The movie starts with heart-warming scenes of an aerial view of beautiful crop lands, a man baling straw with old equipment, a man on horseback herding cattle on a mountain range, and a nifty red barn, its white-rail fences, surrounding green pastures, and fluffy white clouds floating by in the sky. Then as a mysterious voice drones on, the camera backs away and the scenes turn out to be posters in a supermarket.
Now I recognize the voice, it’s Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and he says: The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000. But the image used to sell the food is still the imagery of Aquarian America. Then comes the movie’s first, of many, low blows to the American farmer/rancher when Eric says, You go to the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers, the picket fence, and the silo, and the farm house, and the green grass. It’s the spinning of the pastorale fantasy. In other words, Eric is saying that farmers and ranchers are no longer participants in food production.
Then Eric comments about the modern grocery store. He starts with its 47,000 products, year around produce and then ominously talks about foreign produced, green picked, ripened with Ethylene gas, tasteless tomatoes. Then he says it’s not a tomato, it’s kind of a notional tomato, it’s the idea of a tomato. He offers no explanations for his comments, just leaves them hanging which effectively implies the consumer is being deceived.
[For the record, Ethylene gas (C2H4) is an odorless, colorless gas that exists in nature and is also created by man-made sources. Not easily detectable, it exists where produce is stored. In nature, the largest natural producers of this gas are plant and plant products (i.e. fruits, vegetables and floral products) which produce ethylene within their tissues and release it into the surrounding atmosphere. Some fruits, such as pears, tomatoes, avocados, and bananas, ripen better when kept in a loosely closed paper bag because the Ethylene gas put off naturally by the fruit can’t escape. See https://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ethylene-Gas.htm]
In the meat isle there are no bones anymore, Eric says. Is he implying something is wrong with that? If not, why say that? Then he goes on to say; There is this deliberate veil, this curtain that is dropped between us and where our food is coming from. The industry does not want you to know the truth about what you are eating, because if you knew you might not want to eat it. If you follow the food chain back from the shrink-wrapped packages of meat you find a very different reality, the reality of factory, not a farm, but a factory. That meat is being processed by huge multinational corporations that have very little to do with ranchers and farmers. Now our food is coming from enormous assembly lines where the animals and the workers are being abused. And the food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us.
Then the scene shifts to showing executives walking across a harvested wheat field toward a big smoking plant as voices explain that a small group of multinational corporations control the entire food system from seed to the supermarket. It is all about control over farm commodities, secrecy, control over farmers, the making of nutritionally damaging and unsafe food, animal and worker abuse, and it’s not just our health that is at risk, the companies do not want the Food Inc. story told.
Holly smoke! That was just the opening for the movie credits and I already feel like I have to set the record straight. And from what Food Inc. claims so far, I’m going to be sounding like I support the Evil Empire, animal brutality, human rights violations, bad food, secrecy, the suppression of the small farmer, food safety infractions, indifference toward the consumer, corruption in our government, and about everything else you can think of that could be nasty regarding American agriculture and food production. But if you’re interested in the truth, pull up a chair and relax. Because straight shooting Ted is about to fire all his cannons.
Setting the Record Straight
Nearly all foodstuffs/agricultural commodities produced in our nation and in other nations come from family owned farms and ranches. There are about 2.1 million farms in the United States with the average size being about 440 acres. Some farms and ranches are very large. Most are midsized. Many are very small. The USDA census indicates family farms make up about 89.7% of the total, partnerships 5.1%, and corporations 3.5%. Most of the corporations in farming are family owned and controlled. By the way, nearly all of the folks involved in agricultural production live on their farms or ranches. And yes, farmers, fences, silos, farm houses, nifty barns, and green grass can still be found everywhere if one drives out of the city and merely opens his eyes.
The primary crops are grain, cotton, chickens, cattle, hogs, vegetables, and feed grains and hay for livestock. Secondary crops include nuts, fruit, tobacco, spices, mushrooms, fish, and the many items that compose the many products and ingredients in the tens of thousands of items found in the average sized super market. Beyond food, farmers raise trees, operate a vast range of horticulture enterprises, and run game preserves. Usually farmers sell their production into the commodity markets to fresh food distributors, food processors, and other specialized businesses. In most cases food commodities move through one or more food processors. There are thousands of food processors. Most of them are very small, some are medium sized, and some are giants.
Why do farmers sell their production into the commodity markets or to food processors instead of selling directly to the public? There is a whole host of reasons, but the primary one is that it doesn’t pay a farmer to deal in small volumes with a fickle public. Most of the farm production does not take place close to cities or even towns. And in many cases farms produce huge tonnages of particular products that are only economic if sold in bulk, transported in bulk, and distributed in bulk.
The biggest food processing companies specialize in grain-fed meats, grain-based foods, and packaged and canned processed foods. The largest companies have been around for over 100 years in one form or another or they can trace their linage back through acquisitions to outfits that were household names many decades ago. They were able to become very large because meats, grains, and grain-based foods can be processed and distributed in bulk very efficiently.
After grain farming was invented 10,000 years ago, seeds (grain) quickly gained a reputation for being “the staff of life.” That’s what everyone believed back then and many still believe today. As grain farming techniques improved it was only logical to think more grain was better. The consequences of that thinking is why our modern food system’s foundation is grain, grain-based foods, and grain-fed livestock products. It is a traditional food model that modern technology and management has honed into an industry which provides a billion meals a day in just our country alone. Rather than call that a sin, I think it’s a modern marvel! It’s just unfortunate that grain is not an appropriate food for any animal including people. Getting the grain out of the food system is now the primary challenge facing our nation. Obviously that will not be a quick, easy task.
