Science in Society Archive

The Food, Inc. Horror Movie

A film that exposes how the corporate food industry sickens and enslaves the nation, but leaves many stones unturned. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Food on film: The poster for filmmaker Robert Kenner's 'Food, Inc.' features a bar-coded cow

Modern Times taken to logical conclusion

It looks like a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie Modern Times, only worse. The assembly lines process factory-farmed chicken carcasses, hog carcasses, and gigantic extrusions of ground up cattle to feed the supermarket shelves and the fast-growing fast food industry. The workers are illegal immigrants bussed in from Mexico or elsewhere, paid inhuman wages, and then turned in to the police when surplus to requirement.

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Kenner’s documentary Food, Inc. [1], nominated for the 82nd Academy Awards,  is intent on exposing the graphic horrors of the food we eat, starting in the USA.

The narrators are well-known food critics and journalists: Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation.  They take us on a forbidden journey behind the sanitized cling film-wrapped packages of meat and gleaming tomatoes.

We are inside a henhouse stuffed solid with chickens, having found the only farmer brave enough to show it on film and risk offending the corporations that sell farmers the housing and buy the chickens raised. Our depressed, “beyond caring” but defiant farmer says she has had to use such large quantities of antibiotics that she herself has become “immune” to them.

We spy cattle feedlots out in the open, equally crowded with animals unable to move; we catch a furtive glimpse of a horribly crippled cow about to meet its fate in the slaughterhouse lot.

Hens, hogs, cattle,  all meat-producing machines spending the best part of their nasty, brutish and short lives knee-deep in their own faeces till they are mercifully culled; and before they collapse under their own weight or from some unknown illness. It’s enough to turn your stomach, if not turn you into a vegan outright.

But wait, things can be different

An idyllic scene of contented cows grazing in green pastures on a farm in Virginia; the farmer tells you cows are herbivores meant to eat grass. “They don’t eat corn or dead cows or chicken manure.” He says. Hogs and chickens roam freely and happily. All animals are slaughtered right there out in the open, and sold direct to customers, one man having driven 5 hours for the privilege.

The authorities tried to close the farm down, but the farmer had scientists test the animals and certify that his had ten times less bacteria than those in the big slaughterhouse.

What’s so bad about grain-fed cows?

One of the consequences of feeding grain such as corn to cows is that because grain is not easy to digest, it remains in the stomach and grow bacteria, including the deadly E. coli 0157. A two year-old boy died after eating an infected hamburger. It led to the recall of enough ground beef to feed the whole nation. Remember the assembly line where tonnes of ground cattle are made into hamburger patties? One infected cow contaminates the whole lot.

Fast-food & the obesity epidemic

Food-borne illnesses like E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks are on the rise, but they pale in comparison to the obesity epidemic that has gripped the nation, and indeed the globe, whenever and wherever the fast food industry has infiltrated. And it is the poorest people who get hurt the most because fast food is cheap food, artificially cheapened by a relentless drive for cost-cutting and efficiency-saving including the maltreatment of workers and animals, by corporate control and consolidation of the food chain, and by huge public subsidies on agriculture.

The scene cuts to an American Latino family of four with only one dollar to spend on lunch but must pay hundreds on drugs each month to keep the father’s illness under control. Yes, cheap fast food does make you obese and obesity is the single most important risk factor for diabetes, also an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancer. As fast food consumption increases, so obesity rises in all age and ethnic groups, and most worrying, type 2 diabetes appears in children and adolescents.

Why does fast food make people fat? It is high in all the usual culprits: sugar, fats, carbohydrates, salt and numerous artificial additives and food colourings [2] (Food Colouring Confirmed Bad for Children. Food Standards Agency Refuses to Act , SiS 36). However, further investigations on my part revealed that a ubiquitous ingredient in fast food, monosodium glutamate, used as flavour enhancer and appetite stimulant, actually increased weight gain in mice and humans. That is just one among many other pieces of relevant information left out of the film (see Box), which completes the devastating picture of the false profits and true costs of food incorporated.  

Corporate agri- and food business in the USA accounts for more than 12 percent of the nation’s GDP. It is subsidized by the taxpayer at $180 billion a year, some 12 percent of the sector’s total value.  A quick calculation indicates that 83.3 percent of the subsidies go to the big agribusiness and food corporations, and only 16.7 percent go to the farmers, making up half of the farmers’ net income.

Cheap food is profitable for corporations, but the price is steep for the rest of society, quite apart from the subsidies. Food borne illnesses are estimated to cost more than $35 billion a year in medical care and lost productivity. But that is dwarfed by obesity, estimated at US $140 billion a year in extra medical spending alone, not counting lost productivity due to illnesses and deaths.

False profits and true costs of food inc

· Global food retails sales are about $4 trillion annually, with supermarkets/hypermarkets accounting for the largest share of sales (more than 50 percent). Walmart is world’s top retailer [3]

· The US food and fibre market contributed $1.24 trillion, or 12.3 percent to US GDP and accounted for 16.7 percent of its total employment in 2001 [4]

· In 2005, the US government paid $180 billion in direct and indirect subsidies to agriculture (equivalent to 11.8 percent of the total food and fibre market that year). This consisted of more than $30 billion in direct payments to US farmers, and $150 billion indirect subsidies, including tax breaks on fuel and equipment, tariffs, protective pricing, drought loss payments and purchasing surpluses. The biggest recipients are the largest corporate farmers and commodity giants like Cargill and ADM, agrichemical and seed suppliers like Monsanto and Dupont, Fanjui family’s Florida Crystals sugar empire and meat producers Tyson and Smithfield [5].

