A Robert Kenner Film
Magnolia Home Entertainment
When you walk into a grocery store and look at the packaging on many food items, you will see pictures of old-fashioned farms and farmers. When you look behind the pictures to where that food really comes from, you see a very different picture.
It’s not a pretty picture. We see feedlots packed with cattle almost on top of each other and up to their ankles in manure. We see chicken houses full of chickens that can barely walk because science has found a way to make their flesh grow faster than their bones, muscles and tendons can support. The air is so foul (no pun intended), farmers need masks to walk through and collect the dead bodies.
The ugliness doesn’t stop at how the animals are abused. As Joel Salatin astutely points out, a culture that treats its animals with brutal disregard will be inclined to treat its people the same way. We see farmers forced to build expensive chicken houses and go deeply into debt. On the average they make $18,000 per year and have little hope of ever paying off a $500,000 debt. So they are trapped, enslaved, too poor to stay in the business and too poor to get out. In Tar Heel, North Carolina we see illegal immigrants lured into a giant Smithfield plant where working conditions are reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. After years of being treated like animals, they are unceremoniously deported.
I have worked in large factories before but I have never seen a factory or network of factories like the one run by Beef Products, Inc. It’s like a factory on steroids. Not only is the South Sioux City, Nebraska plant an endless maze of pipes, machinery and assembly lines, it has a control center that can monitor bulk tanks, adjust gearbox speeds, and regulate assembly lines in other plants in Chicago, Georgia, Utah, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Los Angeles, and Ohio. We see some pseudo-food slop make its way through machines and conveyor belts and the resulting unidentifiable slab is dropped neatly into a box to be shipped out. The slab turns out to be hamburger meat filler cleaned with ammonia to kill E. coli.
We see the ruthless tactics that Monsanto uses to run innocent farmers out of business. I’ll just briefly summarize by saying that anyone who watches this movie and still has any respect for Monsanto either wasn’t paying attention or is on their payroll.
But the awful price of our factory food system doesn’t stop with the animals and people directly working for the system. The end result is a population with steadily declining health and badly compromised immune systems. We see the tragic story of a little boy named Kevin, who was a victim of the factory food supply. Then his mother marches off to Washington to lobby congress to pass “Kevin’s law,” a bill that would give the USDA more power and “reform the system.”
This is where I have to say, “Wait a minute! Stop!” One thing that can make a tragedy even worse is to use it to promote a solution that is worse than useless. This movie has done an excellent job of portraying a food system that doesn’t work, is out of control and massively corrupt. In addition, we see Michael Pollan explaining in detail how the revolving door works between Monsanto, Cargill, etc. and government regulatory agencies like the USDA and FDA. He goes through a long list of names with pictures attached. He does a great job of making it clear that government regulation is being run by the regulated corporations. The fox is guarding the henhouse. And this has been going on for about one hundred years. The system is not just corrupt, it is irredeemable. But we’re going to fix it … with more foxes to guard the henhouse?
I continue to wonder how many centuries it will take before we notice that more regulation isn’t working. They even show Joel Salatin explaining the mindset of food factory executives. When some part of the system starts to really break down, it never occurs to them that they may need to change the system. Instead they come up with some high-tech brute-force approach to keep the system going a little longer. This film is promoting contradictory messages. I can only speculate that the producers or editors are suffering the adverse mental effects of factory food.
Right after this excursion into contradiction, we get a breath of fresh air on Polyface Farm. We are treated to classic lines from Joel Salatin like, “If we put glass walls on all the mega-processing facilities, we would have a different food system.” He makes the point that he doesn’t want to grow into one of those monsters. He has the right idea. We need to go back to small farms and local economies. The film veers off course again when we are led to believe that one good answer might be for organic producers to get big like Stonyfield and sell organic products at Walmart! Of course, operations as big as Walmart are more interested in profits than quality, so they would have to be regulated—oops! We’re back to that same problem again.
It is unfortunate that I have to give this film a THUMBS DOWN. With a little more editing it could have been great. Its coverage of the dark side of the food system is powerful but the suggested solution will only lead to more of the same.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2009.