweetener which has been indicated as a leading cause of America’s obesity epidemic and the rise of type II diabetes.

The industrialization of the American food system takes the stage as the leading villain in Food Inc., which shines a bright light on the handful of corporations, Smithfield, Tyson, Cargill, ADM and Monsanto, that have centralized all segments of production, fulfilling the winner takes all mantra of 20th century capitalism.

The direct consequences of the intersection of the corporate, financial and political power of America’s food system are demonstrated through the heartbreaking stories of a woman whose 2-year-old son died from eating a contaminated burger, a low-income Hispanic family that have to pass up eating vegetables because they can only afford to eat fast food and a Maryland chicken farmer who is forced out of farming because she could no longer afford to be tied to a system that treats farmers like serfs while all the profits funnel up to multinational corporate agribusinesses. Unfortunately, these stories are not uncommon, happening every day across America.

For those looking for the brighter side of the food story, Food Inc. shows Gary Hirshberg, who started Stonyfield Farms with 7 cows in the early 80s, and now brings organics to the masses by partnering with Wal-Mart, the largest seller of groceries in America.
In stark contrast to Hirschberg’s warm embrace of mega corporations, is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, the grass-based Virginia farmer of Omnivore’s Dilemma fame.

While Hirschberg brings Wal-Mart executives on a tour of one of Stonyfield’s small dairy farms, Salatin shows visitors the synergy of his small-scale sustainable farm based on a pasture rotation system, which mimics nature’s patterns rather than rely on the petrochemicals of industrial agriculture.

Overall, there’s something in this movie for everyone, from the beginner and the policy wonk, to learn exactly how the food on their plate gets there and why the current system is badly in need of reform. Fortunately for viewers, Kenner did his homework. Food Inc. is another nail in the coffin for industrial ag, which is now continually on the run as their bad practices are finally catching up to them.

If you only see one film this year, Food, Inc. is that movie. In many ways, it can be seen as the antidote to America’s obesity epidemic. So drop that burger and fries and get to the theater!

Starts in select theaters June 12th, check here for more details.

17 thoughts on “Food, Inc.: Piercing the Veil of Corporate Agriculture

  1. You had me until you got to “artery choking butter.” Really, we all know by now that butter does not “choke” your arteries. That’s crazy talk. Butter, and most particularly butter from pastured cows, is a wonderful, wholesome food. But what is served in movie theaters certainly is not butter. Perhaps it is some industrial corn substitute, flavored to taste like butter? Now that might kill you.

  2. I agree with Ed. Don’t bash the butter! Instead how about focusing on the hazards of cottonseed, corn and soybean oil in your GMO popcorn!
    Butter is way better! Organic and/or local if possible, of course

  3. I couldn’t agree more with the depiction of the American food system as laid out by Schlosser and Pollan (I haven’t seen Food, Inc., so I can’t comment on the film), but there is one comment in this article that I must disagree with. The statement regarding the “low-income Hispanic family that have to pass up eating vegetables because they can only afford to eat fast food.” I have seen this argument made before (e.g., by those who argue against “junk food taxes” because they disproportionately hurt the poor) and to be frank it is utter bullsh($^@#t. Fast food, while cheap, is NOT cheaper than preparing your own food. A simple example:

    Now, I haven’t been inside a McDonald’s in YEARS, but I am pretty sure it is hard to feed a family of four there for less than $10. I don’t think any of their “value meals” are under $2.50 each. But, let’s say you could feed four people at McDonald’s for ten bucks. Or, you could prepare a healthier (and, in my opinion, tastier) dinner at home- spaghetti with meat sauce and broccoli on the side. One pound of lean ground beef= about $2.25. One pound of pasta= $1.20. Jar of spaghetti sauce= $2. One broccoli bunch= $1.50. Grand total $6.95. You could throw in dessert and a beverage and still come in under ten bucks. You’d probably even have leftovers and could stretch this meal out to make lunch for 1 or 2 people the next day.

    Don’t give me the excuse that poor people don’t have time to cook because they are busy working and caring for their family. I’ve been poor. I’ve worked two jobs and gone to school simultaneously. The meal described above is not duck confit with a port-balsamic-fig reduction and sachertorte for dessert. C’mon, it would take 25 minutes, tops, to boil some noodles, fry some ground beef and heat up the sauce.

