<i>Food, Inc.</i> Airs on PBS; Put Your Hands on the Table and Step Away from the Hamburger

Matthew Freeman

April 21, 2010

The tagline that the producers of Food, Inc. are using to promote their Academy Award-winning documentary is “You’ll never look at dinner the same way.” They’re quite right. The film airs on many PBS stations this evening (and on others throughout the course of the next week). See for yourself.

I came to it expecting that I’d end up feeling guilty about being part of the industry-consumer web that subjects farm animals to “nasty, brutish and short” lives, before slaughtering them for hamburger. I did feel guilty, and still do, days later. But more than that, you come away from Food, Inc. convinced that in the interest of maximizing profits for the food industry, we’ve introduced hazards into the food we eat, created an obesity problem, and allowed mega-corporations to run roughshod over family farmers.

I won’t spoil the story, but the surprising element for the lay viewer like me is the extent to which agribusiness’s fixation with corn figures into the tale. Not only do we sweeten our sodas with corn syrup, we ship corn great distances to feed it to cattle whose wiring is geared toward grass. But corn gets the cattle fatter faster, so out with grazing in the grass, in with eating corn in filthy stall. But more than that, corn also makes cattle susceptible to illnesses that we treat with antibiotics, driving a variety of problems. In addition, the corn has led to new strains of E. coli. The story of one victim of such E. coli is told in the film, in heartbreaking fashion.

Corn also figures prominently in a related problem. As one expert in the film says: 

We’ve skewed our food system to the bad calories, and it’s not an accident. The reason that those calories are cheaper is because those are the ones we’re heavily subsidizing. This is directly tied to the kind of agriculture we’re practicing and the kind of farm policies that we have. All the snack food calories are the ones that come from the commodity crops – from the wheat and the corn and from the soya beans. Making those calories really cheap is one of the reasons that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level.

 In important ways, the distortion of our food supply is a product of a failed regulatory system. Several years ago, CPR’s Thomas McGarity dissected the USDA’s lackluster response to an outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States. Much of the trouble there was USDA’s disinterest in addressing the problem if it meant slowing the flow of beef to America’s dinner tables and fast food restaurants. Food, Inc.’s footage of safety shortcuts in the slaughterhouse makes clear that we’re not nearly as far along with that problem as we should be by now.

Food, Inc. reminds us again of the inherent problem with vesting regulatory authority over much of the the nation’s food in the hands of an agency that sees farmers as its principal constituency, not consumers. Food, Inc. paints its tale on a bigger canvas, suggesting that the entire process is structured around the convenience and profit of the food industry, while safety and health take a back seat.

That’s a very common story, one we see repeated in a variety of industries, most recently and drastically, coal mining. Tightening enforcement of existing regulations won’t fix all such problems, but it’d be a great start.

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