Factory food

By MIKE MILIARD  |  June 25, 2009

Kenner describes attending a hearing in Sacramento about the labeling of cloned meat. The debate was not whether cloned meat was good or not. It was about whether you had to tell the consumer he or she was buying cloned meat.

"Wait a second," says Kenner. "I thought if you had something you think is good, you let them know and they can choose? Isn't that what the free market is? Not letting us have this information goes beyond food — it's very un-American."

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Paying the real price
One of Food, Inc.'s most frustrating scenes follows a family of four to the produce section of the supermarket. Says the mother: "Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, 'Okay, well, we can get two hamburgers for the same amount of price.' "

As Pollan points out in the film, that's no accident. "Bad calories" are cheaper because "those are the ones we're heavily subsidizing" via farm policies that favor crops like corn and soy. It's no accident either that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level. Or that diabetes is an epidemic.

"You're not seeing the real price tag when you go to the supermarket," says Kenner, who points out that an uninsured person with diabetes "could be paying $1000 a month for medicine. Is that 'cheaper' food? You can't have health-care [reform] in this country without changing the food system."

But how, exactly? The population of America in 1959 was about 180 million. Today, it's just under 310 million. It's inarguable that feeding that many people requires more than just a sun-dappled patchwork of rolling green fields, like the one on the cover of The Food of a Younger Land.

Clearly, corporations will have to continue to play huge roles in food production. But if there's no going back to the simple agrarian existence depicted in Kurlansky's book, that doesn't mean there can't be serious reform.

It won't be easy. Food, Inc. shows how agencies like the USDA and FDA — under both Democratic and Republican administrations — are oftentimes rife with alumni of the very corporations they're supposed to regulate.

Meanwhile, it introduces us to Barbara Kowalcyk, whose toddler, Kevin, died in agony after contracting E. coli from tainted meat. And we're told that the FDA's food-safety inspections dropped precipitously in the past three decades.

"With all the scientific advancement, the irony is that food hasn't gotten safer," says Kenner. "There's always been food-borne illness, but we're probably more vulnerable to it now than we've ever been." (Lest we forget, the genetic ancestor of H1N1 swine flu was bred and spread on a factory farm.)

Kenner sees parallels between agribusiness and another industry that was forced to change its ways. The tobacco companies, too, "had incredible wealth," he argues. "Incredible power. Totally connected to government. And they put out misleading information about the health effects of their product. But we beat tobacco."

Beyond ceasing subsidies for unhealthy foods, the goal could be to increase subsidies for locally grown produce, say, and grass-grazed meat. Sadly — not least for the members of the "Michael Pollan for Secretary of Agriculture" Facebook group — that seems unlikely, at least in the near term. After all, new AgSec Tom Vilsack comes from Iowa ("the Tall Corn State"), and his appointment won cheers from the Corn Refiners Association and jeers from the Organic Consumers Association.

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