Slideshow: 6 Things Food-Industry Execs Aren’t Telling You

A new movie about our food supply sheds light on food companies’ shady practices.

June 11, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The new film Food, Inc., coproduced by Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and directed and coproduced by Robert Kenner, is critical, to say the very least, of our food industry. From modern food production’s origins in the factory-like design of the first McDonald’s restaurants to the concentrated factory slaughterhouses that bring us our pork, chicken, and beef, the movie shows how food gets from farm or factory to your plate and how this process wreaks environmental, social, and health havoc along the way.


For more independent films about food and the environment, see:
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For a documentary about the benefits of dumpster-diving, see:
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For an upbeat look at the power of small farmers, see:
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The film’s compelling footage and startling statistics are enough to make anyone angry about the way our nation’s food supply and food safety are handled. Fortunately, as the movie reminds us at the end, we all have three big chances every day to fight back: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here are six of the food industry’s most carefully hidden secrets, according to Food Inc., and what you can do about them.

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Food, Inc. is opening in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco this weekend. Visit foodincmovie.com to see when it's premiering in your neighborhood.

1. Beef, chicken, and pork producing companies really don’t want you to know how their animals are raised.

It’s actually illegal to show pictures of concentrated animal feeding operations, making it difficult for people to get a sense of how inhumane and polluting they can be. One aerial shot in the film shows a windowless Smithfield hog processing plant in which 2,000 pigs are slaughtered every hour. Another tale of two chicken farmers reveals that poultry producers Tyson and Perdue ask their contracted farmers to build windowless “tunnels” to house their chickens. One farmer lost her contract after refusing to replace her windowed chicken houses with the tunnelstyle buildings.

2. It’s illegal to question the safety of food from large companies.

When Food, Inc. interviewed a mother whose 2-year-old son, Kevin, had died from an E. coli infection caused by a tainted hamburger, she wouldn’t answer the question, “How have you changed the way you eat since this happened?” for fear of being sued. Enacted in 13 states, agricultural disparagement laws, often referred to as “veggie libel laws,” make it illegal to question the safety of a food product without sound science to back up any suspicion. This is the case despite the fact that the constitutionality of these laws has come under fire. Such laws also have prevented the labeling of meat from cloned animals and in some cases have been used by companies (such as Monsanto), to repeatedly sue dairies for labeling milk “hormone free.”

3. Lots of people in charge of regulating our food system come from the companies they’re supposed to regulate.

Executives from multinational companies like Monsanto and ConAgra have headed the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency and even sat on the Supreme Court. Clarence Thomas, who once served as a lawyer for Monsanto, wrote the Supreme Court opinion making it legal for Monsanto to patent its genetically modified soybeans as “intellectual property.” This made it illegal for farmers to harvest seeds from one year’s crop to use for the next year’s, a practice that had been in place for centuries.

4. Government subsidies may be making you fat.

Heavy lobbying from agricultural companies has provided them with government subsidies for corn, wheat, soybeans, and a lot of other commodity crops that often are turned into cheap and less-wholesome ingredients (such as high-fructose corn syrup, lecithin, and practically everything that goes into a Twinkie). Result: $1 hamburgers, 50-cent bags of chips, and 2-liter bottles of soda that sell for less than a bottle of water. Corn syrup, the filmmakers point out, is a major ingredient in everything from ketchup to Cheez-Its to soda—and many other forms of junk or fast food. Since corn and soy can’t be turned into broccoli, pears, or peaches, often healthy food can’t compete, pricewise, with the subsidized junk food in the middle of the store.

5. Companies spend billions to convince you their food is natural.

Pastoral scenes, “farm fresh” labels, and other signs of “all-natural goodness” are designed to make people think food comes from a old-fashioned farm, when in reality, it’s produced by a mix of science and technology and may have never seen a blade of grass. “These guys are spending millions of dollars to convince you that what they’re doing is real and natural,” Kenner says.

6. There is something you can do about it.

Just look at Wal-Mart, the filmmakers say. In response to increased consumer demand for milk produced without synthetic growth hormones, the world’s largest retailer has committed to no longer selling any rBGH- or rBST-treated milk, which doesn’t bode well for the future of synthetic growth hormones in the dairy supply chain. In addition, U.S. consumer pressure led to country-of-origin labeling laws that now allow you to know where your food is coming from.

Here’s how to vote for a healthier food system with your fork and your food budget:


• Purchase organic food and meat from humanely raised animals.

• Support small farmers to ensure a diverse supply chain. In the 1970s, the top five beef producers controlled about 25 percent of the market; now they control close to 80 percent. “This is the first time in history we’ve had so few companies controlling our food supply,” says Kenner. That lack of diversity seriously weakens food safety.

• Give up, or cut back on, soda and other junk food. It’s not only made with cheap, unhealthy ingredients, but those ingredients often come from genetically modified crops whose health effects haven’t been well studied.

• Demand change. Write your legislators and ask them to support food-safety laws, such as Kevin’s Law, named for the 2-year-old who died of E. coli–tainted meat. The law would give the USDA the power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce tainted meats, something it currently doesn’t have the power to do.


Make your voice heard on these issues: Go to senate.gov or house.gov to get in touch with your elected officials.

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