The pigs shift uncomfortably in the small, metal pen. They sniff each other with their snouts, snorting. They are not sure why they have been herded there. For a moment, there is a strange silence, broken only by the snorts of the pigs. Then, slowly increasing in volume, is a creaking, rumbling noise. Suddenly, a metal wall appears, and with a clean swipe, pushes the pigs away, off the screen. The next scene shows the limp bodies of the pigs lying on a conveyor belt.
This is certainly not a pleasing image, but it shows the gritty reality of the food industry represented in FOOD, Inc, Emmy-award-winning director Robert Kenner’s latest documentary. Released in 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival and in 2009 in the United States of America and Singapore, this Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media production1 has been critically acclaimed across the world as a documentary that discusses and delves into the inside story of America’s food industry, scoring well on many movie review websites and having a rating of 96%2.
It documents the food industry’s shortcomings and the harm and abuses it brings to the world, not just to animals but humans and the environment as well3. FOOD, Inc discusses the downfall and degradation of America’s food industry. It begins with the morphing of fast-food restaurants into a factory-based output system, and in the process, introduces changes to the food production system. One of the issues raised is animal abuse: for example, chickens are inhumanely raised as factory “products”.
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $14
Prices start at $12
We are also introduced to human abuse, where farmers raising chickens are forced to comply with multinational organizations to raise chickens or face huge debts incurred from buying modern machinery, which multinational corporations enforce. Next, the film moves on to the production of corn. The American government subsidizes corn production. Corn is highly cheap, and scientists are coming up with many different uses for it. Corn is also found in many kinds of foodstuff.
Before the audience can wonder why the issue of corn is raised, the film reveals all this. One of the uses of cheap corn is in feeding cows. However, corn reacts in a cow’s stomach and causes the harmful mutation of a bacterium, which, when eventually consumed, causes food poisoning. Here we are introduced to one of the “heroes” of this film: a mother who lost her child due to food poisoning. Even though she complained to the company, it was about a week before the product that caused the food poisoning was taken down and stopped from being sold. This portion of the film also shows how food poisoning resulting from contaminated meat can be prevented by using chemicals.
Next, we are introduced to other health problems caused by the system. For example, unhealthy food is priced at a much lower price than healthy foods. Hence, poorer families who cannot afford healthy but expensive food have no choice but to eat unhealthy food. A low-income family whose father has diabetes is showcased in this segment to bring home the point. The film also claims that diabetes is becoming more widespread as a result of food pricing.
The film then documents the abuse of workers in the food industry. It shows the dangerous life of a workman in the food industry. Despite having to work very hard, such workers are paid a meagre salary. Moreover, poor people from South America illegally immigrate to the United States to work. Food industries accept them but pay them a low salary. However, when these people are caught, food industries are not implicated. Moreover, the rate of arresting these illegal immigrants is slow to enable the food industries to have sufficient workers at any one time.
Subsequently, the viewer is introduced to the economics of the food system. Large companies acquire small companies and sell their products. For example, Dannon Yogurts acquired a small organic yogurt company and sold organic yogurts in Walmart. The film also focuses on food “integrity,” industrial food is labelled “dishonest” because it does not bring any health or environmental benefits. The next chapter of the film talks about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and how multinational corporations own them. For example, the company Monsanto patents soybean seeds and sues any farmer who uses them without permission.
However, this includes accidental pollination, in which genetically modified pollen fertilizes a typical plant in a farmer’s field. Monsanto still considers this as using GMOs without permission. Moreover, Monsanto sues farmers for saving the seed. These farmers are too poor to afford a lawsuit and hence are helpless to fight against multinational corporations. Next, the film discusses the image of products and the “veil” that separates the world from the food industry. As a result, consumers are ignorant of the food production process.
Multinational corporations refuse to label products or provide detailed warnings, claiming they do not want to “scare” consumers. The film suggests that there are many connections between the food industry and the US Food and Drug Administration, the agency supposed to monitor the food industry. This is because many people in the food industry switch jobs and end up holding government positions. It also shows statistics that claim that fewer and fewer checks on food are being done due to this connection.
Finally, at the end of the film, we are told about the detrimental effects of the food system, including world food shortage, wastage of energy and its impact on the health and the environment. An example of environmental damage is the dumping of animal waste pollutes rivers and water.4 The film ends on an urgent and compelling note, telling the audience that the fate of the food system is in their hands, and every meal they eat can change the way the food system functions.
Indeed, this film prompts us to wake up and urges us to look behind the “veil,” referring to the separation between the world and the food industry. At the beginning of the film, the tone seems light and tongue-in-cheek, but as the film progresses, we find ourselves propelled into a darker side of reality, with the tone morphing into a more sombre and serious one. The film is also somewhat critical of the current situation but supports its criticism with evidence and examples that compel the audience to nod their heads and agree.
Indeed, the documentary-style film chooses quality shots and videos of real-life footage that bring out the essence of its point. The use of interviews, such as the one concerning a mother who lost her child due to food poisoning, gives credibility to the stand taken by the film. Haunting images in the film, such as the one at the beginning of this review, cause horror, guilt and tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings. One key idea that piqued my interest was the issue of labelling food containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and products. There are always two sides to an issue, and it is no different with this one. Should food containing GMOs be labelled or not?
