As the afternoon sun settles over his Virginia farm, Joel Salatin leans against a post and gestures at the cows in the green field behind him. "They don't eat corn or dead cows or chicken manure," he says animatedly, his Stetson bobbing. "They actually eat grass. They're herbivores."
He says it as if it ought to be a surprise: cows eat grass. Salatin talks to his hogs as they scuttle in front of him to the food store. He and his workers slaughter livestock in the open air. He is one of the heroes of filmmaker Robert Kenner's documentary Food, Inc., the sort of farmer whose picture you'd expect to see on a sticker, standing between a traditional red barn and a picket fence, slapped on the side of a supermarket pork chop.
But the picture on the sticker would be an illusion, and so too would the pork chop. From the idyllic surroundings of Salatin's farm, Kenner's film cuts straight to the Smithfield hog-processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, six hours' drive south: it's the largest slaughterhouse in the world, and it knocks off 32,000 hogs every day. This plant, or somewhere like it is, most likely, where your pork chop comes from. "We have allowed ourselves to become so disconnected and ignorant," Salatin laments, "about something that is as intimate as the food that we eat."
This idea is at the core of Food, Inc., which opens in the UK this week and is already the favourite to win an Oscar for Best Documentary. The film peels back the wrapping from the US system of industrialised food production – invented to service brand-new burger joints and supermarkets in the years following the Second World War – to reveal how it has fallen into the hands of a few major multinational corporations. It shows that these companies play God with their food products, abuse their animals, exploit their workers and then conceal these harsh truths from the public, with the complicity of the governments that ought to be regulating them.
Among Kenner's cast are: a debt-addled chicken farmer who has fed her brood so many chemicals that she herself is now immune to antibiotics; illegal immigrant workers recruited from Mexico and then shopped to the authorities by their own corporate employers; consumers so accustomed to relying on cheap, unhealthy food that not only are they obese, but many have also developed diabetes; and a woman whose two-year-old son was killed by an E. coli infection contracted from a contaminated hamburger. All of us, the film suggests, have been eating tomatoes that are only "notional" tomatoes, chickens with artificially enhanced breasts, beef fed on genetically modified and patented grain.
"I came to the film not knowing much about the subject," the director admits. "I wanted to make a film for everyone, about the idea that everything has become like fast food and you can't avoid it.
"Even if you're a vegetarian eating from your garden, you're still paying the price for this industrial system. Your water's been poisoned, your land is ruined, you're surrounded by people who are being exploited, and animals that are being tortured, and poor people who are eating inexpensive food that's making them sick. No one is free of the system." The lengths big companies will go to in order to disguise that system, however, are extreme.
Monsanto – whose patented soybean gene, Roundup, now features in 90 per cent of the soybeans produced in the US and is one of the film's most terrifying bogeymen – is just one of the major food companies that appears to have a revolving-door relationship with the US government. Kenner attended a Senate hearing at which a representative of one corporation argued that cloned meat should not be labelled as such because it would "confuse" the customer.
In some US states, so-called "veggie libel laws" protect those "notional" tomatoes (with all the taste and nutritional value bred out of them) and other inanimate objects from criticism. "When a vegetable has more rights than a person, we're in trouble," says Kenner. Meanwhile, the same small cartel of companies has a stranglehold over producers, too. "A rancher in Colorado," Kenner recalls, "told me that when he was growing up, he was always terrified of being like the Russians, with a total lack of choice or freedom. He said, 'I now raise beef that I can only sell to one or two [companies], and only for a certain price. We've become the thing that we feared our entire life.' Very few people control this marketplace. It's Soviet-style lack of freedom."
Food, Inc. is largely narrated by journalists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Since Schlosser published his book Fast Food Nation in 2001, it has been joined by Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Morgan Spurlock has made the documentary Supersize Me, Jamie Oliver has introduced British schoolchildren to greens, and healthy eating has gone all the way to the White House to be planted in Michelle Obama's vegetable garden. When Food, Inc. was released in the US last year, the food movement propelled its makers onto The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show and the cover of Time magazine.
"Things have got a lot better," Schlosser agrees. "When I started researching the book in about 1997 I was stunned by the things I was learning, and amazed that it wasn't being discussed in the mainstream media. Since then there's been a sea change in attitudes to food, certainly among upper-middle-class and educated people.
