Food Inc.

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source:  Thornapple CSA

“Well it’s another burrito. It’s a cold Lone Star in my hand. It’s a quarter for the jukebox boys, play the sons of the mother lovin’ Bunkhouse Band.”

This would be Gary P. Nunn explaining “What I Like about Texas”. He goes on to mention Mi Tierra, which has come up once before in the Thornapple Blog. As both of my regular readers know, this is enough to qualify “What I Like about Texas” as an official “food song.” When you scroll up and take a gander at the date, you see that it is officially September, and if you are one of my two regular readers, you are thinking to your own self “Well, I guess it’s “food songs” month again.” Being one of the cognoscente, you would know that for most of the Blog’s history we have taken two months a year to do themed entries. In January we do “food ethics icons”—people like Norman Borlaug, Wendell Berry or Jane Bush. In September we do “food songs”. But you may have also noted that what it takes to actually be a food song has been diluted a bit over the years. We started out with songs like “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House.” This is a song that is not only very clearly about food; the lyrics are largely just a list of foods. But next thing you know, we’re doing “House of Blue Light” which clearly mentions fryers, broilers and Detroit barbeque ribs, but which, in truth, is much more about dancing than eating. And then there is that problematic category including dozens of blues standards that discuss the importance of jelly in various bluesmen’s lives. But we know what they are really talking about, and it ain’t food.

So while I think I’ve already said enough for this week to qualify as a sure-nuff food songs blog, I should probably get around to the perplexing title of this blog, which is not “Another Burrito”, but a reference to the 2008 documentary from Robert Kenner. While I think it improbable that anyone who stumbles on this blog would not have already seen Food Inc. I thought I would take just a few pixels this morning to say something about it. In the event that you haven’t seen it, I’ll note that you can now watch a preview online at your leisure and at no cost other than your time. As for watching the film itself, well that might cost you something.

Food Inc. deserves something like iconic status in the world of food ethics itself. The film built on a growing interest in “the industrial food system” and achieved a wide audience. Kenner collaborated with Eric Schlosser and food ethics icon Michael Pollan on the project. It consists of a series of vignettes that I think we can safely say are intended to expose various forms of injustice or unsustainable practice in the American food industry. There’s also a bit with Joel Salatin slaughtering a free-range chicken that is stuck in there to give us the sense that there is a better way to do things. The film ends with a segment on an Indiana farmer who is being prosecuted for conspiring to encourage violation of the Monsanto Co.’s intellectual property rights. The stunned reaction of this particular farmer was, for me, the most emotionally engaging part of the whole movie.

The Wikipedia article on Food Inc. is not very forthcoming on what the film is actually about, but it does include a nice discussion of the film’s reception, including critical reactions from major food industry players. I can attest that mainstream farm organizations hated the film. Yet food and farm input companies (the Inc.s of the title) seemed not to be so strongly irked. Maybe it was just what they had come to expect. The film was actually kind of helpful to them in laying out some of the concerns of their customer base in an obvious place where everyone could see it. My personal reaction was that the film could be characterized as misleading, but only if you thought that Kenner, Schlosser and Pollan set out to create a dispassionate and balanced overview of difficult issues in the food system, a film that would help people think more critically about both policy and their individual dietary choices. It’s pretty obvious to me that this was never the intention; Food Inc. is about consciousness raising. Given that orientation, I would argue that only one early segment where Kenner filmed inside a broiler production facility that was being “dropped” by whichever of the big broiler meat companies the farmer was working with (I forget which) was truly specious. I don’t doubt that what we saw was the reality in that barn, but I rather suspect that some of what we saw was actually the reason that farmer was being dropped.

But this is not a defense of the status quo on my part. If you somehow missed Food Inc. on its frequent airings between 2009 and 2012, go up to the link and take a look for yourself. And by the way, take this as signal that in 2015, September will be “food flics” month. Hang up your guitar and renew your Netflix account.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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