The Checkout

Premiering Soon: Industrial Food Chain

The year 2006 will go down as a high watermark in our collective obsession with the industrial food chain.

In the spring came the book release of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's deconstruction of conventional and organic food. As late summer rolled around, we hunted for the source of the Great Spinach Outbreak in the epicenter of industrial produce production. Now autumn has brought us a choice of not one, but two movies that take us on a queasy field-to-fork ride.

Fast Food Nation hits theaters tomorrow and Our Daily Bread premieres in the U.S. the following week.

Fast Food Nation is director Richard Linklater's fictional rendering of Eric Schlosser's 2001 expose of the fast food industry. Read the book. Haven't seen the movie. From the reviews I've seen, though, the cinematic version, while not a faithful adaptation, features plenty of cringe-inducing scenes in slaughterhouses.

Ditto for Our Daily Bread, a dialogue-less montage of scenes of modern food production, that "looks without commenting," according to the movie's Web site.

Maybe this is the beginning of a new genre of slasher flick -- the pastoral horror.

The difference, though, between watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and watching the food chain kind is after 90 minutes of the former, you get to return to the safety of your own home. After the 90 minutes of the latter, everything mundane becomes sinister. Next time you look at a hamburger, all you will see are E. coli bacteria staring back at you.

The question becomes what to do about the way we produce food, if anything.

That's what a whole host of people are wrapping their brains around right now. Since the Great Spinach Outbreak, academics, public health officials, lawmakers, industry trade groups -- you name it -- are scurrying around trying to figure out if there are changes that can be made in the fields and in the processing plants before next spring, when the central California growing season resumes, to reassure consumers their food is safe.

Of course any such changes are likely to be incremental and there are folks who think bigger ones are in order. Do you think the confluence of books, outbreaks and movies will have any affect on what happens next or on your own consumption habits?

By Annys Shin |  November 16, 2006; 9:30 AM ET Consumer News
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Like anything, you can be scared out of your wits with all the horrible bad evil things that might get you from the moment you get out of bed (or worse, with the sill bed-bug epidemic, while you are still in bed).

What that takes is a responsible and rational look at the odds. There's quite a few good books that talk about the culture of fear (that's the title of one of the books) and others that talk about general ignorance over the probabilities. While books on math may not sell well to the general public, people should be more informed.

The spinach outbreak killed what, under 200 people. More folks die daily in car-wrecks from not wearing seatbelts. You tell me which is more preventable, and which is worth worrying about and actively trying to change, and which are just scare tactics.

Posted by: Joe Public | November 16, 2006 9:54 AM

The problem with the seatbelt versus spinach analogy is that there are different levels of control in those situations. Each individual has the option and choice to wear a seatbelt, and is responsible for the consequences. Consumers can't individually prevent contaminants from growing in their food. It's not a matter of preventability.

Posted by: *-* | November 16, 2006 10:27 AM

Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle, remains the definitive work on the industrial food chain. No other work approaches the level of detail Sinclair's research revealed. Unfortunately little has changed in food processing in the nearly 100 years since The Jungle was published.

Posted by: thw2001 | November 16, 2006 10:41 AM

Whenever I have the choice, I buy organic. I don't eat at fast food places. I found out about them a long time ago.

It is not sensible or logical to compare the dangers of the industrial food chain with the danger of not wearing a seat belt.

Not wearing a seatbelt can be motivated by many things, but MONEY isn't one of them. And to the food industry, money is all...above your health, my health, employee health, or ethical treatment of the animals they abuse.

Posted by: Lily | November 16, 2006 11:12 AM

I doubt I could watch these films. My dad worked at a meat-packing plant in Baltimore after he returned from WWII. He would not eat lunch meat or hot dogs because he saw how they were processed, and even saw a co-worker lose a finger in the meat slicer. He hated the Kosher days when the Rabbi would come to do the killing. The animals are still conscious, hanging upside down when their throat is slit in the name of religion. After reading "The Jungle" and "Fast Food Nation" I became a vegetarian, eating only fish, fruit, vegetables, grains. I still eat dairy and egg products because cows and chickens aren't killed to get those products. Linda Eastman said if slaughterhouses had glass walls we'd all be vegetarian, and I have to agree with her.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | November 16, 2006 11:12 AM

I am also a vegetarian except for shellfish, which I probably could never give up (lobster, shrimp, crabs). That's the maryland heritage for you.

Here's the question I ask the people who buy organic:

For products imported from foreign countries (bananas, winter fruit, ingredients in processed food), why would you believe Organic labeling in countries where bribery, graft and fraud are the norms of doing business? I saw a person selling produce as a phony "farmer's market" truck in Columbia Heights with products I identified as conventional products from Costco that he claimed were "organic." I presume that we can believe the supermarkets believe they are using organics, but...


Posted by: Bethesdan | November 16, 2006 11:51 AM

I recently converted to half-gallon organic milk over the cheaper full gallon non-organic variety and buy organic produce whenever I can afford it, but I still find myself in line at McDonald's to assuage those my Big Mac Attacks. It's going to be a long time before I completely come over to the Sunshine Side, I'm afraid.

Now about that Kosher slaughter practice (above) -- is that still going on? If so, yuck. Let's see what the "organics" do...

