Sunday, April 22, 2012

757. Film Review: Food Inc.

By Kamran Nayeri, April 22, 2012

The Context
There has been increased interest in the public health and political economy of food in the United States over the past decade. Robert Kenner’s Emmy award winner Food Inc. (2008, 1 hour and 34 minutes, PG rated) uses Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma as springboard to further investigate industrial farming practices that produce the bulk of “food items” on the grocery store’s shelves.

There are already many good reviews of Food Inc.  However, they typically do not situate the documentary in its proper political economy context and none that I have read deals with its ethical implication.

Human life requires eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things commonly referred to as basic needs.  Thus, production of such means of consumption has been the building block of human societies since the Agrarian Revolution about ten thousand years ago. 

As Engel’s Law (proposed by the nineteenth century German statistician Ernest Engels) has it, mass consumption evolves with the transformational growth of industrial economies.  In early stages of capitalist development, when per capita income is low, most of workers’ income is spent on food and other subsistence goods.  When industrialization takes off and per capita income rises working people’s consumption pattern expands to include manufactured good such as household appliances.  In mature (“advanced”) capitalist economies with high per capita income, the service sector expands and services become part of working people’s consumption basket as well.

The value of labor power (approximated by money wage) is the value of a basket of goods and services that is necessary for its reproduction. The value of labor power is historically determined.  The accumulation process that results in competition among capitalists and between, capitalists and workers, and among worerks requires progressive decline of the value of labor power.  That is, it requires the cheapening of the products and services included in the average worker’s consumption basket. Cheapening the value of food is historically and analytically primary for advancing capitalist accumulation process.

Thus, in the United States government support for agriculture began in the first decade of the twentieth century and was solidified in the 1930s (depression) and 1940s (war) and a program of subsidies continues to this date. Nothing similar has happened in manufacturing and services (the energy industry, a key sector to capitalist production, being an exception). 

However, mass production in the food industry had to wait for the experience in manufacturing industry to mature.  As Food Inc. remarks, McDonald’s spearheaded fast food and mass production in the food industry, including industrial farming.

Historical data show that the inflation-adjusted price of food has declined with the development capitalism, especially since the introduction of industrial farming over the past half a century. Take for example the price of a hamburger at McDonalds: 15 cents in 1955, 15 cents in 1964, 18 cents in 1968, 30 cents in 1974, 50 cents in 1984, 59 cents in 1991, 85 cents in 1995, 89 cents in 2000, and 89 cents in 2007 (these prices are not adjusted for inflation).   It is sufficiently clear that the secular real price of a hamburger has declined over time.  The same pattern is observed in other mass consumed food items.[i]  

Thus, industrial farming has contributed to the post-World War II expansion of world capitalism through a process of division of labor, mechanization, use of mass production techniques, and economies of scale and scope.

The Movie
Now, let us return to Food Inc.  Author and co-producer Eric Schlosser explains that a majority of colorful and variegated food items on supermarket shelves come from only five corporations that as a group control 80 percent of the market.  Yet, every attempt is made to make the consumer feel that the food item is produced on an idyllic farm.

In fact, the industrial farming companies make every attempt to keep their labor processes hidden from public view. And they can count on the government for help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that are supposed to protect the public are actually complicit in allowing corporations to put their profit ahead of consumer health, working farmers interest, worker’s wellbeing, animal welfare, and the environment.

Food related epidemics, from mad cow to E. Coli and Salmonella are routinely reported with sometimes massive recall of related products. Just last week, a new study found that 48% of packaged raw chicken products bought at grocery stores across the country were contaminated with the bacteria E. coli (a spokesperson for the government discounted this finding by insisting that there is no public health concern if the consumer cooks the chicken well).  The industry is allowed to add chemicals to their products.  For example, pink slime can constitutes up to 15% of lean ground beef bought in stores. A number of environmental hazards, such as manure runoffs, are part of industrial farming labor processes. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports: “workers in food manufacturing are more likely to be fatally injured and experience nonfatal injuries and illnesses than workers in private industry as a whole.” An interview in Food Inc. notes how small farms that sign contracts with giant food companies are often enslaved to them and the banks.

Kenner throws some light on the genesis and dynamics of industrial farming.   As Schlosser puts it, the food industry has changed more in the last fifty years than in the last ten thousand years before it. But Food Inc. does not link its emergence and development and power to the dynamics of the capitalist system.

The viewer can see the assembly lining of food production by ever-increasing division of labor and using labor saving technologies.  Chicken are altered to gain more weight twice as fast as they have for millions of years, with their breast far out-weighting the rest of their body. As a result their legs cannot handle their weight so they cannot move more than a few feet without falling down. Combined with their jammed-together existence, they are drowning in their own manure. Some die. Most suffer the entire short life and their flesh become infected with E. coli. In pursuit of higher profit, corporate managers and their staff scientists and engineers aim to drive the unit cost as low as they possibly can.  The miserable farm animals are mere “products” destined for the marketplace where their corpses are sold by the pound.  The viewer can get a glimpse of the same grueling process in the beef and pork industries.  

