The National Catholic Review

“Tell me what you eat,” the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously quipped, “and I will tell you what you are.” By that standard, Americans might be said to be as corny as Kansas! Corn represents the central staple of American agribusiness. American cattle fatten on corn (although farmers may have to force feed them compensating antibiotics to do so. Cows’ stomachs were made for grass, not corn). We turn to corn to feed our sheep, poultry and pigs. Corn is now even being fed to fatten farmed fish.

Corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup make up key ingredients in many prepared foods. High fructose corn syrup sweetens everything from juice to frozen yogurt to toothpaste. Corn can be found in our ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, hotdogs, salad dressings , vitamin pills. Corn, of course, has been heavily subsidized by our government. What we have been eating has been making Americans obese—see Greg Chitser’s Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. It has also led to epidemic levels of type 2 diabetes. As Americans become more diet conscious, they often enough despair that, no matter what they seem to do in the way of exercise and attempts to control their diet, they do not easily slough off their fat.

The brilliant, muckraking, documentary film, "Food, Inc." easily ranks with Michael Moore’s "Sicko" and Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" in raising questions about healthy life-styles, temperance and justice. Variety snappily claimed for "Food Inc." that it is “ a civilized horror movie for the socially conscious, the nutritionally curious and the hungry.” It also suggested that the documentary takes us to the 3rd circle of food hell! The basic premise of the film is that the American diet is unhealthy; wasteful of resources (it takes oodles of  petroleum to produce, process and ship, all over the world, those surprisingly multiple forms of that corn); ecologically destructive and leads to a  dangerous concentration of power (4 meat packing companies control 84 percent of all the beef presently sold in the United States, up from 21 % in 1970).

That "Inc" in the title is illuminating. Fast food franchises are big business. McDonald’s has, at one time or another, employed one in eight Americans. Americans  yearly spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers or new cars. Industry does not want us to know what we are eating and colludes with governmental regulatory agencies or members of congress to make it fairly hard to find out. Lobbyists for agribusiness, for example, were able to table a proposed bill in California to force labeling of meat which comes from cloned animals. They have fought the attempts to get fast food franchises and restaurants to list the calories in that big mac.

The film cleverly follows the food cycle from farm to our forks. It is hardly surprising that Tyson, Purdue or Smithfield do not want us to see what a C.A.F.O ( the acronym stands for “concentrated animal feeding operations”) looks like. Seeing pictures of chickens, cooped up in dark pens, being fattened faster than ever, in such a way that they, often, can not even stand steadily on their feet or watching herds of cows mauling over one another in their shared fecal matter is not a pretty sight.  Who knew about a million dollar flavor industry which virtually creates any flavor it wants in food through artificial additions? If we are what we eat, industrial producers of food seem to be making it excessively hard for us to actually find out what we are eating. I looked carefully at my box of cereal the morning after I saw the film and am trying to find out what I am really eating ever since.

The film focuses on five main  dramatis personae. Two are well-known authors.  Truth be told, perhaps, if you have already read their books ( I had not, but now plan to) the film adds nothing new. Michael Pollan is the author of Omnivore’s Dilemma. Eric Schlosser wrote the best-selling book, Fast Food Nation. Joel Saladin, ornery but often charming, runs Polyface Farms in Virginia which bucks the trend to feed cattle on corn and shows what seeing food as a matter of nutrition and health, rather than as an industrial output, might mean. In places, Saladin steals the movie. Gary Hirthberg’s Stonyfield Farms specializes in organic foods. He also now sells to Walmart. Barbara Kowalcyk’s two year old son, Kevin, died from e-coli transmitted from a hamburger bought at a fast food store. She has been fighting for greater transparency about food ingredients, government regulation of food safety (which is not adequately stringent) and a guarantee of healthier food in our markets. She has also been systematically harassed by large corporations for her advocacy.

The issues the film raises are many. First, concern for small non-agribusiness farmers (an anachronism really). Monsanto, for example, can successfully prosecute any small farmer for infringement on Monsanto’s property rights, if Monsanto’s genetically modified soy bean seed accidentally sneaks into their field. Second, the role and fate of low-skilled immigrant workers. Meat packing is among the nation’s most dangerous jobs. A third of the meatpacking workforce annually suffers injury that requires medical attention beyond first aid. Death rates in the industry are high. Fast food organizations have lobbied to prevent raising the minimum wage, to restrict union activity and minimize health and safety regulation. Third, child-focused marketing which lures children to lust after non-nutritional fast-foods. To turn kids into faithful and long-time consumers, fast food organizations forge crucial alliances with toy companies, sports’ leagues, Hollywood, our nation’s school districts. Fourth, the political clout of big business in avoiding food safety regulations or truth in advertising about what is in what we eat. Finally, animal abuse in the gulag-like CAFO’s of America.

