food_incMIFF #11: As you’ve probably gathered by now, I feel very passionate about food. And one of the less salubrious aspects of the abundance of relatively cheap food choices we are fortunate to have in the Western world is the advent of industrial food production.

Ostensibly, the aim is admirable – to produce a lot of food, on a small amount of land, at an affordable price. Food Inc is a documentary exploring the less desirable consequences of the industrial food system in the US.

Many Americans still imagine that they live in an agrarian society, where food is grown by farmers and is ‘all natural farm fresh’. The reality is that a supermarket can contain approximately 47,000 different products which are produced by a handful of powerful multi-nationals, the seasons don’t exist and a farmer can be prohibited from saving his seed.

The film was sold out – unfortunately, from the gasps and groans from the audience, I suspect it was preaching to the converted. Obviously the tone of the film was quite one-sided as it was trying to convey a particular message, and there was liberal use of  evil-sounding conspiracy music. Nevertheless, some thought-provoking issues:

  • McDonalds are the largest buyer of minced beef in the US, and one of the largest buyers of potatoes, chicken, pork, lettuce, tomatoes and apples. That means that even if you don’t eat McDonalds, the company (and other such companies, McDonalds isn’t solely too blame) wields an enormous amount of power over what produce is available and how it is produced. These powerful companies demand food which is cheaply produced in large quantities, uniform and  available all year round and so the food industry responds by using intensive, inhumane farming methods and chemicals.
  • Industrially farmed chickens tend to be reared in dark tunneled buildings, which prevent them from resisting capture and to force them to focus on just eating, eating, eating. Such chickens are given feed which contains antibiotics so that they can grow to killing size twice as fast as is natural. The antibiotics also means that they grow extra-large breasts because consumers prefer breast meat. Because their bones and internal organs cannot keep up with their accelerated growth, we watched as their feeble legs snapped under the weight of their body and they died paralysed in the mud.
  • To make any money from industrial chicken farming, a farmer needs to have a contract with a large company. The capital investment and improvements required by a multi-national can be up to $500,000. A chicken farmer will earn around $18,000 a year. The documentary makers contacted many chicken farmers for their research, most of whom declined to talk because they were effectively beholden to their masters.
  • The food processing  industry is notorious for exploiting the desperation of illegal immigrants in their workforce. When there is an immigration crackdown, the executives who are turning a blind eye to these practices are never arrested – it is the immigrants who are handcuffed, fifteen at a time, so as as not disrupt the factory production lines.
  • Eating well costs more. You can buy a hamburger for $1. A head of broccoli costs $1.29 and you still have to cook it. That’s partly why rising obesity levels and the rapid increase in early-onset diabetes in children are most prevalent in lower-income levels.
  • 30% of the US’ arable land is planted with corn. Government policy effectively subsidises for over-production, which means that corn and corn-derived products find their way into the most unexpected food stuffs.
  • It also means that cattle, which are designed naturally to eat grass, are all of a sudden eating a lot of corn. Cheap corn feed = cheap meat. The problem with corn-eating cattle is that E coli can evolve and breed in such an environment in a cow’s stomach. The solution?  Treat the meat using ammonia.
  • Is E coli actually dangerous? In 2001, two-and-a-half year old Kevin Kowalcyk died after being poisoned by E coli in minced hamburger meat. We meet his mother and grandmother as they try to push through ‘Kevin’s Law’ a food safety law which, amongst other things, permits the USDA to regularly check that meat and poultry plants don’t exceed government limits on harmful bacteria and to give the USDA the power to shut down plants that consistently fail to meet food safety standards. Common sense, right? The law didn’t pass until 2009.
  • Many key appointments in the good regulatory agencies such as the FDA and USDA have come from executives and lobbyists from food industry multinationals. In 1972 the FDA conducted around 50,000 food safety checks. In 2002 the FDA conducted around 9,000 food safety checks. Is it possible that our food has become so much safer than there needs to be less regulatory control?

It would be easy to dismiss these issues as problems only relevant to the US, but most Western countries have an industrial food system which uses some of these practices. The key issue is whether you believe this way of producing food is desirable.

Fortunately, the food industry is one of the few industries where the small actions of individuals can create a change. The industry responds to the marketplace – every time you scan products at a supermarket or support growers at a farmers market,  you are effectively casting a vote. If consumers demand free range eggs, then the industry will produce free range eggs. If consumers demands cheap chicken breast, then you will get meat which contains chemicals and produced in an inhumane manner for $5 a kilo.

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