Tainted Food Production: Food, Inc and Big Ag

Jane Li
Phillips Exeter Academy

In the U.S. released documentary Food, Inc. (2008), director Robert Kenner masterfully unveiled the secrets hidden behind the food we eat, revealing a food system dominated by a handful of mega corporations that care more about profits and efficiency rather than human, animal, or environmental rights. A variety of characters ranging from well-known figures like environmentalist and author Michael Pollan to the lesser-known farmer, chicken grower, or food safety activist voiced their opinions and shared their experiences in the food industry. The film’s main topics included misleading food advertisements, the rise of the fast food industry, the mechanization and dehumanization of agricultural practices, public health and food safety, the monopolization of business, and the exploitation of the poor and immigrants. Overall, I’d give Food, Inc. 4.5/5 stars. Apart from the occasionally slow-paced scenes, the film’s shock factor, visuals, sound effects, and story line were all incredibly impactful.

The first thing that stands out to viewers is the film’s visual impact. The film starts by contrasting shots of smiling farmers and green fields with polluting factories and waste-filled land crowded with cows. Through these scenes, Kenner establishes the huge disparity between how we think our food is produced and how it is truly produced. In one chicken grower’s farm, the camera stooped low to film the underside of a chicken caked in its own feces. The chicken takes a few wobbly steps before collapsing. The narrator then mentions that the chickens cannot hold their own weight because their bones and internal organs cannot keep up with the fast growth of muscle due hormone-infused feed. Shots like these may seem one-sided, but if you compare the United States to countries in Europe, you will see that this kind of treatment is more common here. Since 2015, the United States allows dangerous practices that are banned in the E.U., such as the use of arsenic drugs in chickens, which helps chickens grow faster and their meat appear fresher (1). Our food industry manipulates nature to create the most saleable product in the shortest time with the least investment. Every year, industrial agriculture uses 877 million pounds off chemical pesticides (2). About 80% of cattle are grown with hormones (3). These corporations do not see animals as living things and food that will eventually make its way into a human system. There is a clear disconnect between the fruits of nature and the food on our grocery store shelves. Animals, crops, and all the energy and resources that goes into them are merely a means to an end: profit.

Animals, crops, and all the energy and resources that goes into them are merely a means to an end: profit.

Food, Inc.’s use of personal anecdotes is another way Kenner makes you realize that corporations’ main goal is profit, sometimes even at the expense of public safety. These personal stories evoke audience compassion for the ones who the food industry has wronged and anger for the corporations that wronged them. Food safety activist Barbara Kowalcyk described her two-year-old son’s excruciating pain due to an E-coli O157:H7 infection and how he was prohibited from drinking water but still begged for it. It took more than two weeks for the company that produced the contaminated hamburger to recall their meat. Generally, corporations are unwilling to invest more into ensuring a higher standard of food safety if that involves decreased efficiency and profits. Increased animal production and processing results in decreased food safety, which is a threat to public health. Shockingly, agriculture uses 80% of all U.S. antibiotics (4). Animals are forced to live in crowded, unsanitary conditions, making it likelier for bacteria to spread. When antibiotic resistant bacteria from animals infects humans, a potential public health crisis can ensue. 

A great deal of the film also focuses on human and animal rights. The food industry has an almost unlimited, convenient, and cheap supply of labor: the poor and immigrants. Overall, the film does a great job of showing how mass food production is no longer a natural process, but instead a highly mechanized, industrial system led by a few powerful people separated from the grim reality of animal agriculture. 

(1) Dr. Joseph Mercola, “Dangerous Food Practices,” May 29, 2013, accessed February 1, 2018, https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/05/29/dangerous-food-practices.aspx.
(2) Peter Lehner, “The Hidden Costs of Food,” The Huffington Post, August 15, 2016, accessed January 31, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-lehner/the-hidden-costs-of-food_b_11492520.html.
(3) "Hormones,” Grace Communications Foundation, 2018, accessed February 1, 2018, http://www.sustainabletable.org/258/hormones.
(4) Bryan Walsh, “New Report Claims FDA Allowed High Risk Antibiotics to Be Used on Farm Animals,” January 8, 2014, accessed February 1, 2018, http://time.com/2825/new-report-claims-fda-allowed-high-risk-antibiotics-to-be-used-on-farm-animals/.