No doubt about it, the biggest processing plants are huge and super efficient. But they are incredibly clean, routinely inspected, and highly regulated. All workers must wear protective gear to keep potential contamination to a minimum. Facilities are cleaned fastidiously. The workers do not come from forced labor camps, but from middle class neighborhoods like you’ll find in every city in America. No, the average wages are not stellar for the entry level jobs because most of the work is repetitive in nature and does not require high skill levels. But many jobs in food processing require greater skills and they pay accordingly. And for a fact the work is relatively steady since everyone has to eat.
All food processing plants are inspected either by state or federal inspectors depending on the markets they serve. The inspectors are our nation’s food police. They have dictatorial powers and violators can not only be fined, but closed down for good with the stroke a pen. It has happened in the past and it will happen in the future because no system is perfect.
As for the accusation that the food processing industry works in secrecy and wants to hide all that it does from the consumer . . . well, that charge is so ludicrous one hardly knows where to start a defense. For instance, if the folks at Food Inc. really wanted to know more, why didn’t they visit a university and check out and read all the various text books and scientific reports that exist about animal science, food science, chemistry, soils, cooking, and nutrition? Or they could have met with any one of the hundreds of university Extension Specialists in food processing and asked them about industry practices. I do that when I have a question.
Instead, when Food Inc. interviewed specialists they lifted their comments out of context in order to make it sound like modern foods are manufactured in a chemistry lab. Yes, foods are composed of chemicals. And certain additives are made from various plants and seeds and/or are derivatives of plants and seeds. These additives are listed on ingredient labels and usually you can’t pronounce their names. If you want to eat that stuff, you as well as every other consumer can do just that. Me, if I can’t pronounce the name of the ingredient, I don’t want to eat the product. That doesn’t mean ingredients with complex names are always bad for you. In most cases they are not unless they are foods or parts of foods that are nutritionally deficient such as grains. Yet my preference remains to eat what I recognize as being good, which means I refuse to eat any food product with additives such as sugar, corn syrup, soy, grains, artificial this and that, hydrogenated oils, and things with strange names. But that’s me.
Our nation’s colleges and universities have undergraduate and graduate programs that teach all the ins and outs of food processing and it is the graduating students the food processing companies hire. They do not hire them because the kids are sinister, sadistic thugs who want to brutalize animals and their fellow man. They do not hire them because they have been taught by cloak and dagger guys from a secret society. They hire those kids at top wages because they are well educated in business, production, and personal management, plus they have learned sophisticated food processing skills and are capable of replacing aging managers that are retiring. In time, today’s graduating students will end up running the huge companies that Food Inc. labels as sinister multinationals that do not care about their customers, the quality of their food, food safety, worker welfare, nor the survival of the many hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers who raise the commodities that the multinationals rely on in order to stay in business.
So, within the first three minutes and thirty seconds of credits that I’ve just reviewed so far, Food Inc. lays the ground work for its entire presentation which is about to start. It’s a beginning that I believe is based on myths, lies, fabrications, innuendoes, and a slam against every rancher and farmer in America. Following the opening does the movie really get down and get ugly? You be the judge.
It’s the Delivery System’s Fault
The scene opens with Eric Schlosser ordering a hamburger and fries in what appears to be a small town diner. Yes, this is the same Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation fame who says, I don't eat ground beef anymore. Then he orders and eats a burger made with ground beef and declares; My favorite meal to this day remains a hamburger and french fries! Then he complains about the meat industry, that his foods have changed, and that there is a veil of secrecy over everything. Then the focus shifts to changes in the food industry, not with how the foods have changed, but how the industry serves the food.
The blaming of the delivery system, which provides what the public demands, is ridiculous. Why blame the delivery system for economically serving the consumer (in this case Eric) the very food he craves most – a grain-fed hamburger and fries? Eric then goes on to blame a segment of the delivery system (large multinational restaurants like McDonald’s) for unintended consequences. He says, that because of the creation of large restaurant chains, there was a creation of large food suppliers.
He then discredits his own statement by explaining that the grain and meat industries were dominated by very big businesses prior to World War II and they got even bigger as the population of our country increased these past 70 years from 130,879,718 people to 310,391,967 people. Plus, like nearly all other industries in America (even the garbage collection business) they got bigger through mergers and acquisitions. So what happened in the food industry was not unique, but for some reason it is sinister for the food industry to have grown in a that fashion . . . because it is bad for the food?
Then the movie goes after the chicken industry. But first it shows a short clip of Richard Lobb from the National Chicken Council. Basically Richard says the chicken industry raises food. It’s doing it by raising the most it can on the smallest amount of land possible and at a very affordable price. Plus, they are focusing of uniformity in the size of the chickens they process in order to be more automated and to provide the consumer with a consistently predictable outcome. He concludes by asking, Somebody explain to me what’s wrong with that?
My answer is, “Nothing.” That’s because those goals are the same as mine in what I’m trying to do in my cattle operation. And that goes for everyone focused on raising food in an economially and environmentally sustainable way. There is only so much land and if the world population continues to grow, farmers and ranchers will have to become even more efficient if everyone continues to want three meals a day.
The movie switches to chicken farmers who are reluctant to let Food Inc. inside their chicken houses. The movie claims their reluctance is because the big companies are trying to hide their poultry practices from the public. Then the commentator rambles on and on about abuses heaped on family farmers. Of course, he never mentions even once that many thousands of chicken farmers follow the Tyson model which was invented in the late 1940s. So there is more than 60 years of history in how it works for both Tyson (and other suppliers) and the grower. Obviously growers do not go into this business without knowing full well how it functions. It is work plain and simple. No question about it. It also requires a financial commitment. But the production model works for most because every farmer has numerous options with what he can do with his land, money, and time. If he decides to raise chickens, he makes that decision based on educated inputs.