  4. I am so excited to see this movie. Even more, I am so glad someone made it, and I am seeing it advertised in popular publications. I believe the tides are changing!

  5. Thanks Ed, it should obviously be “butter” (in quotes) as we all know what they serve in movie theaters in NOT butter.

    I actually love butter myself – and there’s an ongoing debate here in Northern Iowa between 2 of my favorite cooks, Phyllis Willis and my mother – as to which is better for cooking with, butter or lard for pie crusts. Not sure what your opinion is on that?

    The more important thing is to go see the movie, which explains these better than any review can, but make sure to hold the “butter.”

  6. @ SignoraStella

    Your statement about fast food not being “cheaper” is right on! I just made a meal for the hubby and I that was half industrial organic, half pastoral organic. Here’s what I estimate it cost:

    Industrial Organic Side-
    1/2 box of organic spaghetti $1.00
    1/2 jar of organic basil/tomato sauce- $1.50

    Pastoral Organic Side-
    2 Oz ground grass feed beef – 60 cents
    1/4 CSA obtained zucchini – .25 cents

    ORGANIC Dinner for 2 – $3.35

    Add some fresh brewed iced tea for pennies a glass, or I felt like going a little crazy I could add 2 glasses of Ladybug White wine for about $6.00, making an Organic Italian Dinner for 2, including wine that costs a whopping $9.35. Craziness! And it took me all of 20 minutes to make!

  7. Oh, and there were leftovers, easily enough for another adult, so it was actually a meal for 3!

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  9. Regarding butter, does everyone actually know where their butter comes from? I mean all the butter. From the butter put on their veggies to the butter in the pies to the butter that comes in foods not actually prepared from scratch in their kitchen? Do you know what goes into making that butter from the birth of the cows (and their deaths) to the packaging to getting stacked on the shelf in which store? Frankly, it might do to really examine the motives for such vociferous defense of the product too. Seems it’s almost entirely personal where the desire for it causes rejection of any negative evidence. That’s often called addiction when the substance is illegal.

    And the dissing on the poor here in the comments is in really nasty form. Fine to make your own food if you actually have a kitchen, refrigerator, pots, pans, dishes and oh yes, a freaking market to buy all this stuff from as well as a way to get there and back. We haven’t even discussed storage issues or spices (as well as those things that require a bit more investment such as oils). Go live in an over-priced one room hotel unit with 6 others in the middle of a ghetto where the only options are the fast food outlets such as South Central LA. It’s called a “Food Desert” for a reason.

    I don’t think people really understand what dirt poor is until they actually live it and that includes having to move every few weeks if not more often. When that’s happening you don’t often worry about hauling kitchen supplies from point to unknown next point. And yes, lots of people end up in by-the-week hotels because renting an apartment requires first/last, deposits, and credit checks if not also a fee to a realtor.

    Seriously, read about the migrant workers woes (in another post here on this site) and take a look at the kitchens they have to work with. Imagine trying to get groceries back and forth each day after working in fields for 10+ hours (there are no laws for farm work protecting overtime, strikes, or other work protections most others in the US enjoy and rely on). Worse, talk about the company store syndrome where the workers are charged high prices for accommodations on-site which they have to work off making them indentured (in Florida there is actually slave conditions to bring us all out-of-season tomatoes and orange juice). So yes, when in town a 99¢ burger becomes a heck of deal. It’s not enough nor is it really a bargain but it sure is marketed that way.

    Not to mention how obnoxiously insensitive is it to shove Americanized Italian food and customs down a Latino throat. When’s the last time you were comfortable making food from scratch you’d never prepared before, perhaps reading the recipe in Chinese? Truly, walk two moons in another’s moccasins. Then maybe you can hop on the judgmental pulpit and preach some workable solutions. Probably will find the best solutions are top-down rather than blame the victim though. Good gosh, a CSA for someone with insecure housing? Get real! It’s so much easier to save money when you actually have a little of it to play around with.

  10. Yeah, further I’m going to challenge the idea of grass-fed beef (I won’t even go into how a poor family in a food desert — urban or rural goes about accessing it) for less than $5 a pound! As well, I’ve never seen industrial beef sold in packages of just 2 ounces. Even the quarter pounder at the McDonald’s is 3 ounces.

    And that must have been one big-a** zucchini to feed two people a decent serving of vegetable matter in just 1/4th its totality. The zucchini at the market last weekend was going for $3.50 a pound and they were tiny. A good amount of veggies for two people would be a pound of spinach and pound of zucchini.

