what i'm watching: food, inc.

We watched "Food, Inc." last night, Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser's documentary based on ideas popularized by Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma) and the local food movement. I was skeptical that a 90-minute film could faithfully explore enough of these issues, but I was very impressed with the outcome. If you haven't seen Food, Inc., I highly recommend it. I think I'll add it to our small film collection, along with the companion book, so I can lend it out to interested folks.

I've written several times about Michael Pollan, and my own efforts to change our buying and eating habits. (See the "food issues" category.) We made a complicated and expensive switch to eating only locally-produced meat products. But more recently we haven't been able to continue that, because we simply can't afford it.

Then last night, watching footage of chickens, pigs and cows trapped in factory farms, I thought, that's it, I'll go back to being a vegetarian rather than be complicit in this exploitation. I need to remove myself from this system, just like we removed ourselves from the US war machine. I can't go back. We'll eat the more expensive, locally-produced meat, we'll just eat it less.

I woke up in the middle of night thinking about chickens, pigs and cows. This is not a voice I can ignore.

"Food, Inc." has a slightly different accent than Omnivore's Dilemma. Where Pollan focuses more on the connection between the industrial food chain and environmental destruction, Food, Inc. focuses more on the connection between exploited animals and exploited workers. All three are intimately intertwined, of course (and Pollan, Schlosser and Kenner all make that clear), but Food, Inc. puts a sharp emphasis on labour.

We see the deplorable conditions that industrial food workers endure as a reflection of the deplorable conditions the animals suffer for their entire lives. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm - the hero of Omnivore's Dilemma - says (paraphrased), "A company that treats the earth and food and animals with contempt and disdain, in turn has disdain for the people of the community, and further, disdain for other peoples in the community of nations." Thus we see the connection between the stewardship of our planet, our health, our labour - and peace.

It was great to see Salatin - to see what he looks like and hear him speak. Although I know he and I would disagree on many issues, he is a true radical, living his ideals and blazing a righteous trail. I admire him so much. (And I want eggs from his farm!)

The connection between the industrial food chain and exploited labour is more direct than you might think. After NAFTA, cheap (government subsidized) US corn flooded Mexican markets, and thousands of Mexican traditional corn farmers were ruined. Meat packing companies then went to Mexico to recruit workers, bringing busloads of undocumented workers into the country. Obviously this could only happen by arrangement with governmental authorities.

In an excellent segment with a Latino labour organizer (another hero), we see how the anti-immigrant political climate plays out in this world. Smithfield workers who have been toiling under horrendous conditions for 10, 15 years, are arrested and hauled off like criminals. But there are no large-scale raids. A dozen or so workers are taken away each week - scapegoating the workers, but leaving the company's production untouched. Also obviously by prior arrangement.

The workers are used up and thrown back, not unlike the animals. The producers under contract to Tyson and Smithfield don't fare much better. Deeply in debt and slaves to the company's production methods, they are little more than sharecroppers. A producer who speaks out because she can no longer live with the horror of her job - and refuses to take the next step in the ever-worsening conditions for the chickens - soon has her contract cancelled.

And if you think it's "only" chickens and unskilled workers I'm crying for, watch this film, and tell me you want to eat chickens raised this way.

Four or five giant corporations control the entire industrial food chain - and not one of them consented to an interview for this movie.

The film includes some very dark, scary segments about the power these companies have over people's lives - investigating, harassing, threatening and suing farmers for practices farmers have used for generations. Monsanto, Cargill and ADM are suing ordinary people for speaking, but working to re-write laws so they cannot be sued. These giants can invest unlimited resources in a lawsuit against an ordinary farmer, who will exhaust all his savings and credit before he even gets to court. All it takes is one or two such examples to terrorize an entire community into silence.

And how can this happen? Because of the revolving door between industry and the so-called regulatory system - which is no longer a regulatory system at all, but an inside-government track for industry. This isn't a Republican or Democrat issue. It began under Reagan and the first Bush, didn't miss a beat under Clinton, and naturally continues to this day.

