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Jul. 22 2009 - 6:43 am | 20 views | 2 recommendations | 11 comments

Can a Movie Change the Way We Think About Food?

Here’s a true story: A woman and her husband buy frozen hamburger patties (and plenty of buns) from Costco for their grandson’s birthday cookout in a neighborhood park.   Daughter (birthday boy’s mom),  remembers hearing something about a recent beef recall at several retail stores, including Nana & Pop Pop’s beloved Costco.  (In question were 380, 000 pounds of beef, possibly contaminated with E.coli O157:H7, from JBS Swift Beef Company, a Greeley, Colo. subsidiary of JBS, a mega multinational beef processor in Brazil.)

Mom’s friend (yours truly) gets wind of the frozen patty purchase and decides that she knows her friend well enough to speak up. “You know the burgers they talk about in Food Inc.?” I ask her. I’m referring to the mass-produced patties made from confined, manure-laden, grain-fed cattle raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), one of the thorny subjects of this much-discussed documentary.

She nods yes. “These patties,” I respond, pointing to the freezer, “are those kinds of patties.”

That evening, Mom invites Nana to watch Food Inc, which has been in theaters nationwide since June. The next day, Mom and Nana buy locally raised grass-fed beef, make their own patties and return the recalled goods.

Plastered on the home page of the Food Inc. Web site is the following slogan: “You’ll never look at dinner the same way.”

Ever since the Mom-Nana frozen patty incident and a Food Inc. viewing experience with my own mother, I’ve been thinking a lot about these eight words connected to one powerful documentary and whether it’s powerful enough to create change at the dinner table.  My mother (and Nana, reports my friend) was visibly shaken by the story that the film tells about where our food comes from and how it’s grown and raised.  But  — and this is a big but — neither woman would have made the effort to see the film without the urging of their daughters.

Narrated by Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) and Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation’), Food Inc. dissects the complex universe that is global industrial agriculture and does a very good job of connecting the dots –  and the journey –  of feedlot to table.  But outside of the farmer’s market and CSA crowd that has plenty of disposable income, who’s listening? How do we, as a country of communities, bring this story to consumers who live in the drive-thru lane and quench their thirst on two-liter carbonated plastic bottles?

Throughout July, Chipotle Mexican Grill has been hosting free Food Inc. screenings in more than two dozen cities around the country. For those who’ve seen the film, I ask you: Has this movie had an impact on the way “you look at dinner”?  If so, would you like to see more free screenings — and where?  Should it come to network television?

Weigh in, if you please, no matter which side of the cattle fence you sit on.


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  1. collapse expand

    How much (more) did the grass-fed patties cost? The price of meat raised humanely can be higher than that produced under appalling conditions. I think it’s less a question of whether consumers care (and, do they know?) about these conditions than whether they can afford meat produced in a way that is less cruel. I won’t buy veal, but I’m sure I’d also be appalled at the conditions under which the other meat I do buy has been raised.

    • collapse expand

      When it comes to comparing meat prices, it is also important to think about how often people expect to eat meat these days: at every meal. 60 years ago, families were dining on meat once or twice a week, mostly by stretching the Sunday roast as leftovers through the days.

      It is also interesting to note that 60 years ago everyone was eating grass-fed beef (if they were eating beef). That is how beef was raised before someone figured out how to force feed corn to the animals and raise them for market in half the time (and thus CAFOs and cheap beef was born).

      So if you aren’t expecting to eat meat 7 days a week, all of a sudden those fancy-labelled, pasture-raised, “au natural” products become more affordable, no?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      There is a small proportion of people who absolutely cannot afford the higher cost and I’ll give them a pass. When most of us say we can’t afford something, we really mean that we can’t afford it and still continue to do everything else we want.

      Let’s guess that grass-fed costs twice as much as grain-fed beef. If my family typically spends $15 per week on beef I’ll need to come up with an additional $15 to continue eating the same amount. So I can choose to eat half as much or I can give up something else in order to pay for it.

      How I choose to spend my money defines my values in a very direct, measurable way. I can say that I care about the humane treatment of animals but if I don’t spend to support my stated value then I’m saying I care about other things *more.* Maybe I’d rather have a nice bottle of wine, take a ski or camping trip, eat out for lunch, or pay someone else to wash my car instead of supporting the humane treatment of cattle. I might not like what this says about me but it doesn’t make it any less true (full disclosure: I occasionally buy conventional beef, so this is not a holier than thou rampage).

      Movies like this are great to teach us how our food is produced. The next step is up to us. We can change our habits, despite the cost and perhaps inconvenience, or we can knowingly contribute to the poor treatment of animals.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Price mechanisms are really designed to alter demand. If Beef becomes more expensive, higher prices encourage substitution. Earlier posters suggest that when beef was more costly, people ate less. One idea is to use more fillers like soy (i.e tofu) with ground meats, or otherwise incorporate more whole grains and veggies into our diets. Consumer demand for the cheapest meats is what drives increasingly inhumane treatment of animals.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Seems funny that Chipotle is hosting screenings, since Chipotle used to be owned by McDonald’s. Apparently it was not a happy relationship.

