Food Inc Review

I ended up watching Food Inc. live last night instead of waiting to watch the recorded version.  Stayed up a little past my normal time but that’s ok.   I thought the movie was interesting but not particularly eye opening.  Having a degree in food science had exposed me to most of this already, but there were a few thinks that raised an eyebrow.  This will be long, so bear with me.

First we get a story about how 5000 people die every year from food borne illnesses.  This sounds like a lot, more than the people we work with or more than our school or more people than we know.  I don’t want to be callous, and I wish that none of them had died, but lets put these numbers into a little bit of perspective.  The population of the US is around 307 Million people.  So, 5000 people represents 0.000001% of the population.  10 times as many people (around 45,000) die every year in auto accidents.  100 times as many (500,000) die every year from cancer.  The odds of you contracting a food borne illness and dying is very very very remote.  The food is safe and you shouldn’t be afraid of it.  Obviously stuff gets through,you can’t check every single bite of food or else there would be nothing to eat.  And all those recent recalls the movie references? Those are actually a good thing.  That means that stuff is being caught and the system works!  Yes a few people have gotten sick and a few even died before the problem was under control, such as the example from the movie the woman who lost her 2 year old son.   I hate that the woman lost her son, but it’s unrealistic to think they would have recalled the meat before her son got sick.  It’s just like medicine.  You don’t treat anything until you have symptoms, the sicknesses reported are the symptoms and they quickly find the root cause of it and take that product off the market.  Also, its only the recalls that make it on TV, not the trillions of pounds of safe food.  The recalled foods make up a tiny percentage of the total food supply.

I the first question I had was about the chicken farmers.  The movie says the average farmer with 2 houses spends 500,000$ to start his farm but only makes around 18,000$ a year.  If that’s the case, why would anyone do it? I don’t disagree that the farmers are getting shafted but why would they even start at all looking at math like that? I grew up in an area with a lot of turkey farms and even back then it was iron fisted (everyone in the whole county was Tyson).

The next thing that caught me was the movie says that in 1972 the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections.  In 2006 they conducted around 9,000.  The inference here is that the FDA is not doing as much as it was 30 years ago.  But later in this same bit, he gives you at least one reason why.  He says there used to be something like 5000 slaughter houses in the country and now there are only 13.  Is this good or bad? They imply that it’s bad since it could spread diseases faster, but a simple fact is less food processing facilities will warrant less inspections.   Yes the FDA is spread thin, but they aren’t just letting things go unchecked.

The one scene with the “ground meat filler” that was treated with ammonia.. I don’t know what that was about, but that’s pretty unappetizing.

Something I had noticed in my own life was the whole “fast food cheaper than vegetables” deal, and yeah that’s pretty disturbing.  Of course McDonald’s get their ground beef for 3 cents a pound because they buy it 40 million pounds at a time.  It’s hard to compete with that (another point of the movie that basically all meat processors have to follow mcdonald’s standards whether they are selling to McDs or not).  That’s when you just have to buckle down and spend a little bit more for you’re food.  I know I’ve been broke to the point where a dollar cheeseburger seems a lot more appetizing than one apple.  Canned and frozen fruits and veggies are cheaper alternatives that are available.  As far as the family they show in this segment.. they talk about how the father has diabetes and they spend however many hundreds of dollars a month on drugs, but there he is chomping away at a double cheeseburger.  I don’t think that’s BKs fault.  You have to make smarter choices, regardless of your financial situation.  Yes, this is just one case and not a broader look, but since they decided to use them as an example I thought I would comment on it.

I don’t have a problem with GMO foods.  With 100 million starving people in the world, if you can make a 50 bushel per acre corn grow to 200 bushels per acre then by all means do it.. this is not a bad thing.  However, the story with Monsanto patenting the gene for the soybeans and then suing farmers and basically putting them out of business is very disturbing (i had read a similar story with Corn).. this is not the way to feed people!

One point I wanted to make about the hog facility scene, which may or may not change you’re view on eating a living creature, but I have toured a slaughter facility, not the one in Tar Heel, but it was a Smithfield plant.  They didn’t show one part and neglected to mention it as well, the scene where the pigs are being pushed by a gate, and then it cuts to them falling out onto a conveyor belt.. those pigs aren’t dead just yet.  In between those two steps is a very critical one that is part of humane slaughter techniques.  The pigs are loaded into basically what is a elevator car and lowered into a pit that is filled with CO2 gas (heavier than air) and they are basically put to sleep.  After they are unconscious, the kill step is a pneumatic bolt to the forehead.  Instant death, no shock, no pain.  Trust me they don’t feel a thing.  No squealing, no thrashing, no blood spraying everywhere.. that’s not how they do it.

The last thing that I wanted to comment on was the reference to former food industry executives serving on regulatory boards.  This is portrayed as being akin to the foxes guarding the hen house, or depending on how you feel about it, the blind leading the blind.  While there may be a slight possibility of a conflict of interest, who else would you elect or appoint to one of these positions if not someone with 20 years of food industry experience?  This to me is a non-issue.

Overall, as I said I found the movie interesting but not eye opening.  I felt like he didn’t spend enough time on any one subject and jumped quickly from one to the other.  I would have rather he got more into depth with it.  I also thought the “secrets the food industry doesn’t want you to know” bit was a little overdone.  Personally, I don’t think any of this is “hidden” or “secret”.  I also don’t believe there is a valid attempt to hide any of it, but more often the consumer doesn’t ask or doesn’t want to know themselves.   There’s a few more points I could hit but this is already becoming a novel into itself, so I will stop here, but that’s what I thought of it.

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting point of view! I know as a Food Scientist, sometimes I get really frustrated and find myself in a defensive place – these are journalists trying to demonize the Food Industry as a whole, and COME ON, why can’t they look at all the Good Things thie industry has done!!

    But at the same time, I find myself agreeing with a lot of what’s said in this movie (and other Pollan books, Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution, etc. etc.) How do we challenge the food industry to improve?

    Right now the motivator for the industry is (understandably) making money. How can we shift their motivation to help the nutritional state of our country?

    Of course a bunch of food scientists aren’t going to advocate eating fresh unprocessed food, because then they’re out of a job!

    Do you ever find yourself on the fence, or are you mostly on the Industry’s side, playing defense? I’m a total flip-flopper! I can see both sides of the story.

    • I don’t mind people having their own opinions, and sometimes I agree with it, but what I don’t like is where there’s a recall of like 1000 pounds of ground beef (out of millions processed everyday) and people respond with, oh they don’t care if we die just to make money, they are trying to poison us etc etc. 99.99% of food products get processed, sold and eaten every year with no problems.


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  • About Me

    I am a recent graduate in Food Science (NC State, 2009) and I work for a major food manufacturing company. I love food, but I can no longer eat anything that crosses my path. About 24 months ago I begin a serious struggle to get my obesity under control and reduce my chances of developing Type II diabetes. Since September of '09 I have lost 50 pounds and I still have a long ways to go. I've started eating better and exercising more, including taking up running.