The margins of Douglas Coupland's era-defining novel Generation X were littered with neologisms like 'McJobâ?� and bumper-sticker slogans branding '90s culture, and one of them always stuck with me: 'The love of meat prevents any real change.â?� Cryptic though it seemed at the time, it's turned out to be oracular. As laid out by Magnolia Pictures' latest eye-opening documentary, Food Inc., all society's ills can be laid at the doorstep of the fast food industry.
No, seriously. Fast food, as envisioned by Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers in 1954, was the innovation that turned meals into units, employees into automatons, farms into factories. The gradual consequences of their radical revision now degrade every sphere of American life, from personal health and career to the environment and the world economy. The ingrained human desire for fat, sugar and salt has been exploited and tweaked by multinational corporations until most Americans feel they're guaranteed by birthright that every bite be crispier, creamier, sweeter.
Producer Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) dispassionately unpack the causes and effects of factory farming on America. What began as a postwar ambition to feed the world, to, Scarlett O'Hara-like, 'never be hungry again,â?� has mutated into forced abundance. Chickens are so meaty they can't stand up; cattle are super-fattened on grain instead of grass; tons of surplus corn is grown, so much that it must be magicked into 90 percent of grocery products: peanut butter, cheese, orange juice, Twinkies, batteries.
Schlosser and Pollan's talking-head interludes alternate with interviews with food safety advocates across the country ' a woman whose son died after eating a contaminated hamburger, a union organizer for slaughterhouse workers in North Carolina and the heroically commonsensical Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. (His minutes in the film are worth the price of admission alone.) The inconvenient truths conveyed by these on-the-ground warriors illustrate a country in the grip of profit-hungry corporations with a direct line to your elected representatives. It is simply less expensive to stuff beef cattle full of corn and antibiotics, cram them nose-to-anus in feedlots and let them stand caked in manure, then hose the carcasses down with chlorine than it is to provide pasture, clean quarters and sanitary slaughterhouse conditions. Well, let's be specific: It's less expensive for the corporations. There's always a cost, and the cost is borne by us in the form of salmonella and E. coli deaths and a loss of self-determination on the part of farmers.
Film after film tells us the same things about our food system. King Corn and Super Size Me were infused with a certain antic zeal; Fast Food Nation fictionalized the issues; Our Daily Bread went the wordless Koyaanisqatsi route. Food Inc., while beautifully shot and produced, has no hook, per se, besides marvelously articulate people gently explaining the crippling extent of the damage to our system. The sense of great forces arrayed against farmers and would-be healthy eaters is overwhelming, mitigated only in the last few minutes of the film, which advise you to eat at home, shop at farmers markets, buy organic and so forth. For many the choice to eat more vegetables and less meat or cook instead of buy fast food is a big step. Yet we learn that those steps are all but meaningless in the face of the massively screwed food industry. There's E. coli in the spinach now. That grocery-store chicken is super-cheap, yes, but it's teeming with salmonella. So what's the answer? Maybe documentarians shouldn't be required to solve the problem they report, but a film that makes the viewer feel helpless isn't going to help.
There is a certain cathartic euphoria at the end, a feeling that knowledge is power. But change needs to come at the policy level, not the personal; no matter how many CFL light bulbs and organic kale we buy, only large-scale reform will begin to heal our outraged planet. It's not an easy film, but it's a necessary one.
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