As for openness, I made a call to Tyson and they responded immediately and were most helpful. They also supplied me with a written reply of their take on the movie plus a You Tube link to movies of various chicken operations and the growers. So here is Tyson’s view.
We are disappointed by this film’s distorted view of the food industry, especially when you think of all the people at a company like Tyson who work hard to produce safe, high quality foods in a responsible way. In fact, the food we produce for others is the same food we feed our own families.
What goes on in our operations is no secret. Federal food safety inspectors are present in our fresh meat and poultry plants every moment they’re in operation. They are also subject to inspection by regulators who monitor such areas as workplace safety, environmental protection and employment compliance. In fact, the meat and poultry industry is already one of the most regulated industries in the country.
Tyson operates by a set of Core Values, as well as a Code of Conduct. In other words, we strive to run our business in an ethical, responsible way and in compliance with the law. As part of our efforts to operate responsibly, our company employs experts and specialists who focus on such important areas as food safety, worker safety, animal well-being, employment compliance and environmental management.
We declined the filmmakers’ request for an interview because we believed they were on an anti-food industry crusade and we would not be treated fairly. The movie has confirmed our suspicions about their true motives. In addition, since the film’s producers raised no specific questions about Tyson’s operations, we referred them to the National Chicken Council (NCC) for information about the overall poultry industry. An NCC representative was subsequently interviewed for the film. Unfortunately, very little of the information he provided was used.
Contrary to the impression left in the film, companies like Tyson continue to depend on the family farmers and ranchers of rural America to help us produce food; from the independent hog farmer in Iowa and cattle rancher in Texas, to the poultry farmer in states like Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia.
The makers of Food, Inc. briefly featured a Kentucky poultry farmer named Vince Edwards who raises chickens for Tyson Foods. Mr. Edwards’ poultry contract with our company was not in jeopardy because of his decision to participate in the film. In fact, he still grows chickens for Tyson today. Mr. Edwards was told by Tyson representatives that the decision to do an interview or allow the filmmakers on his property was entirely his to make. However, company managers did express concerns about allowing the filmmakers into the chicken houses because of bio-security reasons and because of their anti-food industry agenda. Tyson did give the film's producers the names of other poultry growers they could talk to in the area, but to our knowledge, the other growers were never contacted.
For more information on the myths and misleading information presented in Food, Inc., we encourage you to visit https://www.safefoodinc.org/. Videos of typical poultry farms can also be viewed on YouTube here, here, and here and I really encourage you to watch the many You Tube videos of this secret industry hidden behind a sinister veil. Those links and more are available at the end of this review.
In addition to their statement above, Tyson also provided me with additional input.
Tyson has an “Office of Animal Well-Being,” which is managed by a veterinarian who has more than 30 years of experience in food animal veterinary practice and also served as a veterinary medical officer for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service. His responsibilities for Tyson include performing random animal handling audits at the company’s meat production plants, developing and implementing training programs for Tyson team members and advising company executives on all animal welfare areas. He has also developed training materials for chicken catching crews, to help ensure the birds are properly handled.
Tyson has been working with poultry growers on a contractual basis since the late 1940s and it’s been a relationship that has worked effectively for both the grower and the company. There are currently about 6,000 contract growers who raise chickens for our company.
Tyson supplies the birds, feed and technical advice, while the poultry producer provides the labor, housing and utilities. This means the grower is insulated from the risk of changing market prices for chicken and feed ingredients such as corn and soybean meal, which represent about half the cost of growing a chicken. In other words, growers are ensured of a consistent price for their efforts, no matter what the feed or grocery markets are doing.
The way we pay growers is no secret, since it is clearly outlined in their contracts, which can range in length from a minimum of three years to as many as 15 years. In general, the amount producers are paid is based on the feed conversion efficiency of the birds they raise. The payment formula includes such factors as the number of birds, the amount of feed used, the performance of their flock compared to those raised by other contract growers and the weight of the birds when delivered to the processing plant.
Like all industries not everything works perfectly. Not all people follow the rules. But most of the problems are caused by small operators who are not the best managers or employees who are not properly managed. People are just that way. So if one digs hard enough he will always find bad exceptions to the rule. But that is not the norm, it’s the exception.
Michael Pollan – “King of Corn”
After many minutes of trashing the chicken industry the movie graciously moves on and introduces Michael Pollan so he can trash the corn industry. Michael wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma and he is well aware of grass-fed meats. But he suggests that people should never eat factory farm beef, but beef from a small farm. Then, instead of focusing on grass-fed, he leaves one with the impression that cattle fed corn at a small farm is somehow better than being fed corn in a feedlot. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
He starts off saying that, When you go through the supermarket what looks like this cornucopia of variety and choices is not. There is an allusion of diversity. There is only a few companies involved. And there are only a few crops involved. What really surprised me most as I followed that food back to its source is that it kept ending up in the same place and that was a corn field in Iowa. So much of our industrial food turns out to be a clever rearrangement of corn.
Then Michael explains how, in one form or another, corn is in a majority of processed food products. He claims it’s because corn is sold below the cost of production and that artificially lowers the price of all products with corn additives. Then Food Inc. interviews a farmer who spouts all kinds of statistics claiming to show that U.S. Farm Policy promotes the over production of corn for the benefit of huge multinational companies.
Food Inc. says that 30% of our land base is planted to corn primarily because of government subsidies which allow farmers to produce corn for less than it costs to grow it. Then it states that there are about 300,000,000 acres of harvestable crop land in the United States and the average person eats over 200 pounds of meat a year (nine ounces per day) and they couldn’t do that unless cattle were fed cheap grain. Then once again there’s the claim that cows are not designed to eat corn, they are designed to eat grass.Then Michael asks, How do you keep that manure from getting on those carcasses?
