Food, Inc: I still look at dinner the same way–delicious

I am annoyed at Michael Pollan.

I should be fair. I am actually annoyed at Food, Inc., a documentary in which Pollan is interviewed. But I was annoyed by his very similar book, too. So I blame him.  Food, Inc. is, if you don’t already know, a documentary about the food industry in this country and how we’re all going to die of obesity and it’s Big Food’s fault.

Now, before anyone starts screaming that I’m just some nutty Texas right-winger who is deliberately deluding herself—

Actually, I don’t think anyone has ever called me right-wing before. It might amuse me. Go for it.

–I’m not annoyed by everything about the film. I just have several large, sweeping problems with it which leave a particularly bad taste in my mouth. I think there are several remedies for bad tastes in my apartment at all times, many of which are probably not Pollan-approved. But I digress. I’m good at that.

So, issue number one came with the very first line of the film. “The way we eat has changed more in the last fifty years than in the previous ten thousand.”Okay, maybe. There are so many possible interpretations of that sentence that I can’t tell you if it’s true or not. “Hey, for the first time we have enough food for everyone in the West to be snotty little foodies if they want to” is true. “Food has become genetically modified and is about to turn us into Godzilla monsters” is not (and by the way, those red things in the supermarket are still tomatoes. You can’t eat “the idea of a tomato,” whatever on Earth that means). “Electricity in every American home and a variety of ethnic foods available in every American supermarket allow Americans to cook a wider range of cuisine than anyone’s grandma thought possible 50 years ago” is true. In fact, my nana says she remembers when you couldn’t get pasta unless you went to an Italian market. And my nana is really young. I’m not telling how young exactly, because she already might run me down and beat me to death with a crepe pan for telling people she has a 25-year-old granddaughter. </digression> “Food in this country is produced, processed, and prepared in such a way that there are certain social and economic consequences that you’d likely rather not think about” may or may not be true. I think, based on the film that followed, that’s what that first sentence means. It bothers me, because that interpretation has nothing at all to do with eating, making the sentence extraordinarily misleading.

 

That's not sunlight making this tomato glow. It's Evil Science.

But that’s just nitpicking, you say. Surely no one expects every sentence in a documentary to be perfectly worded! True, I don’t. My problem is that it is perfectly worded to mislead in a particular way, and as a film which purports to be removing a veil of a similar nature, it has a responsibility to try to avoid using the same tactics.

Speaking of tactics, I was not too happy with the choice to use emotional appeals rather than logical ones when arguing against the current system. For example, a huge amount of time is devoted to one mother’s story about her son, who died due to complications from an E. Coli O157:H7 infection. Which is an awful, awful thing and my heart goes out to that poor woman. However, the lack of journalistic rigor that went into discussing the way in which such an infection becomes possible is quite disturbing as well. Pollan describes E. Coli (all varieties) as a “bug” (rather than the symbiote that it is. We all have E. Coli living in our intestines, and have done since less than two days after birth. Good for us; it makes vitamin K). He states that the hemorrhagic version could not have come into being under “natural” circumstances and implies that cows would not have any E. Coli living in their guts if it were not for the fact that they are corn fed. There is no scientific basis for these statements, and he plays on our cultural fear of microbes of any kind. He implies that E. Coli 0157:H7 is in some way harmful to cows. It is not. All cows, even happy organic free-range cows, have E. Coli in their rumens. Some probably have different strains. At any rate, claiming that the cattle industry created this evil “bug” that is wantonly killing America’s children left and right borders on insane. And actually, let’s look at the infection numbers, shall we? According to the CDC in 2007, there were 21,244 reported cases of foodborne illness, and eighteen deaths. Two of those deaths were caused by E. Coli 0157:H7. And yes, any deaths that could be prevented are terrible. But two? More people have been seriously injured in making the new Spiderman musical. To be clear: I am not saying that I disapprove of government oversight of our food industry. In fact, I think that talking honestly about it is more likely to effect beneficial changes in the system than exaggerations which opposition can easily reveal as such.

E. Coli, or a fun way to decorate cake for a scientist?

And then he does the thing that really makes me crazy. He says it isn’t the consumer’s responsibility to make appropriate food choices. There may have been some truth to that before restaurants began to divulge certain health information about the contents, but not much. The film claims that the poor just can’t afford to eat well. Specifically, “Why can I get two cheeseburgers for a dollar each but I can’t get a head of broccoli?” Well actually, you can. My broccoli this week was $1.19 a pound. I bought two pounds of it. That plus a one pound box of pasta for $1 will feed four people. Need sauce? Most people can get that $1.25 can of crushed tomatoes and season it up. And water is very nearly free to anyone with plumbing, so skip the soda. Soda is a more likely suspect to implicate in the diabetes epidemic than burgers, anyway. That is healthier and cheaper than the $11.84 the documentary showed the family spending on Burger king. As a bonus, broccoli pasta takes less than 15 minutes to prepare, so please don’t tell me people don’t have time to cook. It takes that long to get to a fast food place and back. Restaurants are responsible for setting up an unrealistic idea of a serving size, but a lot people who cook at home reinforce that idea by filling a ten-inch dinner plate every night (most of my dinners are served on salad plates unless I need a place to put bones or something. It’s more than enough food.) Absolving the consumer of all responsibility for his obesity and related diseases is an insult to his intelligence. Yes, you have to think about it to eat better, but as my last few posts have indicated, home cooking isn’t always healthful. I’ve made two enormous puddings in less than a week.

