The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that
foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000
hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. If
you are the mother of two-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk who died in 2001
after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. Coli, however, statistics
do not tell the story of crushing personal loss. The tragedy of Kevin's
premature death spurred legislation (known as Kevin's Law) introduced
by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, that would give the U.S. Department
of Agriculture the power to close down plants that produce contaminated
meat but it has failed repeatedly to pass the U.S. Congress because of
opposition from the meat industry.
E-Coli outbreaks and other food-safety related issues are discussed in the outstanding documentary Food, Inc., directed by Robert Kenner, a film, graphic in part, that may leave you with a severe case of indigestion. Kenner is an unabashed advocate for greater food safety and the film with commentary by Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma).attempts to convince the public of the shortsightedness of the mega-corporations that dominate the food industry and their "faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper," method of increasing profits often at the expense of public safety. Representatives from food-producing giants such as Monsanto, Smithfield, Tyson and Perdue that control our food supply were invited to be interviewed for the film but declined or did not respond to Kenner's request. According to Schlosser, "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."
Interviewing farmers and ranchers, Kenner learned that they are mostly at the mercy of mega-corporations like Monsanto which have increased their share of the soybean market from 2% to 90% in the last decade. Monsanto developed their own custom gene for soybeans and now threaten their customers with lawsuits for patent infringement if they save their own seeds to use the next year. The film observes that part of the reason why the food industry is so hard to regulate is that many of the government officials currently assigned to watchdog roles were once employed by the companies they now monitor and notes that FDA food inspections have plummeted from 50,000 in 1972 to 9,200 in 2006.
Other subjects covered are the treatment of cows that are forced to eat corn instead of grass (which then goes into Coke, high fructose corn syrup, diapers, decongestants, and batteries) and the dreadful conditions of chickens that are herded into darkened cages before they are slaughtered. On that subject, Kenner interviews Carole Morrison who was unwilling to jam her chickens into cages without sunlight and, as a result, had her contract canceled by a giant chicken conglomerate who refused to have any further business dealings with her. Also discussed are the growing rates of diabetes in young people, the soaring incidence of obesity, and the use of low paying illegal immigrants to work in the food processing industry.
In spite of the horror stories, however, Food, Inc. is not depressing and Kenner seems more interested in educating the public than frightening them. He shows that people can make a difference by citing the tobacco industry as well as the efforts of an entrepreneur from Stonyfield Farms who sold his line of organic products to Wal-Mart and a Virginia farmer who insists on raising animals with dignity and respect. To the strain of Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land", advice on how individuals can make a difference include buy locally, shop in farmer's markets where possible, seek out quality and organic products even if they cost a bit more, and be sure to read the labeling to learn where a product comes from and the ingredients it contains.
Food, Inc. by itself may not be the catalyst that will preserve our health and well being and make food taste the way it did fifty years ago, but it is an important start and should be seen by anyone who eats, that means all of us. As the director puts it, "I think we're beginning to see the dangers of this inexpensive food that these big agribusinesses are producing. And the more we can see the cracks in this system, the faster it's going to fall apart. I'm hoping that this film can help people to start to think about it People are becoming much more conscious of their food, and the more we think about it, the more good food we're going to get." I'll vote for that.