Naturally, he did not back up his statements nor answer his question, as I’ll explain. First, I’ll address the manure issue.
Michael did not attempt to answer his manure question, a food safety issue, even though the Food Inc. film crew was in several meat plants and each plant would have explained their food safety procedures. Instead, he tells us that Big Business meat processors have “invented” ecoli O157:H7 and without a care in the world have contaminated many other food products.
That of course is a bold face lie. The industry does care about food safety and the American food system is ranked in the world’s top tier for safety. E. coli O157:H7 came into being when man first starting feeding grain to livestock. That could have been thousands of years ago. Contamination is not a factor of size, but circumstance.
Here is a brief back grounder on E. coli O157:H7.
E. coli O157:H7 bacteria and other pathogenic E. coli is believed to mostly live in the intestines of cattle (Elder, et al., 2000) but has also been found in the intestines of chickens, deer, sheep, and pigs. This particular strain of E. coli O157:H7 was first recognized as a food borne pathogen in 1982 during an investigation into an outbreak of hemorrhagic colitis (bloody diarrhea) associated with consumption of contaminated hamburgers (Riley, et al., 1983).
After introducing the ecoli O157:H7 subject, Food Inc. then spends considerable time describing a child’s death due to E. coli O157:H7 and continues that theme periodically throughout the movie until the end. Yes, every death from any cause is very disturbing. And you can rest assured that everyone associated with food production would be appalled if their food product caused the death of anyone. But the basic concerns and caring that all people in positions of responsibility hold for their actions are ignored by Food Inc. Instead Food Inc. gives viewers the impression that not only is the USDA careless in their inspections and enforcement, but the companies and their employees don’t really care about food safety either. Then they hammer that point over and over again with very emotional scenes.
Then next segment shifts to Michael saying the food industry is always trying to be more efficient, but every step in that direction leads to problems. So I guess that means food quality and safety can only go downhill if the population grows and more food is produced. Is that what he said?
Then Food Inc. introduces the viewer to a food safety practice where, in some cases, Ammonia is added to ground meat products. Of course the movie makes the practice sound pretty nasty. But is it? Ammonia’s molecular formula is NH3, with N being one nitrogen atom and H3 being three hydrogen atoms. Food Inc. doesn’t explain that Ammonia is found naturally in air (like we commonly breathe) and water, is a key metabolite in mammals (which is why excrement can give off an ammonia odor), and it is an additive used in many food products. Most importantly, in the small doses that one finds in air, water, and foods Ammonia is not a health threat – except to pathogens such as ecoli O157:H7.
Really Dangerous Work
Another point Food Inc. stresses ad nauseam is that meat packing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. Yes, repeated trauma is a common problem in industries such as knitting mills, truck driving, automobile manufacturing, household equipment manufacturing, and chicken processing to name the top few. But when it comes to life threatening jobs, nothing compares with the risks fishermen, lumberjacks, airplane pilots, structural metal workers, and taxicab drivers face on a daily basis.
Here’s the statistics on America’s most dangerous jobs.
Workers in meat packing plants did experience the highest incidence rate for disorders associated with repeated trauma in 1996. There were 921.6 cases per 10,000 full-time workers in meat packing plants, compared to 33.5 cases per 10,000 workers in private industry as a whole.
The knitting underwear mills industry reported an incidence rate of repeated-trauma disorders just below the top rate, at 910.4 cases per 10,000 workers. Others in the group of top five industries with the highest incidence rates were motor vehicles and car bodies (710.5), household laundry equipment manufacturing (547.1), and poultry slaughtering and processing (535.0). That’s right, the poultry folks have it better than those in the beef and pork plants. The good news is that all industries have reported generally lower incident rates of these types of injuries over the past 13 years.
Repetitive motion type work is hard on a body, but as far as being dangerous, I think that is an exaggeration. Being killed is what I’d call dangerous. And in that arena farmers and ranchers are far more at risk then the folks working on kill floors and in cutting rooms. Yet all of us who work outdoors in the agricultural food production business do so because we like the work. We do not whine and cry like a bunch of babies about our injury and/or death rates and we’d be embarrassed if Food Inc. were to say farmers and ranchers were abused. Heavens, we even raise our kids in this environment and most of them are on horseback at an age when most city kids haven’t even mastered a bicycle. In addition we expect our kids to pitch in and do farm labor at very young ages. All the while city folks wail about child abuse if their kids have to make their beds. Consequently, for just this one reason alone (which ignores all the other insults heaped on us by Food Inc.) the ranchers and farmers all across America look at the wimps who made Food Inc. with considerable disdain.
Where is the Accountability?
The movie now jumps to a man ordering some fast food (seven sandwiches) and three soft drinks for himself, his wife, and two daughters. He pays $11.48. They are all overweight and he is a diabetic spending about $200 a month on prescription drugs to “stay healthy.” Then it shows the same family in a supermarket turning up their noses at broccoli priced at $1.29 per pound because it’s too expensive. In other words, instead of a grain-based omega-3 deficient meal costing $11.48 they could have bought 8.9 pounds of broccoli and drank free water from a fountain. The broccoli would have made a highly nutritious meal (loaded with nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids) whereas the grain-based sandwiches and corn syrup drinks were not. No matter how you make the comparison, the broccoli with free water provided the greatest value in terms of bulk, nutrition, and value.
But instead of pointing out this common error nearly all consumers make, Eric goes on to blame their decisions on Big Business. His complaint is that the crummy food is cheap and tasty, not that it consists mostly of the grain and grain-based garbage preferred by most consumers. He does not compare the actual nutritional values of their uncoerced choices nor actual costs per pound. Instead he simply states the grain-based fast food the people bought is cheap because grain is subsidized at the production stage. So even without emphasizing how cheap broccoli is, let’s examine Eric’s position.
