Rattling the Capitalist Food Chain

The following critical analysis of Robert Kenner’s 2008 Academy Award nominated documentary, Food Inc.  appeared in the recent “Feral issue” of Minnesota Review,  edited by Heather Steffens. 

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Rattling the Capitalist Food Chain

“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”

—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

The critically-acclaimed documentary Food, Inc. seems well-prepared to enhance the cultural conversation about food: what we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced, and what that all means.  Clocking in at 93 minutes and with slick production values, the film brings together some of the most startling revelations from muckraking bestsellers such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006), organizing this material into catchy-titled chapters illustrated with clever cartoons and peopled by charismatic characters.  The sum total is a work that provides educators and activists alike with a sharp and useful—if in some ways contradictory—tool for cultivating discussion about the food-related crises we face.

While Pollan and Schlosser provide a kind of tag-team voiceover for the film, the heart of Food, Inc. rests with those who have personally suffered in the belly of the US agribusiness beast.  We get the testimony not of professional nutritionists, animal welfare activists, or environmentalists, but of bankrupt family farmers, debt-wracked chicken warehouse contractors, Mexican immigrant meat packers, food chemists, and food consumers, such as one mother who lost her two-year-old son to food-borne E. Coli. The result is a film that seeks to “connect the dots” (as director Robert Kenner has stated) intellectually and emotionally, even for those who already shop at Whole Foods, or who are well acquainted with the ethical and public health nightmare of the modern slaughterhouse.  Familiar critiques sound fresh—and suggest new possibilities—when they come from the lips of those trapped inside this food system.

While Food, Inc. began as a film about food, Kenner has remarked, it quickly “became a film about unchecked corporate power.”  This resulted largely from entrenched industry resistance encountered during the making of the film. (Apparently, the food company executives did not respond positively to Kenner’s invitation to participate in a “fair and balanced” investigation of their operations.)  Yet the film shows an uneven course of radicalization.  In its best moments, Food, Inc. encourages viewers to follow the food chains down to their roots in corporate domination of people, land, animals, media, and scientific knowledge.  But at other moments the film, like a number of recent progressive documentaries, compromises its clear-headed critical vision for the sake of an “empowering” conclusion.  Proclaiming that the “people have the power,” particularly through the way they “vote” at the check-out counter, the film forgets its own insights.  It obscures the systemic problems—as well as the openings—created by corporate capitalism, dulling prospects for a political agency capable of radical social transformation.  While the film aims to “lift the veil” on food production and so to reveal the structural violence and social costs hidden behind the pastoral fantasies of modern food marketing—just as the opening credits dissolve the red barns, lush green valleys, and white picket fences of supermarket dairy aisles into the horror of real livestock standing knee-deep in factory farm filth—in the end Food, Inc. does not remove this “veil” so much as move it from one aisle of the supermarket to another.

Criticizing Your Burger and Eating It Too

The film opens at a roadside diner where none other than Eric Schlosser salivates at the sound of sizzling hamburger.  Sinking his teeth into a juicy patty, Schlosser confesses to us that for all his meat-raking journalism his favorite meal is still a “burger and fries.”  “I was raised on this food,” he explains, gripping his half-pounder with both hands.  The gesture places Schlosser within the culture that he is criticizing, an apt emblem for how Food, Inc. reaches across the aisle to those not frequenting the organic section while simultaneously inoculating itself against charges of “un-American” meat-hating.  The film quickly moves beyond the facile behavioral moralizing that oozes from works like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004).   Food, Inc. clearly considers meat and fast-food eaters a legitimate part of its audience, not merely the object of critique.  Thus Kenner, as he’s reported, left out of the film the most stomach-turning footage of animal degradation.  Perhaps for the same reason, the film excludes the voices of veganism and vegetarianism altogether. 