  3. collapse expand

    I have been using an organic sustainable farm for poultry and beef since I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma over two years ago, so I think education does help. But I was interested in it in the first place. Certainly cost is an issue (as mentioned above), however the biggest issue in my mind is that many meat eaters want to remain blissfully ignorant. Pollan describes this phenomenon in a chapter called ‘The Glass Abattoir’. If people were aware many would change so the reality id kept hidden from us.

    The careless meat eater finds Pollan’s book and these films “preachy”. They simply don’t care. It’s a cultural thing. But slower and surely we could see a shift. The original post describes just that.

  4. collapse expand

    Thank you for all of your thoughtful comments. Here’s an excerpted email I received from Colleen in Arlington, Va.:

    My husband and I saw the movie in DC with our friend, Anton. I was the one who initiated going, my husband didn’t mind going (though it wasn’t something he’d see on his own), and Anton is up for most things, especially when it comes to politics/policy.

    We all eat meat. I’ve been trying to limit myself, and the more I limit the more I don’t necessarily desire it. Though, I have absolutely no plans to completely eliminate it from my diet – I guess you could call me a “flexitarian” and I do it for my/environmental health reasons. My husband and Anton, while they will eat meals with no meat if someone made it (and Anton even once asked me for a veggie chili recipe), both enjoy a big sirloin for dinner (whereas with me, I find that as a dinner boring and monotone and heavy.
    My husband probably knew the least about the system going into it, though he knew a little from the news and from what I mention. We also saw Super-Size Me together. Anton has become interested of late in the agricultural side of all this. The firm where I work has a number of ethanol and beef clients, so it’s often a topic of conversation between Anton and I. I’ve become interested in the nutritional/political side the system. I’ve been reading more blogs about the subject and paying more attention to what’s going on in Congress and the USDA. It’s something I want to become very knowledgeable about, so I guess I know more than the average person, but want to REALLY know all about it.

    Anton thinks his knowledge increased and that before the movie, “the food distribution system and chicken farming is not something I knew too much about.” My husband liked being exposed “another view/opinion on the industry.” Anton’s not sure, though, if it’s changed the way he thinks about food, because “it’s best not to think about where your food actually comes from — otherwise, I might not eat it.”

    In terms of lines being drawn – at the end of the day, all policy is where to draw the line. The current problem, for me, is that we ban substances that will kill us or make us sick instantly (poisons) but we’re ok as a society with chemicals that are dangerous in the long-run, or even unknown in the long-run. The problem in those cases is that the chemicals and companies get the benefit of the doubt – not on account of the chemicals themselves but on account of the “free market” and such. The pendulum has swung too far against consumers.

    What I liked about the movie was that it takes it a step further in the “movement” than the earlier treatises and documentaries did: now that we know a lot of the issues, we need to press for change at the government-level because of how big the players in the system are. Just like climate change, small individual changes help but government can a) make changes that affect non-individuals like corporations, and b) incentive changes so more individuals are able/can afford to participate. What this requires is government realizing there is a problem at hand.

    I think it’s an important movie for everyone to see. It gets a little preachy at times, and for those who disagree their minds will not be changed, but I think it was well-done in general.

  5. collapse expand
    deleted account

    While we should know as much about the food we eat as we can, the truth is that many of us don’t really want to know where our food actually comes from. We’d rather pretend that it’s all wholesome, delicious, nutritious and humanely raised and prepared. Seeing proof otherwise can be hard to stomach. Literally.

  6. collapse expand

    We all need to make informed choices, especially in matters that impact our health and environment. The truth is that the price of meat and poultry has been forced artificially to its current low levels, to the detriment of the farmers, the animals, and our health. The fat profile of naturally raised and finished beef is much healthier than feedlot finished beef. One can only wonder how much mass produced meat has contributed to the current health crisis. Most consumers can afford to eat grass-fed beef, even if it means eating beans once a week instead of meat. We have the ability to choose.

  7. collapse expand

    To those making economic arguments against sustainable eating, remember that, as Pollan loves to say, you vote with your dollars at the supermarket. Yes, things cost more now, but the more people show a preference for minimally processed, grass fed, free range, humanely treated food, the more the big companies will find a way to provide them, gaining efficiencies in production. Cheap food does not have to mean bad food, and maybe the price of a grass fed steak will never be able to match an industrial one. But if the apparatus of Big Farm swung towards providing a better and more humanely raised product, I bet it would come closer than we think. And if people’s health improved thanks to that change, then as a whole society would be saving money by making this kind of change. But it all starts with voting with your checkbook at the market.

  8. collapse expand

    I’m with Greg. We really don’t want to know where our food comes from, otherwise we’d be buying the film and shoving it down everyone’s throat (no pun intended). Unfortunately, not enough people get *sick* or *infected* with food disease for the masses to act and do something about it. Tastes seemingly always prevails! I’ll admit that I’m almost afraid to watch Fast Food Nation as I have lots of interest in continuing to eat green tea ice cream and the occasional nasty as hell taco from taco bell. But, at the end of the day, my body and health are my temple and i should take care of it as such. My issue with all this broo haha is that organic, sustainable and purist food is always more expensive, so not really promoting purchases from average joes.

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    About Me

    You might know me from The Washington Post, where for a dozen years I dished up cooking content, both as Web chat hostess ("What's Cooking") and daily blog minx ("A Mighty Appetite").

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