Before addressing corn subsidies, you need to know that the USDA's Risk Management Agency administers crop insurance policies for many crops, including an increasing number of vegetables and melons. Growers of vegetables and melons who do not purchase crop insurance, or do not have established Federal crop insurance programs for their crops, are eligible for Federal financial assistance under the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP), administered by USDA's Farm Service Agency. In addition, vegetable and melon producers are frequently eligible for financial assistance during years of extensive crop loss. Plus the government has marketing orders and marketing agreements that are designed to help stabilize market conditions for fruit and vegetable products. These programs assist farmers by allowing them to collectively work to solve marketing problems.
Now let’s examine the theory that because of subsidies corn is overproduced at less than the cost of production and that’s why it is cheap. I’ll use the actual numbers from 2009.
Total gross income earned by farmers for producing the four grains was $97.614 billion. Note that farmers had a choice of “subsidized” crops and did not focus on corn just because it is subsidized.
Subsidies for the four grains totaled $8.37 billion or 8.6% of the crops’ value. That was about half of all the various subsidies handed out in 2009 which totaled $15.4 billion and those subsidies covered a wide range of products, even beef cattle for ranchers caught in natural disasters. (That’s right, ranchers are given subsidy payments following droughts and other natural disasters.)
About half of the subsidies were for crop insurance and half were outright grants. I guess that makes the outright subsidy for corn (excluding crop insurance) about 4% of its value. Wow! I guess that really inspires over production . . . but only in Eric’s mind.
Yes, farmers plant fence post to fence post whichever crop they decide to grow, but not for subsidies, but economics. Planting less means more fixed costs are applied to fewer tons of crop produced. Therefore when a farmer puts the seeder to work he plants every productive acre he owns. And yes, for national security purposes all nations try to have food surpluses. And yes, once subsidies are in place, it is very difficult to wean producers off them.
Who benefits from the subsidies? The farmers come first because subsidies and crop insurance provide token support when prices are too low or crops are compromised by natural disasters. For instance it cost about $529 per acre to grow a corn crop in 2009. Average yield in the United States in 2009 was 165 bushels (not the 200 bushelsFood Inc. claims is so easy) for a gross value per acre of $619. Before the subsidy the gross value of the crop exceeded the cost of production by $90 per acre in 2009. The 4% subsidy added to the total gross.
Subsidies tend to keep farmers in the hunt through good years and bad. Next in line to benefit from subsidies is the supporting infrastructure that supports farmers. The ultimate beneficiary is the nation as a whole. Adequate production and the preservation of the farming community are both part of the national security plan. Shortages can be very harmful. Surpluses are preferred.
But subsidies only apply to the commodity production end of the grain crop. In terms of the value of finished products, commodity prices are minuscule. For instance, about 5% of the price of a box of corn flakes represents the value of the commodity corn. Therefore if the corn price increases 100% the price of a box of corn flakes increases about 7%. Based on that, how much influence does the 4% outright subsidy to corn farmers have in LOWERING the price of a box of corn flakes? Maybe I should ask Eric. He seems to know.
America has a grain-based food system because grain is inexpensive to raise and harvest, cheaply transported, and easy to store. That’s why it is cheap and Americans want cheap food. They also like the taste of grain and grain-based products, and grain and grain-fed livestock products are traditional foods. We do not have a grain-based food system because of government policies nor Big Business processing methods. We have it because it’s the consumers’ choice and it has been that way since grain farming was invented 10,000 years ago. Let me tell you, I’ve tried time and time again to convince people with serious health issues to change their diets away from the grain-based diet. But 99.9% of the time, they refuse to change. Their choice is pleasure, convenience, tradition, political correctness, and to follow their doctors’ bad nutritional advice along with the nonsensical nutritional advice provided in media such as Food Inc.
What motivated the “movie’s star family” to buy “cheap” food? Their excuse for eating crummy food was that,Money is tight so what should we do? They actually wondered if they should buy cheap food (as if soft drinks are cheap) and prescription drugs to stay healthy or buy vegetables to get healthy and stay healthy? They know they have a choice yet they vote with their dollars every time they buy food – and they buy overpriced tasty garbage. They were not forced to buy junk because of a manipulative big business hidden agenda. They did it because that was their preference. They made the choice to stay sick (over weight and diabetic).
The movie shifts to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms. Joel starts talking about farmers being controlled by Big Businesses that have no foresight for environmental sustainability. They are only interested in profits he says. Right there I beg to differ.
The farmers I know are pretty independent folks. Plus they are acutely aware that they must be economially and environmentally sustainable or else they will never survive in modern day agricultural. The huge businesses in the food industry that the farmers and ranchers supply are also acutely aware of the fact that they are totally dependent on the agricultural industry for their raw materials. The last thing they want is unsustainable suppliers.
Then a few scenes later Joel is telling us that man hit the wrong target when he started feeding grain to cows because of all the associated problems. Yet in the background his free range, pastured pigs are feasting on grain at a round metal pig feeder. Pigs, just like all other animals including people, are not designed to eat grain. None of us in the animal kingdom are designed to thrive on grain. So the hypocrisy of his presentation was not only disappointing but rather flabbergasting. Plus I can see that Joel has been gaining weight over the years and is now a little heavy. Hmmmm, pretty interesting.
Oh, of additional interest, it’s a fact that not only are grain-fed cattle hosts to E. coli O157:H7, but grain-fed pigs are too. Also, deer, horses, dogs (your house pet?), etc. when fed grain. So it’s doubly bad that Joel’s pigs are fed grain in that it is bad for the pigs, it’s a food safety hazard as the movie explains, and it’s nutritionally bad for the folks who eat the pigs for reasons we’ll explain later.
