As usual, I’m a little late to the documentary game, but last week I sat down and watched Food, Inc. on Netflix instant play. While I considered myself pretty knowledgeable about the environmental impacts of the food industry, and about the ingredients and nutritional value of many of the food products available in the grocery store, several things in the movie were eye-opening.
One of the lectures in my EHS 500 class that I took as an undergrad to make sure public health was for me was on food safety, and I believe nutrition students are required to take a whole course on the subject. The film focused on E. Coli and its presence in meat. Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food notes that allowing cows to eat grass for 5 days instead of the subsidized “grains” they usually eat (to make them fat) decrease the amount of E. Coli in their gastrointestinal tract by 80%.
Combining this information with a bit of research from my introductory epidemiology course, that about 5-10% percent of cases of humans contracting E. Coli develop into a life threatening complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome. The documentary focused on the mother of Kevin Kowalcyk, who died at age two due to complications of E. Coli infection, and her work towards the passage of a national bill in the House of Representatives that would further monitor E. Coli and other contaminants in food products.
Another case brought up in the documentary was the lives of individuals who own seed-cleaning machines. These machines allow for the use of seeds produced by crops grown by farmers. However, the seeds for many of the foods we eat now are owned by Monsanto, the company which produces the pesticide Round-Up. Monsanto has developed round-up ready crops, which have been genetically engineered to survive the use of round-up to kill weeds without harming the crop. Monsanto has sued the owners and users of these seed-cleaning machines for encouraging and being involved in practices which encourage the reuse of patented seeds such as the round-up ready seeds Monsanto owns and has patented.
The documentary made me temporarily reconsider my goal of environmental law as it pertains to water contamination in favor of law dealing with the food industry. While I don’t think it has changed my career path, it has made me more aware of the complexities of the food industry, especially how they pertain to legal action. While I know grass-fed beef is better for the cows, I had no idea it could directly prevent the exposure to E. Coli. And while I knew the patenting of biological entities, such as seeds, was a common practice, I didn’t realize huge companies could go after individuals for even possibly “encouraging” the reuse of these seeds.
Food, Inc. definitely makes you think about what you’re putting into your shopping cart, and I recommend watching it.