Food, Inc. or just the description of America?

A couple of days ago, I watched the documentary Food, Inc. Although the underlying theme is that the four large US corporations that dominate food would try to keep the American consumers ignorant of their activities, I saw this documentary much more as a review of the US society over the past 60-70 years.

As usual with this kind of documentaries, there is a mix of commentaries with pictures without presenting anything specific about the relation between the text and the images. The chicken farmer from Pennsylvania is angry, but it is not clear exactly at what. She removes dead chickens, but we do not hear what the cause of death is. To me, with my experience in chicken production, it seems that her chicken house is in very poor shape, and I am not sure about her level of commitment and overall technical performance. The Tyson grower seems quite a bit happier than the lady chicken farmer who ends up being terminated by Perdue. Unfortunately, the crew cannot film inside his chicken house and we never hear to know exactly why, but the commentary tends to imply that Tyson wants to hide something. Unfortunately as well, no representative from the large food companies mentioned wished to be interviewed, and that creates the impression that they want to conceal something. The chapter about the staff policies of meat companies is quite interesting. If this seems a surprise for the journalists, it was not for me. In Europe, we knew 20 years ago how harsh contracts were for farmers and plant staff. This is the product of free job market mechanism with a slight reminder of a certain thinking about labour force in the old south. Certain things simply die hard. John Steibeck’s Grapes of Wrath had shown several decades ago how agricultural labor force could be exploited. The reminder that meat packing plant workers used to have decent wages is an indicator of two things. One is a reflection of the disappearance of the American middle class in the manufacturing sector, and the other is that meat plants would purely and simply suffer tremendous financial losses if they had to reset wages the way they used to be. There might be some concerns about their financial long-term sustainability. They are not ready to cope with production cost increases, and they can hardly reduce personnel costs much anymore.

The family of four that lives on a diet of fast food is also a typical example. They do not have time to cook, and that justifies eating only burgers with fries and pop. The fast food meal for four comes down to almost US$ 3.00 per person. You can make a healthy meal for that money. The luxury meal that I prepared for my spouse on Christmas Eve was hardly more expensive than this. For that family, like for many American households, money is tight and they need to do the best out of a limited budget. The filmed visit to the supermarket tends to focus too much on the broccoli at US$1.29/lb. That price would be too high. That is possible, but there is more than broccoli to choose from. Potatoes, rice, carrots, beans, cabbage or onions are much cheaper than broccoli, and by combining them, it is possible to prepare quickly a healthy nutritious diet, including some meat. The mom works long hours and has no time to prepare diner. I accept that, but the teenage girl could do that to help her mother. My parents also worked long hours, and dinner was not before 9 pm. This is why I learned how to cook. When there is a will, there is a way. Then, we learn that the parents suffer of diabetes. This is not really a surprise considering such a crazy diet, and this problem is spreading to more and more American families. When you add the medication costs to the price of the fast food meals, preparing a healthy meal as I described above is really the best deal in all respects. In the land of individualism, where people are expected to take charge of their destinies, it is a bit strong to reduce the discussion to the agribusiness having “altered” foods, thus presenting this family as victims. I disagree with this. They made a choice, which may be the most convenient, but not the wisest. The alternative certainly requires some effort, and that may be difficult to handle. The blaming game, which is even more popular than baseball in the US is not leading anywhere. Most of all, why do they have to order pop with their burgers? They can cut their calorie count by filling bottles with tap water. Making sandwiches is easy and quick, too. This is a lot cheaper and a lot healthier, and it does not require much work at all. Last year, I had written an article in which I was showing the similarities of human behaviour and how we produce food. Food, Inc. makes this comparison quite vivid.

Then, the documentary shifts to food safety and presents some footage of meat processing plants. That is certainly a very important item in the US, where the number of recalls for bacterial contamination is simply astronomical. I found this part very interesting because in my many years in the meat, poultry and fish businesses, I have spent several years in close contact and even supervised plant operations as well. What this movie from 2009 showed gave me the same impression that I got the first time I came to the US in 1998, and toured what was by then one of the largest chicken processing plants in the country, in Alabama. Americans certainly love everything big, just like the calorie count of their meals. They love huge complicated plants where the molecules (chlorine by then in that particular chicken plant that smelled more like a swimming pool than anything else, and ammonia in the case of the plant featured in the movie) are supposed to do the work. Unfortunately, with such layouts, visual control is rather difficult as it appears in the documentary. When a plant is such a thick forest of pipes, chains and rotating parts, not only is it very difficult to see what is happening, but it is the best amusement park you can imagine for bacteria. They have so many niches where they can settle and grow in peace. The more complex the layout gets, the more difficult it is to sanitize the plant. The hamburger factory has installed cameras and management claims that this helps them to control what is going on in the several plants they own over the country. My view on meat processing plant supervision is that it has to be done in an ongoing manner, online, with the supervisor being on the plant floor, not sitting in his office. I doubt that cameras will eliminate food contamination issues. Moreover, online quality control requires motivated staff, which also requires proper wages and benefits. Food safety is less a technology matter than it is a matter of management and motivation of staff. Another important element that I noticed is that the boss of the hamburger plant describes himself as a mechanic. I had expected him to see himself as a food producer who wants most of all to offer safe food to consumers. I did not hear that statement. I also would have liked to see him eat some of his ammonia-marinated burgers. I am a meat lover, but I really do not need that on my plate. When I think that, in The Netherlands, we were not even allowed to use chlorine in the slaughterhouse water… We had to work on eliminating the causes of the problem instead of applying never-ending layers of technology band-aid. And we did significantly reduce the causes!