Tar Heel, North Carolina
Now the movie switches to the huge Smithfield Hog Processing Plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The voice over says: The town where the plant is located is a small town called Tar Heel in the middle of a very economically depressed area. Smithfield has mastered the art of picking and choosing a work force they can exploit. Initially from the local workforce, the poor white, the poor black, they went through that work force pretty quickly. Now they have to bus all their workers all the way from Bennettsville SC, Clinton NC. You have to draw a circle a 100 miles in diameter and that’s where all your workers are coming from.
The movie then goes on ad nauseam about how the workers are abused just like the hogs. Furthermore immigration laws are violated, workers are paid substandard wages, they are so poor they can’t afford to move away, they are covered in blood and feces, they are forced to work in dangerous jobs and repetitive jobs – just like human machines.
Well, well, well. Welcome to the world of assembly line type work which Henry Ford developed to a fine art 100 years ago. In this case, instead of manufacturing cars, or washing machines, or other assembly line type products, this is a meat processing plant. Food Inc. does not bother to mention that all assembly line type jobs require repetitive type movement, with associated injuries that go with that type of work, and the people do work like machines. It did not mention that folks who work on the kill floor can at times, when they make a mistake, end up with blood and feces on them, just like all animal killers have for all of time – including Grandma when she chopped a chicken’s head off 100 years ago. But Grandma never dreamed of complaining back then and she would be appalled at any wimp who would complain about a little blood and guts when being paid to kill and skin a critter. She never got paid!
By now I’d seen enough deliberate deception by Food Inc. to be motivated to call Tar Heel City Hall just to see what kind of shenanigans the movie was up to this time. But guess what, it’s a “town” of 70 people and they do not have a city hall. They did have a mayor but I couldn’t track him down. During my search I saw that based on the 2000 U.S. census the local median household income was $41,250 when nationally the median household income was $41,994. Food Inc. said the town was depressed?!?!?!
Wow! Since that didn’t jive I thought I had better do the next best thing. I called Bladen County Economic Development, Elizabethtown, NC. That’s in the county where Smithfield built it’s huge plant that employs 5,600 workers. That’s right, every day 5,000 plus people drive and ride from up to 50 miles away in all directions (100 mile diameter circle) to come to the plant to be abused. For some odd reason the Bladen County Economic Development folks think the plant is a great asset for the folks in that region. It added to the region’s heavy industrial base (that’s right, it’s not the only big plant hiring folks in that region). And it’s correct to say the Tar Heel community is not a booming metropolis, because nearly 100% of the 5,600 workers live elsewhere and choose to come to the plant. In no way are they caught in a web whereby they can’t move away and find other work.
The County Development folks got me in touch with a local banker who lived on the edge of Tar Heal. From him I learned quite a bit about the town, the people in the town and in that region of the country, and about the plant too. For starters he said that the town does have a couple of old buildings on the main road which the movie highlighted. But mostly there are very nice homes in Tar Heel and no trailer lots.
So here once again, Food Inc. is painting a horrible picture about a major corporation that obviously misses the mark. According to independent business leaders in the area the plant has literally improved the lives of millions of people. Not only has it improved the tax base of the county (improving the lives of all the country residents), but it pays a good wage to beginning workers and competitive wages or salaries to all the more skilled workers required to run a sophisticated facility. All the employees spend their good paychecks in areas where they live and that spreads the wealth even further for many miles in all directions. But that ain’t all folks. How about all the farmers in the region who gave up growing tobacco who now grow pigs? Yeah, the farmers of the region are rejoicing! And on the other side of that huge plant there are literally millions of consumers who are obviously pretty pleased with Smithfield products because they buy everything the plant produces.
Undeniably, when it comes to providing food to the American consumer, jobs for Americans and legal immigrants, and markets for products raised by America’s family farmers, Smithfield is not a problem. Smithfield is producing what the masses demand and it is doing a great job of it. In no way can Smithfield force people to work in its plant nor can it force consumers to eat it’s grain-fed pork. If one wants to complain about the quality of food in America, the entire Smithfield segment does everything except address the basic nutritional problem of the grain-based food system while defiling a great business that is serving millions of people with safe food while providing secure, good paying jobs in troubled times.
At the end of the segment the narrator tells us Smithfield is making billions of dollars. So I looked up Smithfield’s earnings reports for year end May 2009 and year end 2010. The consolidated earnings were a minus $223.9 million and a plus $62.8 million respectively. Yes, meat processing is a highly competitive and relatively tough business. There are many other industries that put them to shame in terms of return on investment. Rarely if ever have meat processing companies been darlings of Wall Street.
Back to the Country
Now it’s back to Polyface Farms and Joel is telling us there is nothing honest about the industrial food produced by Big Businesses in America. Supposedly it’s cheap, but the costs are huge because . . . when you add up the environment costs, societal costs, health costs; the industrial food is not honest food. It’s not priced honestly, it’s not produced honestly, it’s not processed honestly, there is nothing honest about that food.
Then we see a fellow explain how he drove five hours (about 350 miles) to buy food from Joel. Then Joel says he’s not interested in getting bigger. For some reason he thinks that he’d compromise his integrity if he got bigger! In other words, bigger than tiny must imply a loss of integrity! Thus the main theme of the movie is reiterated once again that all Big Businesses are evil.
On the other hand few people can afford to spend five hours driving to Joel’s farm. Plus that’s a huge waste of natural resources. It takes a lot more gas for one car to drive that distance than it does for a UPS truck to add one stop on its daily run to deliver the same sized package the same distance. For six miles per gallon, truckers can transport 50,000 pounds of food to corner grocery stores located close to most Americans. On the other side of the ledger only a handful of American family farmers want to deal with the fickle public. They just want to grow stuff and be left alone.
