Important but Flawed: A Review of Food, Inc.

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Important but Flawed: A Review of Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. is not a vegan movie. Far from it. It does many things wrong but does a lot right.

First, what does it do right?

Food, Inc. is the most mainstream movie we’ve had dealing with issues of industrial agriculture and food. While there are many films dealing with these subjects, Food, Inc. actually has the potential to be seen by millions of people.

For the footage of “conventional” chicken sheds alone, this movie is to be appreciated. The one farmer who was willing to show her chicken houses to the filmmakers lost her contract with one of the large chicken processors. There is footage of her chickens, grown so big so quickly that they can barely walk. They can take two or three steps and then collapse to the floor, which is strewn with dirty sawdust, feather, chicken feces, and dead chickens. Gathering up the dead chickens, the farmer piles them to dispose of the bodies. She has to do this every day because many of the chickens’ bodies can’t handle the massive growth.

Chickens in a massive chicken shed

Chickens in a massive chicken shed

One shot still haunts me: a chicken, collapsed on his back, bleeding, breathing in heaving gasps. He is about to die because his body has turned on him. His chest muscles are crushing his internal organs.

The result of chicken breeding

The result of chicken breeding

Pig farms in the south that have been flooded, their manure lagoons flowing into the river and on into the ocean. Downer cattle being pushed into slaughterhouses with forklifts. Feedlots that extend as far as the horizon, cattle standing ankle deep in their own shit. A cow fitted with a valve so that we can see into her stomach. Even the shots of the “nice” slaughter of chickens elicited gasps from the audience as they bled out.

Feedlot beef

Feedlot beef

There is a real message in the film that animals should not be treated as machines or production units, but are, in the words of Joel Salatin, “critters”. They have wants and needs and thwarting those is not healthy for them or for us.

So, what wasn’t good?

The film posits a humane sort of animal farming as a solution to these problems. Using Polyface farms (familiar to those of you who have read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma) as the paragon of good farming, the filmmakers make a case that animals can be farmed in a healthy fashion that is good for us and for them. But, they leave out many facts about even this farm. While they are able to slaughter chickens on the farm (a process which is also not pretty and certainly not “nice” for the chickens who get inverted and their necks cut open), they do not slaughter the pigs, cattle, or rabbits on the farm. They have to go to a slaughterhouse just like any other farm. The animals are still transported and killed just the same way as their cousins on industrial farms. There is no such thing as “humane” slaughter.

Really respecting the wants and needs of the animals would preclude killing them for our desires.

They also don’t mention that the chickens grow to slaughter size in about the same amount of time as the chickens on industrial farms. These are the same kinds of chickens – and they don’t show the chickens who are kept indoors with the rabbits. You can read more about that in Omnivore’s Dilemma.

But, what is most troubling about the film is the lack of real solution to the problem. They do not suggest any reduction of consumption. The final message is to go out and shop (as long as it’s organic). It’s almost as if the film were made by Whole Foods. In fact, it really felt like an ad for Stonyfield Farms. I suppose some of this endorsement of massive consumption is needed to appeal to the audience the film is trying to reach. I’d accept that, but it still felt like too much of an endorsement.

I’m not the only one who has a similar criticism of Food, Inc.

The film’s website suggests eating vegetarian one day per week, but this idea is not mentioned even once in the film itself. And there is no information about how much land and resources are used by organic animal farming in the film.

While the film has these deep and troubling flaws, leaving out vital information that could help us make important decisions about our consumption habits, it can (and likely will) prompt many people to begin seeking out more information about these issues. For this reason the film is important.

So, go and see it. But take along a stack of Even If You Like Meat and give them out to people as they leave. Fill the gaps left by the film.


15 Comments

Becci

July 13, 2009 at 10:38 pm

This was a GREAT review, Glenn. I’ll send it around.

Alison C.

July 14, 2009 at 12:45 am

Wonderful post, Glenn. All of that is so good to know. I have not yet seen the movie yet and had only so far read the less-than-critical article about this film in the Georgia Straight. Again, like “An Inconvenient Truth”, this film leaves out the most inconvenient truths and the solutions for them. It is too bad that these films that are fortunate enough to get out in the mainstream miss these key points, and therefore the masses still live their lives in ignorance – or in thinking that what these films say is all there is to know on the subject, and then they go on in their lives “buying organic” and thinking that that’s good enough and there’s nothing more to do.

L. Stires

July 14, 2009 at 4:05 am

You can pick this film apart as much as you want and I would agree that so many things were left unsaid but I believe it is a good start. There is little or nothing in the film that those of us here don’t already know but it gives those people who don’t know a lot to think about. The happy meat thing was disturbing but I think that the farmer was portrayed as an ignorant hick? Perhaps that was just my opinion but I couldn’t help but think others would feel the same. How could you take that guy seriously? It may not be perfect or have all the answers however it just might get people, as the movie suggests, casting their vote in a more thoughtful, knowledgeable way.

KCEE

July 14, 2009 at 5:55 am

Great review. I have not seen it yet – going tonight. I am disappointed that they didn’t offer suggestions. American people need to be told what to do. What a bummer. This movie could have reallllly made a bigger impact. I am bummed.

Thanks again for your review.