Currently, in the United States of America, the film’s setting, mandatory labelling of food containing GMOs, has been proposed but not enacted. It is purely voluntary to label such food according to guidelines by the Food and Drug Administration. According to the Codex Alimentarius Commission7, an international body that issues guidelines assessing the safety of food derived from GMOs, mandatory labelling is not required, but voluntary labelling is allowed. However, in 21 other countries, including those in the European Union, Australia, China and Japan, it is mandatory to label food containing GMOs.8 In Singapore, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, it is not compulsory or mandatory to label such food.7
The film argues strongly for labelling food with GMOs. It claims that it is the right of consumers to know what they are eating and what their food contains. However, lawyers from multinational corporations such as Monsanto do not want this to happen, arguing that it causes unnecessary fear in customers and deters people from buying their products.
In my opinion, the labelling of foods containing GMOs should be mandatory. Consumers have a right to know what is in their food. Knowing what is in their food is vital for them to make decisions. Firstly, they can identify and avoid food products according to labelling. This is especially important if a consumer has a specific allergy to certain types of food, such as nuts or dairy products. Some of these food allergies are life-threatening. Introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause allergic reactions in susceptible people. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, a proposal to introduce a gene from Brazil nuts into soybeans was abandoned due to fears it could cause allergic reactions.6 Hence, people with food allergies may want to avoid GM food and labelling would help them do that.
Secondly, some studies have shown that food derived from GMOs could be harmful to humans.9 Studies have shown that GM plants could produce excessive toxins and be less nutritious than non-GM plants. Also, antibiotic resistance genes in GM food could bring about infections that are more difficult to treat with antibiotics. Most plants consumed by humans produce substances that are toxic to humans. However, these toxins are produced at low enough levels not to affect our health adversely.
However, when a foreign gene is inserted into a plant, the plant may produce toxins at higher levels harmful to humans. Although these effects have not been observed in genetically modified (GM) plants, they have been observed in conventional breeding methods and create a concern for GM plants. For example, potatoes bred for increased disease resistance have produced higher levels of toxins. GM plants could also have lower nutritional value than non-genetically modified plants. For example, a study has shown that a strain of genetically modified soybean produced lower levels of chemicals that protect against heart disease and cancer when compared to traditional soybeans.
In addition, there may be increased resistance to antibiotics due to antibiotic-resistant genes in the production of GM foods. According to the GMO Compass10, these genes could be taken up by the bacteria in the digestive system of humans. Infections caused by such bacteria would then be resistant to antibiotics and be very difficult to treat. A third reason for labelling GMO food is that vegetarians may want to avoid eating animal products for religious or ethical reasons. Animal products include animal DNA which is used in GM foods. Labelling would enable them to identify such foods on the supermarket shelves and avoid buying them.
Lastly, according to the Organic Consumers website11, surveys have shown that 80% to 90% of Americans support mandatory labelling on GM foods. As mentioned above, labelling of GM foods is already mandatory in 21 other countries. Opponents to the mandatory labelling of GM foods state that there are no significant differences between food containing GMOs and those which do not.5 They claim that no approved GM food has been shown to contain allergens or be less nutritious than non-GM food. However, as GM foods have been consumed only in the last two decades, their ill effects may not have surfaced yet. Also, the studies pointing to the possibility of GM food being harmful to humans should not be ignored.
Another oft-quoted reason is that mandatory labelling of GM food will be costly and increase the food bill of consumers. This is because testing and recording have to be carried out at every step of the food supply chain. However, Professor Chris Viljoen from the GMO Testing Laboratory at the University of the Free State in South Africa has countered these claims, citing a comprehensive study from the European Union which found that food costs in Europe increased by a mere 0.17% instead of 20% claimed by opponents to the mandatory labelling of GM foods. This is because there is currently testing, labelling and recording done for other substances such as contaminants and additives.12
In addition, opponents feel that labels on GM food discourage or “scare” people from buying them. They argue that people may assume that such labels are warnings and will avoid buying such food. However, labels state GMOs or substances derived from GMOs in the food and do not warn against anything. It is entirely up to the consumer’s discretion if he wishes to buy the product. Other labels such as those stating allergens do not deter any consumer except those allergic to those substances. It is the same case with the labelling of GM food.
All in all, I highly recommend FOOD, Inc. It certainly is not a movie that makes an audience feel well and happy, but it brings the stark reality of the food industry to them. This film truly accomplishes what it claims it will: removing the veil between the world and the horrors of food production. Food production companies are deliberately covering up the food production process and abusing their power to ensure that no one exposes this. FOOD, Inc takes a noble stand against this and forces us to realize that this is directly related to our lives, not just a faraway conflict. We are introduced to many problems that affect us through actual footage and interviews: health problems such as diabetes and environmental problems such as water pollution.
Moreover, FOOD, Inc also brings another form of reality: the world of corporate business. We are introduced to the situations of lawsuits and worker abuse, making FOOD, Inc a movie about animals and humans and their rights. Besides the central theme of food, we realize how interconnected many other themes are, such as the abuse of power. FOOD, Inc does not simply give us facts and figures and paints a bleak picture of society but also has the potential to change our daily lives. In the last section of the movie, we are urged to help in the fight against the food industry, and the film tells us that we can make a change in every meal we eat as a consumer. This film is not just a film of entertainment and general knowledge. Still, it is a film that convinces the audience that they should be doing something to revolutionize the food industry. Indeed, FOOD, Inc is not a movie just about food, but also people, rights, freedom and life itself.