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Movie Review: Food Inc. – Directed by Robert Kenner Oscar

That's one big bar code.

The movie Food Inc., released in 2008 criticizes the current methods of food cultivation and processing, especially in the American food industry, for being insensitive to the safety of consumers. The documentary, directed by Robert Kenner Oscar also touches on how other factors such as the income of consumers affect what they eat and the inverse relationship between the profit of food producers and food safety.

Kenner starts his movie by tracing the changes in the structure of the food industry over the years. He explains how the reduction in the number farmers and the corresponding increase in the size of each farm have made the few food manufacturers very powerful and influential. In addition to this, he mentions the desire for efficiency in food cultivation and production at the expense of quality is responsible for the problems associated with food safety today.  For example, feeding animals on corn rather than grass to increase yield, and reduce cost have led to an increase in the prevalence of virulent forms and drug resistant strains of pathogens such as E-coli. Another cause of antibiotic resistance that Kenner does not detail in his documentary is the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animal farming. These pathogens are easily transferred to consumers through contaminated food.

As shown in Kenner’s movie, slaughter houses prefer to use labor that is cheap, easy to control, and are unaware of their rights to disclose the unhealthy practices. As concerned consumers, this practice raises our eyebrows on the undue power of food companies and the quality of meat that comes out from these slaughter houses. The refusal of two giant food processing companies (Tyson and Mausanto) to comment in the movie may show the lack of transparency in the dealings of these food companies.

The interest of the food industry on genetically modified foods according to Kenner has not been approached with enough evidence and regulation. He casted examples of farms with non-genetically engineered soya bean, contaminated with genetically engineered soya bean. This cross contamination of natural foods with genetically modified genes is well known to pose a threat to consumers that are allergic to genetically modified foods.

Kenner also highlights the challenges in food regulation and government policies that compromise the quality of food.. Kenner uses the failure of the United States Department of Agriculture to secure the legal backing to shut down food plants that had their product test consistently positive for E. coli to support his assertion that the system of food production and regulation protects the industry more than consumers.

Kenner emphasized how consumers assume that every food is healthy, and remains disconnected and ignorant about the source and process of food manufacture. We consider his point to be of great importance. If eating is a personal behavior, consumers also have a role to play in choosing to eat what is healthy and demand accountability from the food industry.

The major problem with this film is that it spends a great deal of time expressing strong claims and making anecdotal assertions, and yet supports these claims with little or no data. For example, in explaining the dangers associated with E. coli outbreaks, the film cited the death of a young boy and his food advocate mother after they consumed E. coli contaminated beef. We agree that this is an effective way to put a face on the problem, but the remainder of the section on health presents no epidemiological data on of the prevalence or incidence of E. coli cases. The only piece of data they report is that putting a cow back on a grass diets rids 80% of the E. Coli from their gut without further indicating the source of this information. Also, a great part of the film focuses on Monsanto and genetically modified soybeans. Although there is some academic literature reviewing the health effects of consuming GMO soybean products, the film makes no mention of this data. Their criticisms of Monsanto for patenting its genetically modified seeds,  while not, without merit, are not very compelling without a discussion of why eating GMO soybeans are bad for health in the first place.

The main thesis that the film presents for positive change in the system, aside from advising people to vote with their forks, is that big food business can be healthy and profitable. This may be true, but their evidence for this is based on the success of the organic food movement. The two problems they do not discuss are: the fact that there are multiple definitions of the term “organic” with different standards about what “organic” means; and that, to date, not a single nutritional research study has conclusively shown that organic foods are any healthier than non-organic foods. Without this evidence, the central thesis of the film remains unconvincing. The same goes for assertions that Trans-Fats and High Fructose Corn Syrup are unhealthy while reviewing no evidence to support this assertion..

Kenner also created the impression that every food item on the market is contaminated. This would rather scare consumers. Kenner could have communicated the risks of food contamination by making his message more consumer-friendly. Also, food production is not the only stage of food contamination, poor domestic storage of food for example could also make food unwholesome. However Kenner did not talk about this in his documentary.

In closing, it should be emphasized that although we argue that this film presents little evidence to support its claims, it nevertheless succeeds as activism. Food, Inc. is best described as an invitation to the viewer to conduct further research and begin asking questions. In that sense, this film deserves credit.

Reviewed by Dan Purnell, MPH candidate and Paul Ashigbie, MPH ’11.