    Part of the problem is that calorie for calorie a burger of questionable origin is going to provide much more calories for less than a buck than a similarly priced cucumber. Just the other day on Oprah Doctor Oz was showing people who ate 11 pounds of vegetables each day for 14 days and still lost weight (and 25% of their cholesterol levels). Think about it, 11 pounds at an average $3 per pound is $33 a day for someone who’s not all that active like a field worker is likely to be. A pint of strawberries is $3 and lasts about 5 minutes among two people.

    Yes, the burger is subsidized by the taxpayer from the corn in the oil and HFCS to the corn fed to the factory-farmed feedlot beef (or expired dairy cow). That’s the only reason it’s affordable and all the more reason to tax it not because it’s junk but to pay for the environmental and social costs of the food which get externalized. But a burger, no matter how many calories get stuffed into it will never have the nutrients the body needs that come from the plants.

    As to industrial organic (which is still a small percentage of the total food sold) such as that available in Wal-Mart, it’s hard to say where it might come from originally but one could play the odds and guess China correctly most of the time. Almost all juices these days are apple-based and that base is from China. Have something with tomatoes? China produces more tomatoes than any other country (nearly 3 times as much as the US which is second) and most are for production and export. Honey? Full of illegal pesticides and laundered via Australia and other countries to be sold in the United States. That’s just scratching the surface.

    Maybe the phrase “dirt-poor” came from places such as Haiti where they really are eating dirt just to fill their empty tummies. Why? Because the way the system works in the US is that we dump subsidized “Miami Rice” on them as well as the chicken bits such as backs, innards and feet we picky Americans won’t eat which has caused the collapse of their farms and food systems. Pretty nifty, eh? Pure agribusiness politics!

    But we haven’t even gone into the reality that the cheap that’s being pushed on the Hispanic here is the same industrial crap that’s caused so many to be that poor.

  11. I was notified early this week about this upcoming film and I do intend to see it. I doubt it will shed light on anything I don’t already know, but I’m sure their targer audience is newbies, and not folks who’ve done their research.

    Speaking of research, I’d love Syd to provide some. I don’t like reading blanket statements w/o backup evidence.
    ??

  12. Anything I’ve written can be Googled. Surely if one can read my words then there is access to a search engine. Look up “Tomato” on Wikipedia to get the numbers. Look up “Miami Rice” and “Chicken Dumping” in Haiti or “Eating Dirt” in Haiti. Look up “Chinese Tomatoes” in Italy where they’ve been infiltrating. The Oprah show was a couple days ago. She has a site. Look up a few Pollan articles to see that two million farmers south of the US border have lost their farms because of Farm Bill subsidies causing US imports for less than the cost of growing, or read the recent article in the New York Times on Smithfield Foods raising pigs in Eastern Block countries putting half a million out of the business and dumping pig bits in Africa causing immigration to Southern Europe. This is big and vast and that’s without even getting into the seafood crisis or dead zones.

    You don’t have to believe me and chances are few will because it’s not comfortable and the reality is so outrageous which ironically allows Agribusiness to continue in such outrageous ways since it all seems so unbelievable. But I’m not just making stuff up like Big Ag does or their sycophants at places like the Hudson Institute or “Center for Consumer Freedom” to name just a couple shilling astroturf groups that get assembled to muddle the facts for the companies without tainting them as much directly.

    But really, show me where one can get grass-fed beef in 2 ounce packages for less than $5 a pound. I’d love to see research on that as well. Until then by all means dismiss how poorly people are able to eat based on personally known circumstances and the idea I haven’t provided dozens of links to info which are readily available if one cared enough to find it instead of blaming those with the least. As long as we are ignorant we can continue to consume in bliss.

    The cheaper food gets the harder it is to afford for those with the least who are the ones with even less when food is made cheaply.

    It’s cheap food for a reason too. They can’t make it cheap enough to be worth the price no matter how low they sell it.

  13. @ Syd

    I never said I purchased the beef in a 2oz package. I purchased a 2lb package for $5. The zucchini was a rather large half pounder and cost me 1 dollar. It was also an a la carte purchase from a CSA based farm I frequent. I used it to make a heartier sauce, so with was approximately 2 ounces of zucchini to make the sauce heartier. The bulk of the meal was the wheat pasta. And yes, I am fortunate enough to live in an area of the country where obtaining these foods are possible.