In the same vein, Food, Inc. introduces us to the working-class Gonzalez family just as they order a bag of burgers from a drive-thru.  They explain that while they know fast food is not good for them, they feel forced to choose between eating healthy at a greater expense and affording the medicines Mr. Gonzalez needs to treat his—of all diseases—diabetes.  Moreover, the Gonzalezes both work second jobs to make ends meet, so they lack the time to cook meals at home.  Ironically labeled “The Dollar Meal,” this segment then follows the family of five through the produce section of a supermarket, where they survey, handle, and weigh lettuce, broccoli, and potatoes, noting their relative expense.  They are hard-pressed to find a deal on fresh produce that compares favorably to the hamburgers they can buy for a buck apiece.  A simple but crucial point emerges: in the US today, many people do not have the time nor money to make “healthy choices” when it comes to the food they eat.  Food is a function of social class.  Pushing further via Pollan, Kenner uses this family’s dilemma to raise the question of why unhealthy foods are often much cheaper than healthy ones.  This leads to an exposé of how US government subsidies for corn, soy, and meat production determine supermarket prices at the expense of healthier choices, and thus of the public health.  As if that wasn’t enough, Pollan’s argument that food companies systematically (and scientifically) “press our evolutionary buttons”— our cravings for salt, fat, and sugar—makes an appeal to “individual responsibility” ring hollow.  “Corporate responsibility” is just as empty a notion, for, as Pollan elaborates, even when faced with serious public health threats like E. Coli outbreaks, the corn-based food system, rather than implement structural reforms, seeks out quick fixes like feeding cattle antibiotics, leaving its problematic basic practices, such as overcrowding and corn-feeding, unaddressed.  The system here trumps calls to act “responsibly.”

But what exactly is meant by system here?  Rather than the capitalist system, we hear a lot in the film about the industrial, corporate, modern “food system.”  To its credit, Food, Inc. goes to great lengths to sketch something like the totality of this system.  The film attends to an impressive number of links in the corporate food chain—production, transport, processing, marketing, purchase, consumption, government regulation, public health, and environmental impacts—causing one critic to note that there are in fact “a dozen documentaries tucked inside” this one (Dargis).  The food movement would seem to be one of few places in the US today where such a process analysis—“from seed to supermarket”—shows prospects of reaching a mass audience. (Why this is the case is a question that warrants another article.) Yet the film’s understanding of its object as a food system—rather than as a capitalist system—has serious, and ultimately disabling, implications. By capitalism here I mean not only a world-saturating system of commodity production, but a system that is characterized by the contradiction between increasingly concentrated private ownership and control of the means of production on the one hand and increasingly socialized organization of production itself on the other, a system in which the dominance of exchange-value over use-value renders issues like public health and ecological sustainability external to the drive to maximize profits.  Certainly, Food, Inc.’s theory is powerfully descriptive, but it is not adequate in explanation: it often mistakes effect for cause, and it finally leaves transformative agency hopelessly narrowed to shoppers’ terms. Class analysis flattens to a portrait of victimization.

While Food, Inc. draws its most penetrating insights and moving pathos from the testimony and the struggles of food production “insiders” who are often trapped and still working for agribusiness, it tends to reduce them to victims whose suffering may move outsiders—us!—to change the system, not through joining, for example, a farmer-worker alliance for land and agriculture reform (let alone revolution), but through our enlightened consumer choices.  The political self-alienation is profound: the workers and farmers who know how to grow and prepare food, who have lost faith in the system, and who see and experience its abuses most clearly are left appealing to us, the consumers, to “change the world with every bite.”  “People have to start demanding good wholesome food of us,” demands the hearty Midwestern corn farmer who closes the film (himself a victim of Monsanto’s GMO monopolization), “and we’ll deliver, I promise.”  Demanding healthier food remains the linchpin of the call to action.

Consider another of the film’s striking portraits: Joel Salatin, the bespectacled organic farmer from Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, who offers some of Food, Inc.’s most sparkling wisdom, and whose grass-based, open-air Polyface Farm represents one of the beacons of hope in the film.  Salatin closes an early segment with a philosophical reflection on modern society, which he characterizes as full of “technicians” concerned only with the “how” rather than the “why” of things.  He then hypothesizes that people who view pigs disrespectfully, as nothing but manipulable proteins and genetic material, are likely to also view other people “with disdain, disrespect, and a controlling mentality.”  To exemplify his point, the film shifts to a segment exploring the abuse of meat packers at Smithfield, Inc. in Tarheel, North Carolina, juxtaposing the workers’ treatment with that of the pigs they are paid to kill and disembowel.  The employers “treat the workers just like the hogs,” says one anonymous voice; they are all “temporary” and headed for a quick end.  Set against a screaming sea of pigs and the bloody work of the disassembly line, the parallel is searing and serves as an opening for a more extended and at times quite radical discussion of the economic and social forces that affect the  workers at Smithfield, who are largely immigrant and often “illegal.” 