Food Inc is better at limning the myriad problems which have made US obesity rates the highest of any industrialized nation in the world. It is less good at proposing remedies. The books by Schlosser and Pollan propose a raft of possible solutions: free-range, grass-fed cattle production; family restaurants, farmer’s markets; restaurants supplied by local farms; consumer activism;  independent processors; efforts to preserve farm land; support for chains with worker friendly practices (including a minimal wage of $8 dollars an hour, with health and retirement benefits and sick and vacation leaves). They called for efforts to curb industry malpractice and strengthen labor, consumer and environmental regulations; a ban on advertising of foods high in fat and sugar targeted at children; strict enforcement of minimum wage, overtime and child-labor laws; the integration of food safety responsibility into one federal agency; tougher laws improving sanitary conditions in the nation’s slaughterhouses.

In fact, America’s cheap food is not really so cheap, if we factor in its costs to health, to the environment, to farming communities and to the taxpayers (due to high farm subsidies). New Zealand competes as an agricultural power without farm subsidies and Australia is weighing a complete cessation of its farm subsidies. For a Catholic sensibility, the major needed shift would involve not viewing land and livestock as simply commodities but seeing them as values in their own right. Clearly, Food Inc raises moral issues about the virtue of temperance (honoring the body by eating healthy food in a temperate way) and the virtue of justice (organizing society so it protects health, safety, working conditions and the balance of power between consumers, business, government). Whether taking on "Food Inc" is a realistic or utopian task I am not sure. But I resonated  with the words of Roger Ebert in his review of "Food Inc": “ This review doesn’t read one thing like a movie review. I figured it wasn’t important for me to go into detail about the photography and the editing. I just wanted to scare the bejesus out of you which is what 'Food Inc' did to me.”

John Coleman, S.J.

Comments

Anonymous | 7/7/2009 - 1:57pm
The diet establishment is as much to blame as the food industry.  Before the low fat movement, a high protein diet was the preferred method for weight loss.  Corn fed beef is one of those lovely instiutions that takes a grain that is difficult for human's to digest and turns it into a marvel to grill and broil.  On a planetary basis, the subsidies that price foreign producers out of the developed market are much more to blame for world poverty (as we read in his Holiness recent encyclical) than the fact that we don't ship more of our grain overseas.  Shipping our grain overseas is what makes the world poorer, not the fact that we use it to grow (and eat) meat.
Anonymous | 7/6/2009 - 8:00pm
Wow.. I hear ya..
Anonymous | 7/6/2009 - 11:32pm
Well, you may have seen some good points, but lots of questionable assertations seem to be therein. Myself, I would rather eat and trust fast food more than any family restaurant, especially when traveling. Fast food is quality controlled and with controlled handling; the family restaurant does what each thinks is best, only controlled by the local health authorities by an occasional inspection. To some extent this is the same as the family farm compared to big agriculture. You'd rather eat a chicken that eats anything it finds crawling around rather than a chicken that eats a known diet?  In many countries I've been in (Africa, Mexico, Central America)food is a health hazard; you're almost sure to get sick.  As a Jesuit you must have experienced this world-over. My own observation is that not corn, but soy bean oil is pervasive. Like in artificial cheese and milk products and additives and oils and sauces and salad dressings, and many canned foods and soups, for instance. We all need a certain amount of energy intake plus trace minerals and vitamins. Too much energy intake - that is, too much "food" is the problem. Just watch people at a buffet load up their plates! Blame the food? My pet peeve - not knowing who made something (distributed by is the clue that you arn't being told) and not knowing the origin (just because I would like to know more about how global we really are)
Anonymous | 7/7/2009 - 2:51pm
  Kansas is "America's Bread Basket" not known for corn. Thats Nebraska and Iowa. KS is wheat!        
Anonymous | 7/6/2009 - 9:56pm
As a beef cattle owner in the Outback of Australia, I read your article with great interest.    Our cattle live in large paddocks of native vegetation and graze on nothing but native grasses and bushes.     We love our cattle and love to spend time wandering amongst them as they camp out in the paddocks under the trees.   We believe that they are a lot healthier having to wander around in the paddock as they eat the grasses.   They are less fat but a lot healthier because of the exercise they are getting too.    I remember a chef from Europe coming to visit us some years ago and commenting on the meat that we were eating.   She described it as "springy" because it was fit and healthy.   "It must live a healthy & contented life", she told me.     My father is 90 years old, my mother is nearly 90, and two of our neighbours are 92 & 93 and still very active.   They have lived in rural Australia and eaten grass fed meat every day of their lives.