Ah, the big damn T-bone. Three servings, not one.

Then there’s this really cool rancher who they keep calling a farmer. He keeps a small number of cows and pigs and chickens and lets them all roam about and probably smoke pot on the weekends (kidding, of course. Chickens don’t have thumbs!) His small business model is great, but it’s just that: a small business model. There are more than three hundred million people living in this country alone, and I seriously doubt thirty million of us want to be farmers or ranchers. That’s what it would take to put everyone on that model. It is inefficient, and efficiency is not actually evil. Yes, it’s hard to watch all those animals on a killing floor full of terror and involuntary bowel movements. Don’t like it? Go vegetarian, because morality is not scalar. If it is wrong to kill animals for food, it doesn’t matter if they get a happy massage first or not. As a side note, Mister Awesome Rancher doesn’t kill his large livestock on screen either. Maybe he hires a butcher, I don’t know, but either way I doubt it’s pretty. Blood and death tend not to be.

Another emotional argument revolves around genetically modified food. For the record, I think GM foods are awesome. I’m glad they’re making potatoes that are resistant to viruses, bugs, and Phytophtora infestans (potato blight). Ever bought a potato that looked like this?

I have, and it’s gross. Also, GM foods can be labeled as organic in this country, and they’re easier to grow organically since insect resistant strains don’t need the high levels of insecticide necessary to ensure a profitable crop yield. Food Inc. chooses to conflate “organic,” “natural,” “free-range,” “GM-free,” “environmentally conscious,” and “healthful.” None of these are or should be treated as synonyms. Not to mention the fact that we’ve been selecting our food for specific traits for thousands of years. I don’t see any reason to think it’s worse to do this scientifically and therefore better predict and control the results than it was for early man to turn corn into what it is today.

Source: Genetically Modified Corn— Environmental Benefits and Risks Gewin V PLoS Biology Vol. 1, No. 1, e8 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0000008

The above image shows how corn has been changed by selective harvesting and planting by humans. And yes, people have objected to this stuff at least since Mendel.

Now, I don’t have any real arguments with the sociopolitical side of the film, but this is a food blog, so I’m not going into them. Are there some problems with the food industry today? Absolutely. Is the situation comparable to the events described in The Jungle? No way. Does the only way to eat well involve eating only organically? Nah. Just think a little more about food, and it really isn’t that hard.

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  1. #1 by faithbenitez on February 10, 2011 - 9:40 AM

    i love this, you made me laugh when i read “chickens don’t have thumbs.” but in all seriousness, well written and thought provoking.

  2. #2 by koshercorvid on February 10, 2011 - 10:23 AM

    I try to keep it light-hearted around here, which is a little hard with a film that takes itself so seriously (it plays music fit for a Disney villain anytime a big corporation is even mentioned). Late as this is to the review game, I hope it adds that grain of salt I think it needs!

  3. #3 by Nicole M. on February 10, 2011 - 2:22 PM

    Thanks for taking a stand in favor of GM foods! I did my MS degree in Plant Genetics and it’s amazing the misconceptions that people have about it. Yes, it should be done intelligently, but it’s a powerful tool that can make crops grow better with less chemicals.

    • #4 by koshercorvid on February 10, 2011 - 10:53 PM

      It bothers me that so many people view scientific progress as this horrible bogeyman rather than realizing that science is what allows them to live the comfortable lifestyles to which they are accustomed. Of course things can go wrong, but that’s just as true of the changes selective breeding can give us, and certainly true of plants that fail to adapt in time to save themselves from environmental hazards (potato famine, anyone?). Joepastry.com has a number of rather insightful rebuttals of Michael Pollan’s less scientifically valid points as well, if this sort of thing interests you.

  4. #5 by lexy3587 on February 23, 2011 - 9:15 AM

    I’m going to have to watch this movie, if only to laugh at the disney villain music. Maybe I’ll throw popcorn at the screen every time the big-bad-business is brought up.
    I’d like to see someone try to avoid eating anything that has been genetically modified – the original ‘wild’ wheat is, if not entirely extinct, very close to it. Also, I would call breeding animals for selective traits a form of GM as well, and while that can come out wrong if taken to extremes, generally it just produces hardier species or useful traits. an entirely un-food-related eg (since your corn example is dead on already) – Beagles were bred to have a white tip to their tail and a good sense of smell so that they could be used for hunting, and found easily by their owners in tall grasses. This happened well before people started playing with test-tubes… GM is not new in any way.

    • #6 by koshercorvid on February 23, 2011 - 11:10 AM

      oh, man. You’ll need a lot of popcorn. Dogs are probably one of the best (non-food) examples, which is probably why Darwin himself gave them so much attention. As a species, we’ve developed a mind-boggling variety of form and function in our canine friends, few of which would be naturally selected for without the symbiotic relationship these creatures have with humans. Ever seen floppy ears or short, stumpy legs on a wolf, fox, or dingo? No way! They’d be crap at hearing things and running if they looked like basset hounds.

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