    Though I don’t know why I’m bothering to try to clarify since I can’t figure out what the point of your post is. You seem to be angry at local food and organic food and industrial food all at the same time. What is your proposed solution? Without a demand for local and/or clean food big agribusiness will continue to exploit EVERYONE, not just the poor or the migrant workers.

    No one’s saying that its easy for everyone to find the sort of food I’ve posted about, but it will never GET any easier until people who do have the means to create the demand go out there and use their dollars to purchase local or organic or clean foods that adhere to at least a basic standard of not being complete crap. We may never get it perfect, but we can get it better.

  14. just a few points to consider (from a poor current college student):
    - yes, there is a local farmers market here, but, it’s only once a week, and you have to be there early, which can be very very inconvenient depending on your schedule
    - 20 minutes to cook pasta is, at the least complete BS… taking the bus, takes me 1 hour to get somewhere to buy food, if you could get it in a rush, you may catch the next bus (which only comes every hour), if not, that’s three hours… not too bad, but how much can you carry by yourself, and keep track of your kids… and how much can you afford to drop on food per trip to the store ?
    - even if your not “dirt” poor… fresh vegetables and good food are expensive compared to over processed frozen microwavable food… not just in price, but also in prep time (also terrible frozen food does not go bad)… not to mention, most people my age, do not have a clue how to cook, let alone make a grocery list with edible food for a week

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  16. @ J
    I was accounting for the “prep time” of cooking the pasta, as I do not visit the supermarket every single time I intend to cook food. Even in my poorest college student days pasta was a staple ingredient that I picked up almost every time I went shopping.

    And when I was in college (and that was only 6 years ago) when I was at that supermarket I also picked up plenty of TV dinners, Raman noodles and 99 cent boxes of brownie mix as a treat. Very few vegetables, because I thought it was “too expensive”. I bought meals off of the 99 cent menu at Micky D’s or Wendy’s almost every day because it was “cheap.” After I graduated I continued with the same habits because it was what I was used to.

    In 2007 I went to the doctor for a physical and was told I was 35 lbs overweight (which I already knew) but I was also told I has high cholesterol, which is not in my family history so its unlikely to have been genetic. They were talking about putting me on Lipitor at **26 YEARS OLD!!!** That’s eff-ed up! I wanted to try to control with diet and exercise instead. I tried all kinds of fad diets and failed on all of them. Exercise helped for the first 10 lbs but then I stalled. I finally told myself I’m going to learn how to cook and shop for good foods even if it was inconvenient. I took the money my uninsured butt would have spent on medication and put it towards less processed food instead. Two years later I’m *40* lbs lighter and my cholesterol is perfectly normal. I’m not psychotic about it, I treat myself to some fries from Micky D’s when I’m craving, but now its a treat instead of a mainstay.

    I know I sound like an infomercial, but my point is that while the processed food was cheap upfront it was costing me my health! Never mind the monetary costs for medication in the short term and possible hospitalization for things like bypass surgery in the long term!

  17. Just wanted to thank everyone for their interest in this subject. This movie covers a lot of ground regarding our food system that cannot be properly conveyed in something as short as a movie review.

    The low-income Hispanic family that is portrayed not only have to struggle under the weight of balancing 2 jobs for the parents, but the father has type II diabetes and must pay a large part of his monthly salary for medication to help him stay alive. There’s a poignant where the family is in a grocery store and the youngest daughter wants to buy some fruit, but they realize that they can stretch their dollar further if they buy something else.

    This family, and there are millions like them across America, deserves our compassion, not criticism. They also deserve to have a food system that makes healthy choices like fruits and vegetables affordable – our current commodity system subsidizes specific crops so products made with them are cheap and ubiquitous. Unfortunately, these are not the same foods that are healthiest nor lead to good nutrition.

    As someone who has lived in urban environments, 1 block south of Harlem for a year and now lives in rural Iowa, I can tell you from experience that the food choices that people have available to them in these areas from a realistic and economical perspective is the wrong kind.

    Both urban and rural America are known food deserts, were cheap, fast food is abundant and affordable, while healthy food is much more scarce.

    The goal of our movement needs to focus on solutions, not blame the victims. I recommend that everyone see this movie and then work towards creating solutions and building a sustainable food future.