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I sat down with a homebrew last night (a moderately hopped Amber Ale, brewed with house yeast obtained from a local brewery) and watched Food, Inc. There is much to say of course about it. Two quick points for now, I took 6 pages of notes while watching.

First is that the documentary starts early and often with the idea that, “corporations put a deliberate curtain between our food (at the retail stage) and where it is coming from.” This is such a common theme throughout the movie that by the end you start repeating the cantations to song in your sleep. But think about this for a few minutes. One idea is that there is some giant coordinated cabal of big corporations who get together to keep information about sourcing and production from consumers. This is, to put it mildly, extremely unlikely. If any company saw a competitive advantage in getting information out there, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so. Bubbling beneath this sentiment and many others in the film (and elsewhere) is the idea that the outcomes that you see around you are the result of conscious design. But of course this is an illusion that order presents us with. The conscious actions are taken by individuals with varying incentives, pieces of information, ethical standards, and so on. But the pattern we see before us is hardly the result of explicit design. Such anthropomorphizing of the extended order leads us to think we actually have more control of outcomes than we do, it lends us to thinking in terms of “them vs. us” and a host of other harmful mindsets.

But think about the claim above and instead of arguing it as I did above, accept it. While watching a documentary on Food, I know it is hard to get yourself to ask the question about, “what about other items?” but it is encouraged. Whether or not putting a veil up between the retail side of food and the horrible ways (it is asserted, more on that later) it is produced is good or bad is not to be ascertained merely by asserting that the veil exists. Yet this is a strategy the documentary takes repeatedly. But even ignore that. Can you tell me very many goods or services you consume on the retail end where there ISN’T a veil put up between the end user and how it is produced? Take my teaching. I tend to be as transparent as is reasonable with my students about my preparation, but were they sitting with me while watching the movie last night? Do they read every article, book, paper, etc. that I read? Or consider your laptop or iPhone that you are reading this post on. Do you have even the slightest clue how it was made, its environmental impact or the working conditions of the people involved? Of course you don’t, and that is the case for nearly anything that you consume, and mind you this is particularly true for most things the government does. It’s hard to take the stance of, “OMG! The food “industry” is so secretive” when that describes almost any decentralized process in the extended order and that again such secretness, should it exist, provides opportunities for entrepreneurs to make it less secret and profit, and it also does not prove the secretness is “good” or “bad.”

Second, and I’ll have to stop here at the risk of writing a 30 page blog post, is that the documentary is virtually devoid of any data or real information viewers can use to evaluate how serious the problems are. Remember that in any large population of any activity, there are always going to be horror stories, and simply showing them proves nothing aside from the simple human interest story (which of course is not to be neglected, but that does not mean they prove the larger point). Coyote makes this point regularly – with media (and us) taking events that occur normally in the distribution and raising alarm about them or trying to prove their point about them. But in the case of Food, Inc. the documentary goes much further than just pointing out a few scary and sad episodes – they have chosen some that are so far out in the tail and spun an entire documentary about it as to make the entire production less credible. About midway through the film, the writers focus on a now activist mother who had the horrible misfortune of losing her three-year old child to an e Coli infection thought to be from food contamination. Now, not much background is given about it, but this episode takes up a good 10+ minutes of the film, and is accompanied by the expected images of cows standing ankle deep in their manure and images of sickly cows being poked and prodded as they are marched to their deaths. This is not to say that it does not happen.

But as I watched I decided to take the very easy step of going to the CDC to check just how bad our foodborne illness problem is in the United States. And while I certainly do not wish to die from eating my food, I was absolutely shocked to see how little of a problem it is. In the latest year that data is available, a total of 4,200 cases of people being hospitalized are recorded, and a total of … 80 people died from contaminated food. Mind you, we don’t learn from this how or why they were contaminated, so let’s assume that all of this is because of bad practices by food producers. If you look in the report on e Coli, you will find that in the last year data in available, a total of FOUR people died from e Coli contamination. You read that right.

There are about 320 million people in America eating three meals a day for a year – which comes to something like 350 billion meals eaten in the United States every year, wholly aside from all of the snacking we do. And out of 350 billion meals we see that only 4 cases of e Coli deaths were recorded – for a death rate of something on the order of 1 in a 100 billion. This is such an extremely low risk that I can’t easily find anything that is safer than eating American food. It’s certainly not anywhere in the ballpark of almost anything you can do with yourself, including just rocking back and forth in a chair on your front porch. Yet here we have a “change the world” documentary that really is focused on this particular risk. This is not to say that we cannot treat animals better or think about agricultural practices, but it is to say that by watching the film the viewed is given not even the slightest idea of the relative risks we are talking about, and this is really only one particular problem with the film.

2 Responses to “A Deliberate Curtain Indeed”

  1. Seattle Steve says:

    1 in 100 billion! That is a number too small to comprehend, but nevertheless, will be shrieked out at the top of many lungs as being way too risky, and Congress should pass a law to eliminate all risk!

  2. Lou Goldfarb says:

    A great piece!

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