So where does the small farmer model leave 310,391,967 Americans? Will it provide a billion meals a day like today’s Big Business model? Food Inc. does not address that issue, or does it?
Big Business is Answering the Call
The next segment jumps way out of context from everything that has preceded it. It opens in a Natural Products Expo where a man is promoting his organic popcorn (ugh), a lady is promoting her soy milk products (ugh), and there are booths of organic and vegetarian (ugh) products. Gary Hirshberg, CEO Stonyfield Farms, is the star in this segment.
For the first time in this movie a man starts to make sense to me. His opening remarks are: We are not going to get rid of capitalism, certainly we are not going to get rid of it in the time that we need to arrest global warming and reverse the toxification of our air, our food, and our water. We need to be much more urgent and if we attempt to make perfect of the enemy of the good and say we’re only going to buy food from the most perfect system within a hundred miles of us, we are never going to get there. As an environmentalist it was pretty clear to me that business was the source of our solution, business was the source of basically all the things that were destroying this world.
We do not need to be David up against Goliath, we need to be Goliath.
Yes, Food Inc. now takes a 180 degree turn and spends several segments praising selected Big Businesses. Gary talks about meeting with Wal Mart executives because they want to talk about organics. The Wal Mart executives actually tell the viewer what is required to get different foods on grocer’s shelves. Wal Mart, like all grocers, is very responsive to their customer’s demands. If customers vote for organics with their dollars, Wal Mart wants to stock some organic items. Unfortunately if grain is organic that doesn’t improve its nutrition.
It’s economics that drives Big Businesses to operate the way they do and that means to be successful they must respond to the demands of the consumer. But if too few customers demand a product (for instance pumpkins at Easter time), then Big Businesses will not stock pumpkins at Easter. Nor will they spend money trying to educate (change) a reluctant public that doesn’t want to hear about pumpkins during Easter season.
Now the movie introduces a new twist with this observation: Back at the turn of the last century a farmer could feed about 12 people. Now the average farmer feeds about 140 people. Today’s farmers are the most productive humans that have ever lived. This involves tremendous innovation.
But instead of applauding those advancements, Food Inc. launches an attack against Monsanto. Why is Monsanto so evil? It has patents on seeds that it developed and many of our nation’s farmers (and farmers in other lands) buy and use Monsanto’s seeds. But instead of explaining how this works, why patents are an incentive to develop more productive seeds, Food Inc. implies the practice of having patents on seeds is crippling the American farmer. Food Inc.does not explain that many universities, seed companies, foundations, and even individuals are developing more productive plants and applying for patents on the seeds. With a patent they can market their seeds and gain a return on their investment in developing the seed. A patent on a seed is just like a song writer having a patent on a song. It’s assures a potential return on new ideas, artistic creations, and inventions if they can be marketed. I suppose that’s why there are patents on Food Inc.!
There is no doubt that Big Business has strong ties to Big Government. That we all know so it is no surprise. This is one of the failings of allowing companies to dominate single markets. But hopefully there are enough checks and balances in the government and enough competition in the business arena to keep complete crooks in check. Yet there are some good things governments can do such are provide police, courts, military defense, and patents on innovations. Just about everyone I know would like to invent something that could be patented and then sold into a huge market. It’s like winning the lottery and the drug companies are hot on that same trail all the time. Without patents most modern drugs would never have been introduced.
To say that the power of patents is being used against the farmers is balderdash. Sure, it introduces some legal complications. But I buy seeds for pasture grasses yearly. Many of them are patented! Most of them sell for way more than the scores of unpatented varieties. But I buy the better seeds because they are naturally more productive grasses. So, just like Joel asks in his segment about buying his more expensive food, Who buys the cheapest car? Joel also says you get what you pay for. And when it comes to seeds that is also true.
To say Big Businesses use the power of government against the farmer, their workers, and the consumer is a pretty strong indictment to make without clear cut examples of this so-called abuse. Like the people from Tyson told me, they eat their products just like all other Americans. They do their best to be the very best at what they do, and they are proud of their relationships with farmers, their workers, their customers, and the communities in which they reside. Why? Because these big companies are made up of thousands of “little people” just like you and me.
Now Food Inc. shifts to the labeling issue. Labeling is very complex and in no way could this movie cover the story appropriately. Plus it would bore viewers to tears. That’s because labeling law is convoluted, complex, detailed, and confusing even to those of us in the business. For starters many words have lost their intended meaning in the labeling arena. What is “natural” to one person may not be “natural” to me. A pig that lives in a pasture yet is also fed grain may seem natural to Joel, but I disagree.
Take the issue of cloning meat. Cloned animals, by strict scientific peer-reviewed definition is exactly (in every way) the same as the host animal. If both the host and its clone eat grass, then nutritionally they will be exactly the same down to the smallest detail. There will not even be a slight difference. Yet some people believe cloning is a Frankenstein creation of something totally foreign, or potentially foreign. Debates between facts, beliefs, and superstitions can go around in circles forever. Therefore figuring out if labels should cover facts, beliefs, or superstitions is pretty dicey stuff.
The origin of food is also complicated and I am for country of origin labeling. But some meat processing companies just south of the Canadian border may be processing both Canadian and American cattle at the same time. In some cases a calf may be born in America, sold to a feeder in Canada, and then imported back into the United States for processing. Where’s that calf from? If the processor is making ground beef, it has a more difficult job of declaring which beef animal is which. There are many more examples of blurred lines in the labeling issue. There’s even some small livestock producers who are afraid that if they tag a calf it becomes a Big Brother thing. My gosh, it’s complicated.