Meanwhile, a woman who lost a child to E. coli poisoning - in meat that was recalled only days later - has since become a food safety advocate. She says, "All we wanted was the company to say, 'We produced this defective food that killed your son, and we're sorry.' That's all we wanted. And they couldn't give that to us." "Kevin's Law" still has not been passed.

Do you know why there is E. coli in the food system? (Read Omnivore's Dilemma.) Cows are meant to eat grass. But cows who eat corn get fatter faster, so forced corn feeding allows more beef to produced. And guess what, there just happens to be a mountain - a mountain range - of surplus corn, thanks to US government subsidies.

Cows that live in feed lots eating corn are beset by a host of problems, one of which is that they stand up to their shins in manure all day. By the time they get to the killing floor, they are covered in shit.

Rather than fix the cause of the problem, and feed the cows their natural diet of grass, the industry shoots them full of antibiotics (which live on in the food chain, leading to antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli), then douses the beef with ammonia.

The beef from Joel Salatin's farm is never contaminated by E. coli. It is never treated with ammonia. No one gets sick from eating it. Workers don't get sick processing it. And in my estimation, cows don't suffer during their lifetimes. They live like cows.

At the end of Food, Inc., Michael Pollan says, We need to spend more money for food. But many people simply can't do that, and that's why we need change at the policy level. So that carrots are a better deal than chips.

He evokes the battle over tobacco as a model for how consumers, activists and legislators can force an an industry to change.

Meanwhile, I have to go back to Beretta Farms. For me, it's the only way.


Stephanie said...

Woooo Hooo I don't know why it matters so much but I am thrilled to hear someone else was as affected by this film.

I grew up around farming and my folks owned a small abattoir so the idea of animals slaughtered to enter the food chain is not a difficult concept for me. Of late however, I have been very sensitive to the factory farming issues. I have been looking for healthier alternatives and particular interest is the small herd farm. BUT seeing this film (one seen in particular stays with me so vividly it is as if I were back in the theatre) I cannot continue to participate in this horror. I will go out of my way to source more ethical, humane, and healthy choices. Supporting the small family owned farm was always a part of my personal ethos...now however it is an imperative.

This movie brought me to tears. It is a horror story that one would like to pass off as science fiction sadly it is the reality. Thanks for sharing your experience.

L-girl said...

Stephanie, thank YOU for sharing! I also cried through much of this movie.

I had that same vivid, cannot-ignore experience from reading Michael Pollan's work. I had read many of his long magazine pieces, but avoided Omnivore's Dilemma - precisely because I knew it would push me the rest of the way. I knew once I learned more, I would no longer be able to look away.

As I've said many times in this blog, I have no ethical quandary with people eating animals per se. In fact, I think it's a good idea (although not necessary). But how those animals are treated in their short time on earth, and how they are killed - that matters.

Then once you learn everything else about factory farming, it's just too disgusting to ignore.

I wish I could also buy more local produce. You'd think it would be easy, living in Southern Ontario. It's really not. But we are trying.

Stephanie said...

So a quick search for CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) in your area turned up this:Whole Village

Driving time is 40 minutes from Mississauga Road and Derry Road.

It may not be the most practical fit for your routine but you could contact them and ask them about delivery options or other closer farmers etc.

Stephanie said...

My greatest difficulty has been to find grass-fed cattle. Given winter and all. I have to learn more about good feed (grains I would think) versus corn and soya based feeds.

So for me the biggest challenge is eating at my Mother's house...I told her about the film and how horrified I was. I am just being too picky (as though I think I am superior). It is a classic mother daughter thing. :(

Amy said...