Posted by: Gene | November 16, 2006 11:53 AM

you miss the point about seat belts. There's thing you have control over, and things you don't.

If you want to spend your time fretting over all the little things that can go wrong during your day, things you have no control over, then you're free to do so.

I prefer not to waste my time in such fruitless endeavors. And I'll buckle up.

Posted by: Joe Public | November 16, 2006 12:02 PM

You have to be concerned about organics too. JUst because it says organic, doesn't mean it doesn't have problems. The spinach problem came from organic farms, didn't it?

I buy most of my produce from the local farmers market each Sunday, where I know they folks who grow the food. We eat much less meat, but when we do, we try to buy locally produced and without hormones.

It's possible to eat healthy, locally (eating foods in season) and organic. You just have to do a little planning and research. For example, why buy organic garlic in the store that comes from China, when I can buy better stuff that was grown just a couple hours away?

Posted by: River Guy | November 16, 2006 1:11 PM

"The animals are still conscious, hanging upside down when their throat is slit in the name of religion. After reading "The Jungle" and "Fast Food Nation" I became a vegetarian, eating only fish, fruit, vegetables, grains. I still eat dairy and egg products because cows and chickens aren't killed to get those products."

What about the fish? Don't they count as an animal? Guess it is OK to spare the cute animals, huh? Try being more consistent.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 16, 2006 1:15 PM

Let's talk about organic foods in cans ... organic canned tomatoes have more sodium than regular canned tomatoes. The same goes for packaged soups. We have to watch our sodium content and wind up using fresh vegetables (organic or not) for most of our cooking. I want to jump on the organic bandwagon whenever I can but seeing the sodium content of various packaged products is a real turn-off.

Posted by: peapod | November 16, 2006 1:17 PM

The seatbelt analogy is not as applicable in this case as the author would like. I believe the author is using this analogy as a way to dismiss this problem as being out of any one person's control, and as presenting so miniscule a risk that it's not even worth worrying about, when actually, the problems in our industrial food production are NOT out of our (collective) control, and do pose some very serious problems that are very much worth worrying about. Many many examples have been in the news recently!

As more hormones are used to raise animals, our risk of breast cancer increases. As more antibiotics are used to raise animals, our risk of antibiotic-resistant germ infection increases. As we eat more cattle bred on industrial feedlots situated next to fields used to raise vegetables, our risk of eating virulent E-coli germs increases (corn-fed cattle produce more of these germs than grass-fed cattle). As we eat more corn-based and processed products, our obesity increases as does our risk of diabetes. Corn also is hard on our water supplies and on our topsoil; it requires enormous amounts of fertilizer as well. Our local beloved Chesapeake bay is suffering from excessive nutrient run-off: from corn, from industrial feedlots, from poultry manure, etc. These are all problems that come from our poor choice in foods, and in the food industry that cares more for profits than for our health or the health of the planet. There's plenty we can do, and it starts with becoming an educated consumer and making choices that will collectively, and in the long run, reduce the risks of all these concomitant problems (from our own health, to the planet's health), many of which are much more serious than just the "small" 200-deaths spinach outbreak considered by itself. Eating locally will help save on fuels for transportation and will reduce the liklihood of large outbreaks of disease (as in the case of the spinach episode).

I only buy organic whenever possible, and am working on buying local as well (which seems to be the more difficult criterion to meet these days). I eat virtually NO meat (I am a "home-vegetarian"; I only eat meat when I am guest at someone else's house). I am healthy and fit, my weight has never been a problem, and folks generally think I look 10 years younger than I am, and I have lots of energy -- all of which I attribute to eating healthy: the bulk of my shopping is done in the produce aisle: forget the processed foods.

Posted by: lvs | November 16, 2006 1:34 PM

Re the Kosher killing -- According to Dad, the Rabbi had to kill the animals in order to be considered Kosher. The animals are conscious, hung upside down, struggling and bleating, scared out of their wits. The Rabbi slits their throats and they bleed to death. The other animals are stunned to knock them out, then they are slaughtered. I don't know if the Kosher laws have changed to be more humane. Think about it the next time you sit down to a nice brisket.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | November 16, 2006 1:47 PM

lvs -

Congratulations on your self-infatuation, but...

Assuming that eating corn based and processed foods leads to obesity and increased risk of diabetes is just another way of blaming the food and not the person. It is possible to eat processed foods and NOT gain weight! How does one perform this miracle you ask? Don't eat more than your recommended daily caloric intake and do some exercise. Wow. Amazing.

Also, I eat meat just about every single day. Usually chicken or ground beef, occasionaly ribs and sausage. And sandwich meat every day, turkey ham and roast beef. I have never purchased organic anything. I dare to have Cheetos and Coke some days too. Guess what? I too am healthy and fit, never had a weight problem, and look pretty damn good. It's called running, eating a balanced meal, and not eating too much.

And what does organic have to do with the likelihood that your food is processed in a clean manner? Nothing, that's what. Organic doesn't mean the guy at the co-packing plant washed his hands.

Posted by: anti-lvs | November 16, 2006 4:13 PM

Fast Food Nation is great at describing the problem, but the Goldbeck's guide, "Healthy Highways" provides the solution.

Posted by: Scott | November 16, 2006 4:40 PM

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