But the thrust of the film here poses a kind of food determinism, suggesting not only that there is some parallel between the (dis)respect of hogs and of human workers, but that the causality flows from food production outward, in a kind of dystopic literalization of the famous phrase: “You are what you eat.”  It suggests that if we could just stop treating hogs (and other animals) badly, then the lot of workers would improve; in standing up for the animals we would be standing up for…ourselves!  One could then extend this line of thinking in a vegetarian or vegan way to argue that only by abolishing the killing or exploiting of animals for human food altogether can we keep this sort of mistreatment from befalling our own species. 

The sad truth is that things are just not that simple.  Avoiding mass-produced meat does not mean your food is not, in a sense, stained with blood.  For one thing, as Eric Schlosser pointed out long ago in his first food exposé in Atlantic Monthly  (“In The Strawberry Fields,” 1995), fruit and vegetable production are associated with some of the most horribly exploitative labor conditions in the United States.  (Fruit and vegetable production are all but absent in Food, Inc.)  And as Felicia Mello has written in The Nation (“Hard Labor,” 2007), organic agriculture, far from being less exploitative and abusive of workers, is often compelled to be more so.  For one thing, non-reliance on pesticides requires that acres of fruits and veggies be weeded with back-breaking hand labor.  On top of this, organic firms struggle to maintain competitive prices (and profits), despite their extra-costly methods, placing even more pressure on owners—and labor contractors—to “control costs” where they can.  This often means getting more for less out of their unorganized, often undocumented, super-vulnerable fieldworkers. As Schlosser wrote in “Strawberry Fields,” “Nearly every fruit and vegetable found in the diet of health-conscious, often high-minded consumers is still picked by hand: every head of lettuce, every bunch of grapes, every avocado, peach, and plum,” and this at wages often sinking far below the legal minimum, by workers whose life expectancies average around fifty years.  In the interview that opens the Food, Inc. book, a “Participant Guide” to the film, Schlosser puts it starkly: “I don’t see any point of having heirloom, organic tomatoes if they’re harvested by slave labor.”  But in focusing on better food and more humane treatment of animals as the seed of change, Kenner’s film ends up turning actual human agents into passive victims, capable of voicing pain, but not of resisting or organizing to challenge a system that is not just feeding them but feeding off them (as well as us).  Human beings, ironically enough, are here reduced to their basic “animal” functions of feeding or flight.  Either that or they become entrepreneurs.

Let Them Eat Organic Yogurt

 The only time the word “capitalism” actually appears in Food, Inc. is when organic food CEO Gary Hirshberg—euphoric and fresh off his recent $23 billion sale of Stonyfield Farm yogurt to the multinational food conglomerate Danone—exclaims, “We’re not going to get rid of capitalism!”  At least, he adds, not in time to avert the climate crisis coming our way.  Thus, Hirschberg argues, we must focus on changing the world through business, not by working against it.  Rather than thinking of ourselves as Davids facing Goliath, we must “become Goliath.”  Certainly, as his recently-signed contract to have Stonyfield Farm yogurt carried by Wal-Mart indicates, Hirschberg seems well on his way to becoming a market heavyweight—though one wonders how that helps to “save the world” (his words).  It merely raises to strategy the cliché, if you can’t beat them, join them.  The film barely poses the question of what will happen to all the small organic farms and “natural” labels now being rapidly acquired by international food conglomerates deeply entrenched in non-organic practices.  Instead Kenner settles for Hirschberg’s naïve claim that “the jury’s still out” on this one. 

Quite to the contrary, it’s clear that as “organics” come under the control of institutions motivated not by a mission of social change and long-term sustainability but by the irrepressibly short-term of the fossil-fueled bottom line, “organics” will be contained as a market niche rather than the mass movement they would have to become to have any significant environmental impact.  Contrary to Hirshberg’s impatient anti-anti-capitalism, isn’t it long past time to call this derelict jury in for the verdict?