There are feedback mechanisms at work as well.  With the help of government subsidies, corn production has soared and prices have come down.  Thus, the beef industry uses corn as cattle feed (which is not the natural food for cattle that normally eat grass). This has resulted in massive increase in E. coli bacteria in the cattle’s guts. Thus, the E. coli epidemics.

Michael Pollan notes that E. coli in cattle guts is reduced by 80% by feeding cattle grass for five days.  However, the industry has opted for a “hi-tech solution.” Eldon Roth, a supplier, demonstrates how his new E. coli killing meat mix-in, “a tasty blend of ammonia and ammonia hydroxide,” works.

The documentary also gives some attention to the workers and small farmers.  While the industry has lobbied to pass state laws prohibiting workers from taking photos or videos of their workplaces, Kenner manages to include some footage of how workers enter and work in factory farms and of the conditions inside.  The first problem facing factory farm workers is the stench—they have to get as mush of it out and some fresh air in before being able to enter the facility where the animals are kept.  For obvious reasons, there are no images of the “kill floor” but there are scenes of assembly line cleaning the corpses of chicken, etc. 

Kenner introduces us to an impoverished immigrant family of four--the father is diabetic--struggling with the baffling reality that fast-food hamburgers are cheaper than a head of broccoli. And a brave chicken farmer lets Kenner's cameras see her operation, only to subsequently lose her contract with Perdue.

Kenner also gives some attention to Monsanto, manufacturer of DDT and Agent Orange that patented a gene that's in 90 percent of the nation's soybean seeds. You'll be driven out of business if you re-use them, as farmers have for thousands of years. You'll even be sued if some of the seed blows onto your land and you wind up with Monsanto-patented soy.

Food Inc. ends on what it commonly thought to be an alternative to industrial farming. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms makes the case that every food purchase we make is a political act. Wal-Mart sells his organic products because people want to buy them, not because it's morally enlightened.

Kenner shows what appears to be an idyllic farm.  Cows are roaming free eating grass and chicken running around scratching the ground. They all look healthy and happy.  Except at the end of the sequence we see how the chicken are slaughtered—the chicken is garbed and forced down a funnel so its head sticks down and its throat sliced with a sharp knife. The innovation is that you do not see the chicken’s headless body bounce around on the ground—a scene that can make you think twice about current food habit that repeats this atrocity billions of times each year!

Basing himself on U.S. Department of Agriculture's late 1990s data, Gary Francione writes: “[In the United States of late 1990s] we kill more than 8 billion animals a year for food; every day, we slaughter approximately 23 million animals, or more than 950,000 per hour, or almost 16,000 per minute, or more that 260 every second.” Even if we could raise this many farm animals for food without resorting to factory farming, would it be ethical to kill them for food when healthier vegan alternatives are available that save billions of lives and are environmentally friendly?

However, as James E. McWilliam reminds us the idea of feeding over 313 million U.S. inhabitants pasture raised or otherwise non-industrially raised farm animals is a myth. He writes: “For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they’re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.” His concerns include global warming and deforestation. 

As a documentary, Food Inc. has three major shortcomings.  Although it shows graphic scenes of farm animal brutality it remains silent about the ethics of raising and slaughtering animals for food.  Second, it gives its audience the impression that small farm food production alternatives can fill in for industrial farming in terms of meeting the current demand for meat and animal products. This is simply not true.  The rise of factory farming is part and parcel of the rise of industrial capitalist economy and given the capitalist market small-scale farm animal production will not be economically feasible and environmentally superior. Finally, any documentary about the future of food needs to address the vegan alternative (a vegetarian diet will keep demands for animal products such as eggs. Industrial egg production is also a filthy business; see, for example, Nicholas D. Kristof's piece).  Veganism is a healthier (see, for example, my review of Forks Over Knives), sustainable, and ethical alternative not just to factory farming but also to all food production systems since the rise of the Agricultural Revolution.

Still, Food Inc. is an important documentary about where our food comes from and how it is produced. Everyone will benefit from viewing it.

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[i] During the past decade cost of production of food has gone up due to increases in the cost of energy. This is because industrial farming is highly energy-dependent.  


Gabriel said...

"Except at the end of the sequence we see how the chicken are slaughtered"
So??? What's wrong??? Should we eat them alive? Anaesthetise them first?

Man has always eaten meat, and eating meat moderately is healthy, specially for growing children. There is no other source of protein that can replace fish, poultry or beef.

Vegetarianism is no more than an unhealthy fashion.

Unknown said...

Food Inc made me realize that EVERY FOOD PURCHASE YOU MAKE HAS AN IMPLICATION for the rest of the country and the world.