Glenn

July 14, 2009 at 7:55 am

The film does offer some solutions – I just think they aren’t really solutions. Buying local alone won’t get us out of this mess.

dawnofanewera

July 14, 2009 at 11:27 am

Thanks for the review. I’ve been curious.
Good that it at least causes people to think about where their food comes from – that’s the first step. A lot of people may draw vegetarian/vegan solutions from the film on their own.

Jason

July 20, 2009 at 4:59 am

Excellent review Glenn. I’ll be sure to pass it on. The movie does not play in Ottawa until mid-August, but we’ll be outside with Vegan Outreach leaflets for sure.

ARPhilo

July 23, 2009 at 2:23 pm

I haven’t seen this film yet because I was afraid to for this reason. I could see myself seeing the same horrid footage from farms as I have seen for years and then hear about “happy meat” after that. So, I don’t think I will see it after this. It really is sad how caring people can waste their efforts because they don’t want to give up simple luxuries of suffered flesh.

Louche

July 25, 2009 at 10:36 am

This review is much appreciated. However, I am not sure that linking to Vegan Outreach is the most appropriate thing to throw in there. Vegan Outreach supports “humane” measures. There are plenty of other guides out there that you could link to, such as the Boston Vegan Association’s or Gary Francione’s. While you may argue that it is appropriate because the organization has “vegan” in its name, and it has lots of colorful pamphlets to choose from (thanks to its size) and what not, I still warn against this. When I first went vegan, I was the minority who went and researched to no end… initially, it was like being bombarded with messages for “humane meat” and “ethical eggs.” Of course the first thing I did was advocate these things instead of veganism. And do you think any of them even considered going vegan? Nope! Just like Food, Inc., that was harmful. Now that I had advocated these things, they didn’t want to hear a thing about how purchasing them was harmful and jerked back into pure defensiveness.

Now for the majority of people who don’t care as much as I did or weren’t willing to do the research I did? I don’t want them to see “humane” anything endorsed on a website I recommend. They might never get past it. Just a caveat! Vegan Outreach does endorse veganism, above all (unlike PETA), so it’s not nearly as bad (from what I know).

Tricia

August 7, 2009 at 8:29 pm

I just saw Food, Inc. and I agree with absolutely everything you just said. As a vegan this was a really frustrating film to watch. The place where I went to see it is showing the film for one more week. I’m going back with the brochures to pass out that you suggested. Thanks!

Sue

August 13, 2009 at 6:27 am

Showing the horrors of factory farming is important. But I agree that ending this film with a “happy farm” will mislead people. Farmed animals are always abused and slaughtered well before their natural lifespan is over. And not mentioning the huge negative impact raising animals for food causes is ignoring the elephant in the living room. Good idea to hand out vegan brochures – I’ll be there to help.

Rick

November 21, 2009 at 10:56 am

I saw the film. It is good to get people thinking about their food and where it comes from. Howeve, like most films of this nature it basically presents only one side of the food dilemma. By 2050 the world’s population will grow by 50% to 9 billion. Food demand will increase 70% or more (people with rising incomes consume more) and the last time I looked they “ain’t making more land”. Pollyanna, er Polyface Farms, isn’t going to feed the world…but technology will. But I suppose the real message is to do away with all farm animals and eat squash and soybeans. I cannot contemplate a world without farm animals – how dreadful! And please don’t argue that you will still maintain pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, cows, sheep and steers anyway. They are not pleasure animals and are expensive to feed and maintain!

Zack

December 6, 2009 at 8:12 pm

Really excellent review. “Variety” and “Hollywood Reporter” couldn’t have said it better. I look at the film as a “humane meat” ad disguised as a “documentary”.

They show the horrors of factory farming to stun the mainstream audience, “See, this is what you are purchasing with your hard-earned dollars: torture and misery.” Then they quickly add, “But don’t feel guilty, just buy organic Polyface type “products” and eat all the meat you want with a clean conscience.” They also scare the viewer with fears of ingesting factory farm toxins. They suggest consuming Polyface type meat is like eating a feast in the Garden of Eden, all natural, all healthy.

No one ever asks the most fundamental question: What gives us the right to exploit (dairy and egg industries) and murder animals just because we can build hellpits like slaughterhouses?

Their premise, that animals are “products” and “resources” is what is really wrong to begin with. Until animals are viewed as individuals with the inherent right to live their own lives without satisfying human desires, exploitation will continue. It’s just like how you can’t have “a little slavery” if you want to talk about real freedom.

Btw, the most useful anti-humane-myth resource I’ve seen is HumaneMyth.org. It was created by the filmmakers who just released “Peaceable Kingdom: the Journey Home”. The Downloads page has free slide shows about Happy Cows Myth and Cage-Free Eggs Myth as well as posters and web banners. etc.

Thanks again for your great review and speaking the truth.

Mike

March 16, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I think you’re missing the point of this movie.

In the new age of 45 second video clip era, ala MTV production, this movie makes food information more accessible than other documentaries I’ve watched.

I know more about the food I’m eating now because of this movie then before; good job Food Inc.

Santiago Killing

October 18, 2011 at 10:28 am

Everything has flaws, but I like this movie because it can appeal to a wide audience. It’s like Frost. Not hardcore progressive rock, but it’ll get you interested and thinking about things.

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