Food, Inc. (movie review)

Food, Inc. (movie review)

I finally saw Food, Inc. Frankly, I didn't expect to like it much. I expected a one-sided, misleading anti-corporate tirade, along the lines of The Corporation. I was only partly correct. The main message really does seem to be that big companies are ruining everything, and that things would be better if we all just realized that we should be buying directly from the kindly farmer/sage down the road. But in spite of that slant, the movie does contain some useful stuff. So, my conclusion: a grudging endorsement. I think the film is flawed, but worth seeing.

First, I'll note a couple of worthwhile take-away lessons, points that are made by the film and that seem well-justified.

Number one is that the meat industry is pretty disgusting. Most of the people who might be tempted to see Food, Inc. likely already knew that. But it's a rotten industry. Injury rates for workers are high. Animals are treated badly. And quality control can be dodgy. The causes are pretty clear. Competition drives companies in all industries to cut corners in order to attract and keep customers. Sometimes that has undesirable effects. In the food industry, those effects can be pretty bad. Food, Inc. doesn't tell us much that's new, here, but it's a useful reminder.

Number two: the corn subsidies in the U.S. are apparently insane. Those subsidies result in overproduction of corn (and hence of High-Fructose Corn Syrup). The result is that crappy food can be more affordable than nutritious food. Politically-powerful food companies like the subsidies (since they keep the price of ingredients down) so the food-buying public is likely to go on being subject to all the wrong incentives.

(For more on that topic, see the excellent 2007 documentary, King Corn.)

But in several ways the movie is less than satisfying.

My first worry has to do with the film-makers' decision not to bring relevant expertise to bear. With the possible exception of journalist/authors Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food) and Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation), both of whom are knowledgeable guys, the movie's cast of characters is seriously lacking in experts. Instead, it uses regular folks — people knowledgeable about their own experiences, to be sure — to talk about matters regarding which, as far as the audience can tell, they have no particular expertise. A bereaved mom (with no apparent legal training) explains legal issues. A farmer explains food economics. And so on. Now I'm not just worshipping at the altar of expertise, here. The experiences of the "regular folks" interviewed for the film are powerful and important and I'm glad they were included in this film. But food is (as is increasingly apparent) a complicated topic. So why not, in addition, feature interviews with experts in the relevant issues? Why not a food economist? Or a policy analyst with expertise in agricultural policy? Why not a lawyer or two?

My second concern (not unrelated to the previous one) has to do with factual accuracy. I kept wondering: could an organization with the journalistic standards of, say, the New York Times have made this movie? Would all the claims made in Food, Inc. stand if they had to be verified by two independent sources? Maybe they were carefully verified. Who knows? The audience can't tell. Part of that has to do with the format: a film format occasionally requires that documentation be sacrificed in favour of drama, and there's no easy way to provide footnotes in a documentary. In one segment, for example, a union official claims — in so many words — that law enforcement officials were conspiring with a meat packing company to make sure that just enough of its illegal-immigrant workers were arrested to keep up appearances without interfering with production. If that were verifiable, it would be cause for legal action.

Finally, the movie is also lamentably short on solutions. The movie's complaint is clear: industrial-scale food production is the problem. But there are no serious suggestions about a different way to produce this much food, without the efficiencies of scale that come from factory farms, massive tracts of corn, and the huge corporations that are required to turn those inputs into dinner. So, we're left with simplistic stuff like "buy local" and "buy organic", neither of which is really much of a solution. There's nothing wrong with the idea of 'voting with your fork'; but it would help to know what we should be voting for. I suppose a film like this isn't obligated to propose solutions: it's goal is to raise awareness. But still. By now, we know many of the problems. Without viable, large-scale alternatives, we're left with the vague feeling that the bad stuff Food, Inc. talks about might just be the lamentable side-effects (hopefully some of which are remediable) of an imperfect-but-generally-useful system.

Now to be fair, Food, Inc.'s shortcomings are pretty clearly part of the film-makers' rhetorical strategy. It's not an accident that they relied on the voices of real folks instead of experts, and that they point to problems but not solutions. The film is trying to raise awareness, pointing out problems in an enormous industry with potent political allies. In going for the gut, in not bothering to seek out experts, in leaving out important truths, the documentary fights dirty. But when your opponents are companies like Monsanto and Tyson, it's hard not to admit that the film makers are fighting dirty in what is undeniably bound to be a dirty fight.


Chris MacDonald's commentary appears originally and regulary on his blog The Business Ethics Blog, and is redistributed via 3BL Media with his expressed consent.