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DVD Review: Food, Inc.

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Will watching Food, Inc. put you off your feed? Not unless you’ve been terribly sheltered or you’re extremely sensitive. I’m sensitive in the “awww, look at those cute baby chicks” sense, so I didn’t like seeing them put through a chute and onto a conveyor belt. It probably bothered the chicks less than going to Disney World bothers me. We know, though, that this is only the beginning for these little birds. And, yes, they are very cute. After a few weeks, they’ll move to poultry houses, where the comparison to Disney World becomes more apt, and the not-so-cute chickens are kept in the dark (literally), housed so densely they have scant room to move.

Cattle crowded together in factory feed lots tugs at the heart strings, too. Look at those big brown eyes, so soulful. Young cattle are handsome, so, of course seeing them packed together shoulder to shoulder is effective. Show cockroaches like that, or crocodiles, and the response may more likely be “so what?” Although I’m a flexitarian who prefers plants to meat, watching these scenes will not keep the rib eye off my barbecue grill this summer.

I would probably would have been more revolted by some of the conditions in which food is cultivated, but you don’t think Tyson or Perdue is going to let us see inside their hen houses, do you? It’s a rare slaughterhouse that will allow television cameras in; the meat packing industry learned its lesson with Upton Sinclair.

My first appreciable response to Food, Inc. was hunger. It wasn’t the burgers and fries that did it; it was the corn. Corn is cheap, and it’s used in places where it shouldn’t be. One of the causes of E-coli outbreaks is feeding cows corn instead of letting them graze on grass (which requires more real estate and is, therefore, more expensive). Okay, but I love corn. I would eat it at every meal if I could, and—according to Food, Inc.—I probably do; corn products are used in a vast range of the foods we eat (and the batteries in our flashlights, too!). If we eat beef, fish, chicken, or pork we are probably eating animals raised on corn; the high fructose corn syrup that has everyone (except pecan pie lovers) in a lather is found in everything from pancake syrup to catsup. Maybe that’s why I’m beginning to look a little heiferish.

One of Food, Inc.’s charges is that where our food comes from and how it is produced is pretty much a secret. Most food is produced by a small number of companies, and they want to keep us, like the chickens, in the dark. I guess I should be outraged, but I probably would rather not know what I’m eating. After all, I can stop eating meat, eliminate preservatives, go organic, but I can’t completely stop eating. If I don’t eat beef for fear of E. coli, I’m still taking chances with spinach and lettuce that become contaminated from feed lot run-off.

The thing that outrages me is the minimal effort the government puts into ensuring the safety of our food. We’re eating lots more meat, but inspections are done at but a small fraction of what they once were. Serious sanitary problems may arise in a food processing facility, but recalls are delayed and plant closings are few.

Another Food, Inc. point is that consumers are conditioned to want certain products, most of which are bad for them. We live in a country that mass produces foods of destruction, then mitigates its role by educating us about what we should and shouldn’t eat. Sure we listen to all that advertising—maybe not consciously—but why don’t we pay attention to warnings about the unhealthy effects of various foods? There has got to be a point where the people doing the eating are held accountable. When was the last time Ronald McDonald held a gun to your head and said, “Eat a Happy Meal or else”?

We are surrounded by food, and we are surrounded by choices. Most of us choose whatever is easiest. Yep, we’re not only fat, but we’re lazy, too. We’re also deluded, thinking that we work hard when hardly any of us raises a sweat. The people who complain most about all the “hard work” they’re doing (on their butts, behind their desks) don’t know what hard work is. Yes, there are plenty of people who do have to work hard to make a living, but they’re doing it, not complaining about it.

The most disturbing segments of Food, Inc. are not about how animals are treated or mistreated. Far worse is the way the courts and government agencies are used to fulfill large corporations’ agendas. Is it possible that one company can own the entire production of a particular crop nationwide (through patents and copyrights), and can ruin farmers who grow that crop? Is it really in America where (in one particular state) you can go to jail for saying something negative about ground beef? Of course it is. The same America where Oprah Winfrey spent a million dollars defending her right to say that mad cow disease made her think twice about eating a cheeseburger.

It should be no surprise that the people in charge of regulating and overseeing the food industry are all products of that industry. How many financial VIPs in Washington, DC (on the government payroll) previously worked for the companies that required huge bail-outs? It’s no secret.

Instead of having a disinterested party—or better yet, a person interested in the health of the people—making the rules, government puts those who are most financially affected in charge. I guess by putting universal healthcare into effect, the government is salving its conscience for allowing big business to make us all sick.

Food production is a financial issue, a health issue, and an environmental issue. Food, Inc. tells us that it’s our responsibility to effect changes, and offers suggestions on what needs to be done. We know it’s possible to treat consumers, food industry workers, and the environment responsibly and respectfully because there are some companies that make the effort. What we keep hearing is that it will cost us—obviously the corporations running things aren’t going to voluntarily take a cut in profits.

I have to argue the other side for a moment. It’s true that some people have never tasted a real tomato, vine-ripened and picked at just the right moment. Those of us interested in healthier, more honest foods must realize that those who have eaten “fake” tomatoes (for example) all their lives, may prefer fake tomatoes. If gas-ripened tomatoes are not harmful, we need to worry about things that are.

As terrible as all the preservatives are characterized, I’m one person who is glad not to worry about finding a colony of weevils in my flour or rice canister. When I was younger, I wondered, “How could there be bugs in the flour (or pasta, rice, oats, cereal, nuts, etc.) unless there were eggs there when we bought it?” Now I regard with wonder the fact that everything isn’t instantly (as it seemed back in the day) moldy, buggy, sour, or rotten. Sure, I want healthful food. I want healthful food treated with healthful preservatives. Is that asking too much? Or not enough?

Food, Inc. makes many points, and they are valid. It suggests changes, even a bit of de-evolution, but the only way those things are going to happen is if consumers make them happen. It appears to me that there are an awful lot of people who are not disturbed by the status quo, whether it’s fatty foods, overuse of sweetening agents no matter what they may be, too much salt, harmful additives, or just plain junk. Those are the people (and I’m not saying I’m not one of them) who need to be brought aboard before the U.S.S. Good Health can sail. The challenge is not only educating people, but getting them to care. Healthy eating can’t be legislated—the things we overdo, for the most part, are necessary in smaller quantities to the human diet. Salt can’t be banned; even if manufacturer’s stopped adding it to food products, consumers would still do so, often in unhealthful quantities. Salt is merely one example.

Food, Inc. is not terribly inflammatory; it’s not a daring exposé. It does reveal things that many of us don’t know, and what’s worse (as they say in some circles) is that we don’t know that we don’t know. Consumers don’t choose to be in the dark along with the chickens, but government (us) makes it easy for business to keep us there.

The DVD inclues a few special features, including celebrity public service announcements, deleted scenes, a Nightline segment, a “Stay Active and Eat Healthy” featurette, and resources. On April 21, POV will premiere Food, Inc. on PBS and the web. Beyond the national broadcast, the POV website will offer viewers opportunities to learn and participate; if viewers cannot catch the April 21 showing, they can watch the film online in its entirety from April 22-29.

Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent Food, Inc.? Yes, definitely. It’s a reasonable exploration of how what we eat gets to where we eat it.

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