"Have the problems been solved? Absolutely not," he continues. "There's been a change in attitudes and, to a lesser extent, behaviour, among the wealthy. But the worst victims of this industrial food system are still being victimised by it: the poor working families who are suffering the worst of the obesity epidemic, who as workers are being exploited by the system, and who don't have the discretionary extra money to pay for better food. It took decades of abolitionist activism for slavery to end. The same is true of women's rights and civil rights. Any of these social movements for change take a while."
Kenner didn't set out to make a polemic film, but Food, Inc. is indeed a call to action, and its web site offers the audience petitions to sign and organic food associations to donate to. Neither Kenner nor Schlosser professes to be a perfect model of healthy or ethical eating. "It's impossible to live that way in 2010," Schlosser says. But the film demonstrates, he adds, that "There are choices to be made. Some people will be vegan, and some people will still go to McDonald's ... But those should be conscious choices based on understanding how the system works, not just a response to the marketing because you don't know any better."
The production of the film was beset by opposition from the companies whose practices it exposes. It took three years to make and, thanks in part to legal wranglings with those companies, cost more than three times the budgets of Kenner's previous 15 documentaries combined. The list of corporations that refused to take part is lengthy. Wal-Mart was the only major company whose representatives agreed to appear, after removing milk from their shelves from cows fed on a growth hormone, rBST. "They had discontinued it because their customers didn't want it," Kenner explains. "And guess what? Monsanto ended up selling the company [that made the hormone] after Wal-Mart dropped it.
"Not everything that every corporation does is evil – and I wanted to show that consumers do have the power to change things."
Food, Inc. may be concerned with the US food industry but, both Kenner and Schlosser insist, the same problems affect the UK and the rest of the world. Smithfield of the US has slaughterhouses in Romania and Poland that serve the wider EU, and while genetically modified organisms are still banned in the UK, much of the meat we eat has been fed on GM crops. The major UK supermarkets exert a disproportionate amount of influence over both producers and consumers, just as their US counterparts do.
"And if you want to look at food safety and the ways government is in bed with the industries it's supposed to be regulating," says Schlosser, "the BSE scandal is a textbook example. The Government was aware for years that there might have been a dangerous pathogen circulating among the British people, but it was far more concerned with the potential impact on the export of British beef than it was with the public's health."
The industrial food system we have ended up with is not inevitable, as its creators would have us assume; nor is it necessarily sustainable. Taxpayers fund the subsidies that allow food to be produced and sold at deceptively low cost, then pay to alleviate the health problems it engenders.
"One of the central themes of the film is that it's an illusion that this food is cheap," Schlosser explains. "It's cheap at the point of purchase, and it's profitable for the companies because their external costs are being imposed on the rest of society.
"Chemical companies used to be able to dump waste chemicals in rivers and force those downstream to pick up the tab. A lot of the environmental movement was about re-imposing those external costs on the people responsible for them. The food movement is about making companies bear the real cost of their business practices."
Could every farm look like Joel Salatin's and still feed 6 billion people? Probably not, but the filmmakers see it as something to aspire to.
"It sure would be a lot more pleasant," says Kenner. "We should at least be trying to farm industrially in a more sustainable manner. It's a conversation that needs to be had. It's a healthy conversation."
'Food, Inc.' will be released in cinemas tomorrow, with a day of nationwide one-off screenings on 15 February
Kitchen crusaders: Fighting for better food
For his shock-doc, Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock stunned his audience by eating MacDonald's three times a day for a month. Apart from other serious side effects, the diet made him gain 24.5lbs – which it took a further 14 months to lose.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 'Chicken Out!' campaign tackled the issue of battery chickens, singling out Tesco as a major retailer. The TV presenter bought shares in Tesco but, maybe un- surprisingly, didn't gain enough support from other shareholders to bring about change.
Eric Schlosser's 2001 book, Fast Food Nation, became a cult hit for the thinking left. It battled the growth of the global food industries that were replacing the small, independent eateries and manipulating the young into a very unhealthy diet.
Molly Dineen's TV documentary, The Lie of the Land, followed farmers as they tried to maintain a living while fighting the supermarket superpowers who keep their buying prices as low as possible. The film also tackled strict Government regulations and society's tendency to see meat as only cellophane-packed.
Jamie Oliver's 2005 campaign, 'Jamie's School Dinners', fought the Government and school boards to try to boost the quality and nutritional content of children's meals. Very successfully, this led then Prime Minister Tony Blair to promise a change in the funding of school food and created a spin-off, wider-reaching campaign, 'Feed Me Better'.
Miranda PorterReuse content