It’s not that industry is against labeling. It’s that industry is against confusion. When labeling is being spelled out in government regulations, the execution of labeling laws within the constraints of the regulations can be far more complicated than anyone could possibly imagine. So here again is something that may take decades to solve to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s why it’s not productive, constructive, or fair to label participants as crooks in the imperfect world of labeling. To people who are outside the arena of the labeling debate, many of the positions taken may sound crooked, self-serving, and even deceptive. Some even sound stupid! But that’s an outsider’s opinion.
Graciously “The End” Arrives
Food Inc. ends with a script saying: You can vote to change this system. Three times a day. Hurray!
But what did it suggest that you vote for? It just spent an hour and a half mostly trashing Big Businesses. It honors farmers who grow grain, but says they are all controlled by Big Businesses. It says grocers deceive consumers with pictures of farmers because foods are manufactured by huge multinationals and farmers are robots at best that don’t even live in the country. It vilifies feedlots for feeding grain to cows, yet makes a hero out of a fellow feeding grain to hogs. It leaves viewers believing big companies abuse animals, mistreats workers, deceives consumers, and deliberately makes poor quality, unsafe food. It declares that omega-3 deficient carrots should be as cheap as omega-3 deficient grain, yet canned or frozen they already cost about the same. And it goes on and on that way. Not once doesFood Inc. provide good, solid, scientifically grounded, nutritional information.
Did Food Inc. explain the Paleo/Caveman diet? Did it explain The Real Diet of Man? No. Did it mention Omega-3 fatty acids even once? No. Did it mention grass-fed beef? No. Did it mention that grass not grain is the actual foundation food for all animal life? No. Did it explain how the abundance of grain, grain-based foods, grain-fed livestock products, and high glycemic foods are the primary reason why our nation’s foods are so destructive to human health? No. Did it provide dietary suggestions as to what are and are not healthy foods? No.
A Dangerous Hoax?
I talked to a professional businessman at Monsanto. He explained how disturbing it was to be the target of an angry public that believed Monsanto (its upper level management team of which he’s a member) is disreputable to the core. Yes, it was only a movie that took facts out of context, skewed events, and deliberately mislead the viewer. Yet it was such a powerful motivating force it literally inspired irrational mob action. The mob accepted the movie’s slant on how the American food system functioned without asking any penetrating questions. In turn the mob literally assaulted the company by various means with mountains of hate mail.
I asked the Monsanto man what he learned from this experience. He said it showed him there is a great need in our country for mothers and fathers, and teachers too, to teach children to be critical thinkers. Children should be taught how to ask questions and to think presentations through logically. There is a huge amount of information on the Internet, in the media, in movies, in advertising and sales pitches and such that are more easily accessible now than at any other time in history. Children should be taught how to evaluate information by logical reasoning, by asking questions, and by doing independent research.
He has a good point there. So I put together a few logical questions of my own.
Can farmers buy seed from companies other than Monsanto? How many varieties of soybeans are there? Why do more than 200,000 independent farmers buy their seed each and every year from Monsanto? Are all of America’s farmers working like a bunch of orchestrated robots that are manipulated from the boardrooms of a few huge, very distant companies? Is it true that in 1930, the Plant Patent Act was passed?
Would farmers deliberately with malice raise food that makes people sick? Do corporations become successful by damaging their suppliers, abusing their employees, by making bad products, and by ignoring the demands of the consumer? Would anyone or group of people managing a corporation deliberately create products that could end up backfiring on the company causing class action lawsuits?
During the past 60 years did tobacco usage decline because the government went after the cigarette manufacturers and fined them? Or did the public become more aware of the dangers of smoking? Do Americans know which foods are actually good for their health and which ones are bad? If they did, then why are so many of them suffering from chromic diseases? How many chronic disease suffers actually try to improve their diets? If improving the diet is practical, then why don’t people choose to improve their diet?
How many people understand what is meant by “balancing the EFAs?” How many people understand what “high glycemic” means? The EFA balance and glycemic load are amongst the most important aspects of every food product. Did Food Inc. address either one of those nutritional points and explain how to determine the fatty acid profiles and glycemic levels of various foods? Did Food Inc. explain that for all of time the foundation food for all animal life was the green leaf and seeds (grain) were never a food staple for any animal?
Dismal Failure to Legitimately and Properly Inform
Food Inc.’s focus on America’s food machine (which serves up nearly one billion meals a day) gets stars for deception, misinformation, scare mongering, slander, and for being inflammatory. The movie discredited the American farmer, food processors, and even grocers. It totally flunked the nutrition exam because it did not inform people about proper food choices. It did get a B+ for letting farmers and business leaders get the message across that they would change and/or add to the array of foods they now supply if there was a demand for other products. And the movie did tell viewers that they vote with their dollars every time they make a purchase.
Food Inc. did not explain to the viewer that the real food problem started 10,000 years ago with the invention of grain farming. It implied that event was not a big deal, it was the last 50 years that caused all the problems. Yet scientists know that in the past 10,000 years every time a society based most of its foodstuffs on grains or other foods not sourced to a green leaf, health problems soared. Now it has happened in our country. Grain farming advanced significantly in the past 60 years and that lead to the epidemic of chronic diseases that now afflict all Americans.
Finally the movie did not explain to viewers that conventional and alternative food choices are currently available that will improve their health if they have the discipline to eat only those foods. Without doing that, it put a huge veil of secrecy over nearly everything that is required to inspire constructive fundamental nutritional changes in our nation’s food. That is unfortunate because as the movie states, when the consumer changes, then farmers, food processors, and grocers will gladly respond and supply exactly what the consumer demands. If the consumer blames Big Businesses in the food industry for all the societal ills, nothing will change. That’s because the consumer must change first. Responsibility for what an individual eats lies solely in his own hands.
Here is an introduction to good foods and bad.
Check out these links for more in-depth study:
The authors of these books have some of the nutritional solutions for optimal h