Food Inc.

What are you having for dinner tomorrow night?

It’s a simple question, isn’t it? Tomorrow’s Friday night, so maybe you have plans? Are you going to meet friends? Cooking a romantic dinner at home? Going out for pizza?

So let’s say you go out for pizza with a big group. Your group, including yourself, is made up of happy carnivores and as you’re sitting around the table, yelling out toppings, someone shouts out “sausage!” Everyone cheers, “yeah!” and 20 minutes later your pie arrives, glistening and bubbly from the oven, and that sausage looks perfect on there: meaty and brown and substantial. This is food that’ll fill you up.

Only one problem. You’ve just seen “Food Inc.,” the fantastic new documentary by Robert Kenner, and like a war vet going for a game of paint ball, suddenly you’re having intense flashbacks, flashbacks that put you into a cold sweat, and make it impossible to participate in this activity–in this case, the eating of sausage-topped pizza.

A question is haunting you, screaming loudly in your head: “WHERE DID THAT SAUSAGE COME FROM?”

The voice is so loud and fervent because the flashbacks you’re having are flashbacks from the 2nd half of the movie, the half that takes you into Smithfield’s processing plant, the biggest meat processing plant in America. Perhaps the most miserable place ever captured on film, this dank metallic slaughterhouse is overrun with pigs squealing and screaming, covered in their own urine, blood and feces. Faceless workers guide the screaming pigs into square boxes where they are lowered to their death; the workers who handle the carcasses get so many diseases from touching these filthy, tortured animals their fingernails fall off. Then, many of these workers–who were brought in by Smithfield from Mexico through a government loophole–return home, hoping for a few decent hours of rest, only to have government agents beat down their door, taking them away in handcuffs and shipping them back to Mexico. Their names are turned in by Smithfield executives who get to keep the large majority of their workers if they turn over a few names every now and then.

What this movie exposes, gracefully but mercilessly, is the ugly, rotten heart at the center of the American food industry. A giant machine with dollar signs in its eyes, the corporate monster that tortures these pigs and workers, that fattens chickens so quickly and ruthlessly, they can’t support their own weight, that keeps cows standing in piles of their own manure, manure that gets into our food supply, causing E. Coli outbreaks that take the lives of innocent children (another harrowing sequence in the movie)–this is a mighty foe, the most nefarious of villains. And the most insidious thing of all, is that this machine exists because of us: because of our own helpless appetites.

Which brings us back to that pizza. It’s so easy, in a group, to say “yeah!” when someone calls out for “sausage” as a topping. As Michael Pollan points out in the movie, we’re wired to enjoy food that’s sweet, salty, and fatty: sausage is all three.

But what this movie makes you realize is, aren’t you complicit in the crimes big business commits when you don’t ask where your sausage comes from? This movie isn’t telling you not to eat sausage: it’s telling you not to eat anonymous sausage. Anonymous sausage is anonymous for a reason: you don’t want to know where it comes from. But that doesn’t have to be the case–as this movie points out, you can be an informed consumer. If you go to a farmer’s market, for example, you can buy sausage directly from the person who made it. You can ask them questions. You can feel good about what you eat.

And that’s this movie’s greatest lesson: to be an informed consumer. Your dollars are votes–every time you shop for food, every time you go out for dinner, you are casting a vote for the way food is produced in America. If you insist on making that pizza half mushrooms and onions, to the chagrin of your friends, that restaurant is selling less sausage that night. They’re going to buy less sausage if more people do that. And if enough people explain why, perhaps the pizza place will start buying sausage from a more humane producer? And won’t we all benefit?

So let’s return to my opening question: what are you having for dinner tomorrow night? It’s a simple question, but hopefully after reading this and seeing “Food Inc.” the answer to that question will require more thought than just “whatever’s cheap and easy.” Your dinner might be cheap or expensive, easy or difficult, but whatever the case, just make sure that your dinner is right.

See Also:

Belated Book Review, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

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