Unfortunately, Food, Inc.’s uncritical valorizing of Hirschberg, this billionaire who would save the world by selling it organic yogurt, is no mere blip.  It expresses the ideology of its filmmaker.  In the “Participant Guide” book, for instance, Kenner quips that he is “not anticorporate on any philosophical level” but “put companies like Stonyfield and Wal-Mart into the film because I believe that they can be part of the solution” (40).  Yet one need only look to the recent spectacle of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sounding off from his heart-healthy pulpit in the Wall Street Journal in favor of “individual responsibility” and market fundamentalism to be filled with doubts on this score (Mackey).  Food, Inc. does not do much at all to inoculate its viewers against such capitalist wolves in organic sheep’s clothing.

The film, however, in its more sober moments outstrips and undercuts Kenner’s and Hirschberg’s rickety proposals about what is to be done.  These closing injunctions call for people to scrutinize their purchasing and eating habits, calling us to exercise our “freedom of choice” as enlightened consumers (and secondarily as citizens) to alter corporate behavior, rewarding “good” firms and punishing “bad” ones.  Fair enough.  Except that Food, Inc. also calls attention to the way that the practices and prices of the food system in the US (and, increasingly, worldwide) are rooted not merely in consumer “choices,” but in US governmental agriculture policies, which are in turn rooted in the political-financial influence of US food corporations at all levels and branches of government.  All of which radically affects the field of “choices” that appear to us in the marketplace. That is to say, one of the strengths of this film is that it helps us to see how the terrain of “choices” on which we are taught to exercise our precious “freedom” is itself structured, constrained, and shaped “behind the scenes.”  One is tempted to say that the individual freedom we experience in the supermarket is merely formal.

Perhaps the most radical segment of Food, Inc. is its surprisingly deft “behind the scenes” treatment of NAFTA and immigration.  The film efficiently outlines the effects of NAFTA in expropriating and proletarianizing millions of Mexican small farmers, tracing how the same companies who lobbied for NAFTA, companies whose cheap, federally-subsidized corn production has driven these Mexican farmers out of business and off the land, have aggressively recruited these now displaced, desperate ex-farmers to labor “illegally” in US meat-processing plants, where their lack of proper documentation leaves them especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.  Adding a sickening irony to the massive injury, the film shows us how Smithfield bargains with the Department of Homeland Security to hand over a regular tithe of “aliens” for deportation in a way that will not disrupt production hours.  This sequence suggests how imperialist globalization undermines the food security and sovereignty of billions of people across the global South, while simultaneously turning their dislocation into a source of profitable surplus labor.

But even as Food, Inc. helps us to map “accumulation by dispossession,” the workers remain passive victims, harbingers of the doom that awaits if we do not change our eating ways.  Yet, as the editors of Monthly Review recently pointed out, citing the World Health Organization, “close to half of all humans are either perpetually hungry and malnourished or suffering from varying degrees of food insecurity.”  How are we to integrate them into our portrait of the modern food system?  How can they make “better choices” when they lack the resources to procure food at all?  Moreover, how does including these hungry masses in the picture change the way we might imagine a social agent capable of implementing revolutionary change to our food system?

Unfortunately, Food, Inc. doesn’t connect these particular “dots.”  To be fair, the film’s trouble imagining a social agent that transcends the realm of market activity is far from unique.  It is, rather, a persistent symptom of the neoliberal ideology that continues to plague social thought in our contemporary moment, even on the left.  Useful as it is, then, we should reflect on the ways that Food, Inc. represents the opportunities, but also the limits, and the dangers of food-based social activism, of consumption-oriented critiques of society that not only begin but also end up in the supermarket, and of “system” analyses that do not bear in mind the insatiable hunger of capital. 

Note

My understanding of this film has been enhanced substantially by conversations with Danielle Herget, Heather Steffen, Steve Dooner, Carl Martin, and Benjamin Balthaser.

Works Cited

Dargis, Monohla.  “Meet Your New Farmer: Hungry Corporate Giant.”   New York Times 12 June 2009.

Mackey, John.  “The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare.”  Wall Street Journal 11 Aug. 2009.

Magdoff, Fred, and Brian Tokar, eds.  Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal.  Spec. issue of Monthly Review 61.3 (July-Aug. 2009).

Schlosser, Eric.  “In the Strawberry Fields.”  Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Weber, Karl, ed.  Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer—and What You Can Do about It.  New York: Participant Media, 2009.

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About Joe Ramsey

I'm the keeper of this site, as well as the author who produces (most of) the work that will appear on it.
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