Then, the documentary presents the “natural farmer”, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. He certainly is very successful, but by his own admission, he has no plans is growing much more than he currently is. If there is more demand than he can supply, that will be the customers’ problem. By looking at his chicken slaughter installation and system, I doubt that he can supply much volume, but we never got to hear how big his business is. He is a niche producer, and his customers appreciate him, since one of them claims it to be worth driving 5 hours to get to his shop. That is 10 hours drive including the way back. One can wonder if the footprint of that food is all that great when it comes into the consumer’s home. How many of such farmers are necessary to meet consumer demand? And what is the price of the food they sell? Could this feed the family of four on a very tight budget that eats from the fast food drive-through? The movie never answers these questions.

The story of Stonyfield Farm yogurt was cause for more optimism. They offer the organic alternative. According to the CEO of the company, they are the third yogurt brand in the US and the most profitable one. This is a success story. They sell to Wal-Mart and fit in the retailer strategy towards more sustainable food. It also shows that organic has long passed the stage of hippie small-scale and that is a rational modern business, which the industrial agribusiness tends to refuse to see. The one thing that was missing about this story, though, was how the farmers who supply the milk perform financially.

Probably, the scariest part of Food, Inc. was the one about the lobbying and the politics. In the material country, this is no surprise. This does not make it any less scary, though. Since winning elections is about how much money candidates have in their “war chests”, the actual vote ballot is a banknote. The ones with the most bank notes have the most power. Reality is less idealistic than the idea of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. The system seems to have evolved to somehow reminiscent of an aristocracy structure. The US is a republic, but maybe a little less of a democracy after all. The money power is not only political, but in society where suing is a lifestyle, justice tends to favour the richer ones, simply because the poor cannot offer the fight very long. This power of money through lobby and lawmaking might not be as strong as one think, though, Last year, an oil lobby backed-Republican Senator of Arizona wanted to pass a bill to kill solar energy in the state. A Chinese company, Suntech Power, had plans to open a solar panel factory in Arizona (a Chinese company opening a manufacturing facility in the US. That is interesting is it not?) If this bill had passed, they would have lost the business. What did they do? They threatened to stop the project and kill the jobs. Do you know what happened? The Republican Senator did not proceed with his plans. Maybe China will help eliminate the negative effects of lobbies. Nonetheless, for now, lobbies are still active and powerful.

Then the conclusion of the documentary comes in a rush. Buy local, from the farmer’s markets. This is nice, but millions of households cannot afford that food. Moreover, production is not even remotely close to meeting the national food demand. You can vote three times a day to choose the food system. Americans voted a long time ago to have instant gratification, and they chose for the consumption society. Never things would have evolved to what they are if consumers had rejected it from the start. Nobody forced Americans to drive to a fast food restaurant and stay seated inside their cars to eat. Nobody forces them to drink pop, eat potato chips or candy bars, to think that the right size for a steak is 9 oz., to pour ketchup on everything, just as they did not have to spend more then they earned and dig themselves in huge debt.  I do not consume any of those items, yet my self-esteem is good, though.Freedom requires a bit of will power. Freedom of choice does not imply that one should not resist temptation. The American consumer’s behaviour has been a boon for the industry. Nothing is better than consumers who just consume without asking questions. Fortunately, this is now changing gradually. Americans realize that consumer goods producers have looked at them in a similar way as the livestock in feedlots, passive and submissive. Unlike what the makers of Food Inc. may say, all Americans are responsible of the society they have. The industry is, of course. But consumers are just as much. In order to change, consumers are going to realize what role they have played in the consumption society. They can vote, but the US is one of the countries with the lowest turnout at elections. The ones who choose not to express themselves just miss an opportunity to change things. Most Americans have lost faith in their politicians. Yet, there is a democratic force that can, and in my opinion, will restore true democracy. This force is the food retail, with Wal-Mart as the leader. They do not wait for politicians to make laws when it comes about food should be produced. They do not care much about the games played in Washington, DC. They just listen to the people and they offer the workable solutions to meet these wishes. Unlike politicians, they do not set their objectives for the next four years. Wal-Mart has already done more about sustainability of food supply than lawmakers have. Earlier, they had decided not to sell milk from cows injected with growth hormone. Yesterday, they announced their decision to make healthier food affordable to their customers. They represent such a purchasing power that they can force their suppliers to change their practices and their purchasing strategies, enforcing the change all the way back in the supply chain to the seed producers. Be assured that the food industry will do what the retail tells it to do, because without the retail, they are out of business. Their purchasing power is so much larger than the one of the people buying on farmers markets. People should cast their vote and give power of attorney to the retailers. Really, the food retail is just one step away of enforcing change on antibiotics, hormones, animal welfare and GMOs; even if the politicians have not made up their minds. Just compare the size, financially and in jobs, of Wal-Mart and Monsanto. Who is the true giant?

Altogether, I found that the movie was raising good questions, but it was not giving much hope for a quick change, either. This is a weakness, just as the lack of specifics of the pictures. They need to make a sequel in which they will show how things can change for the best, make food affordable and farming sustainable, and how they see the US making the transition. I missed that. The documentary is not as specific to the food industry as it seems. A similar movie with a similar commentary could be made on about every industrial sector of the US, from energy to electronics, telecommunications, the car industry, the banks or the pharmaceutical industry.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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