The overlap between abusing workers and abusing animals was certainly brought to light with the Agriprocessors scandal in Postville, Iowa last year. For me what made it especially upsetting was that this was supposedly a kosher slaughterhouse, and one of the points of the laws dealing with kosher slaughter is to remember not to take for granted that a life is being taken to feed you and to take that life in as humane a way as possible. Although I stopped eating all beef, lamb, and pork many years ago, I had rationalized that eating kosher chicken was okay because at least the chickens were raised and slaughtered in a human manner. I had read enough even before Postville to know that the reality is not exactly what the law suggests, so I try to eat as little chicken as I can---less than once a week, and no other meat at all, though I still eat fish. We all draw our lines where we can.

Thanks for the post. I know I won't see the movie because it will give me nightmares. Reading about this stuff is strong enough for me.

L-girl said...

Stephanie, joining a CSA just doesn't work for me. The delivery options are way more than we can ever eat and driving an hour for produce is, for me, ridiculous. I just have to buy what local produce is for sale in our supermarkets, and agitate for them to carry more.

Re grass-fed, for me personally, the mostly grass fed, then "finished" with grains (not corn) works fine. The animals are still outdoors, healthy, not shot full of drugs. The Eat Wild site is very good for locating producers.

Re your mom's house, for me that's the equivalent of eating in restaurants. It's never going to be 100%, for me, anyway. I'm satisfied if all our food at home is out of the system.

L-girl said...

Amy, I've read about that re kosher processors. The kosher label is a bit of a sham when it comes to animal ethics.

The film is not horribly graphic or lurid. I wouldn't skip it out of fear, there's too much to learn. (Although reading a few choice books would do the same thing - but take more time.)

Stephanie said...

Thanks for the link to Eat Wild. I think I had come across a much earlier version of this site sometime ago and had since forgotten about it.

L-girl said...

Glad I could help! I did a lot of investigating through that site. That's how I found Beretta, which distributes for many even smaller farms that share the same principles.

johngoldfine said...

I remember that description of Polyface's eggs in 'Omnivore's Dilemma.' We used to have a few dozen free-range bantams, whose eggs were as much better than storebought as home-raised heirloom tomatoes are better than supermarket tomatoes, i.e., a lot!

Sadly, after 30 years or so of losing only a chicken or two a year to foxes, one spring SuperFox arrived and she killed our whole flock in a few months. The fox drove the dogs so crazy we didn't see how we could ever try again with bantams, so there you have it: nature red in tooth and claw and us without those endless omelets and upstanding orange yolks.

We had a strong poultry industry in this corner of Maine until Purdue, Tyson, the EPA, and OPEC killed it dead 25 years ago. Poultry farming was not bucolic. It smelled, the streets were full of feathers, the growers were little more than indentured servants, the harbor ran with schmaltz and blood. All you could say good is that I never wanted for chicken shit for my garden, and a lot of people made a living, a poor and exploited one, at it--and nothing has come along to replace it, other than call-centers. There isn't a lot of skill carryover between chicken farming and processing and calling deadbeats for MBNA.

L-girl said...

Interesting, John. Sad.

I was drooling over Pollan's descriptions of those eggs and of the chicken, too. The chicken we now eat from the local/organic farm is so amazing. I now realize the stuff we ate from Perdue was practically tasteless.

Gwen said...

You will find the book "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer very interesting, then. I think you will enjoy it on many levels, and it will certainly inspire a change in thinking! It is very well written and well researched.

L-girl said...

It will certainly inspire a change in thinking? What a huge presumption.

I'm personally not interested in reading about anyone else's personal journey regarding omnivorous vs vegetarian eating. It's a very personal decision, and I feel comfortable with where I am on the spectrum.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Gwen said...

No, I didn't mean a change in thinking about your diet...I meant a change in thinking about the food industry and livestock factory farming's effects on the earth. Along the lines of Food, Inc and some of the other comments. Just a good book. But never mind.

L-girl said...

Thanks for clarifying. Whenever I post about food/meat issues, at least one commenter shows up to "correct" my thinking, so I thought that's what you were doing. Sorry for that mistaken assumption.