· According to Daniel T. Gristwold, director of the Center for Trade Policy of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, over the past 20 years, farm programmes have cost US non-farm households a cumulative $1.7 trillion [6]

· Net farm income is forecast to be US$63 billion in 2010, up $6.7 billion (11.8 percent) from 2009, but $1.4 below the average of $64.5 billion in the previous 10 year [7]

· James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank (1995-2005), estimated the total annual global agricultural subsidy at $350 billion, nearly $1 billion a day, representing 50 percent of net farm income in the US and the EU. If subsidies were not in place, US farmers would need to double their prices to make a living [5]

· USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimated total food expenditures for all food consumed in the United States was $1.16 trillion in 2008; spending away from home was $565 billion; of which, restaurants accounted for $440 billion [8]

· The US fast food industry is worth $240 billion a year [9]

· An estimated 76 million cases of food borne illness are reported in the US each year (26 000 per 100 000 of the population), resulting in  323 914 hospitalizations and 5 194 deaths [10], costing the nation more than $35 billion in medical care and lost productivity

· Obesity is increasing in all age and ethnic groups; in children and adolescents, the prevalence of being overweight rose by 50 percent between 1995 and 2005. A study involving 3031 young adults both black and white found those with frequent visits to fast food restaurants gained an extra 4.5 kg body weight and had a 104 percent greater increase in insulin resistance [11]

· Obesity rates increased by 37 percent between 1998 and 2006, from 18.3 to 24.1 percent of population; the cost of extra annual medical spending due to obesity reached $147 billion in 2008 [12]

· One  ingredient, monosodium glutamate (MSG), used as flavour enhancer and appetite stimulant in practically all fast foods, is routinely injected into mice to create obese mice in laboratories [13]. A study on 750 Chinese men and women aged between 40 and 59 in three rural villages in north and south China showed that people who use MSG in their food are more likely to be overweight or obese, even though they have the same amount of physical activity and total calorie intake than people who don’t use it [14]

What has allowed food inc. to happen?        

There is a revolving door between US government regulators and agri-food corporations, all but one have declined to be interviewed for the film.

From off-stage, Monsanto casts a long dark shadow. The biotech corporation has been allowed to build a monopoly on patented genetically modified (GM) seeds, and planted them on 90 percent of the nation’s soybean, corn and cotton fields in just 13 years. It is allowed to harass and intimidate farmers, not just for saving its GM seeds illegally, but for patent infringement, should a farmer choose not to grow GM crops, and the non-GM crop becomes contaminated, inevitably, by the neighbours’ GM seeds or pollen.

Not only has Monsanto et al prevented GM products in the supermarket from being labelled, so no one can say whether GM food has harmed people, some states have enacted a food libel law that forbids anyone to say bad things about a food product that leads to loss of profit for the food industry.

If you think food was bad enough before GM, you should prepare for worse, though Food, Inc does not touch on the subject. There is now a substantial body of evidence indicating that genetic modification may be inherently hazardous. Whenever and wherever independent studies are carried out to test the effects of GM feed on animals, scientists find increased illnesses, sterility or deaths; moreover, they find the same problems when the raw data from studies submitted by the companies to get approval for their GM crops are reanalysed; and farmers and farm workers are witnessing the same happening in the fields [15] (GM is Dangerous and Futile, SiS 40). The raw data from companies are obtainable only through the law courts, as they are routinely kept secret as ‘commercial business information’

A farmer who has stubbornly held out against planting GM crops had problems finding a seed cleaner for his non-GM seeds. When he finally found one, the seed cleaner was sued by Monsanto, and under extreme duress, settled out of court.

It is shocking that a nation that regards itself as a model of democracy should allow its people to be victimized by corporate serfdom. It is also surprising that there has been no popular movement against Monsanto et al. The recent victory against the introduction of Monsanto’s GM egg plant (Bt brinjal) in India is an inspiration. It shows what a coalition of grassroots non-government organisations, farmers, honest scientists, local politicians, and consumers can achieve [16].

Will Wall Mart save our food?

Food, Inc. ends on a hopeful note that consumers can change things through purchasing power.  After all, Wall Mart, the world’s top retailer, has taken the lead in rejecting recombinant bovine growth hormone milk because the customers don’t like it. And it is now stocking organic grass-fed meat because the customers want it.

So, it is down to consumer choice and triumph of the ‘free-market’; an altogether too rosy view. What about the poor families that cannot afford to buy organic? What choice is there for them? What about the farmers that can’t get non-GM seeds and whose organic crops get contaminated by their neighbours’ GM crops so they lose their organic certification?

Farmers need to be supported by food and farming cooperatives

Consumer demand for organic produce is indeed rising and outstripping supply, yet farmers are not converting to organic; not even when the country is in fact facing an ecological meltdown from its GM crops [17] (GM Crops Facing Meltdown in the USA, SiS 46), another aspect that Food, Inc. does not go into. The three major crops, soybean, corn and cotton, genetically modified for just two traits, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, are ravaged by super weeds and secondary pests as farmers fight a losing battle with more of the same.

US farmers are isolated from one another, from consumers, and from the entire food chain. They are simply not receiving enough support from society in general. One model that has worked well is a food and farming cooperative based on macrobiotic principles operating in Italy [18] Cooperative for Health, Food Security and Environment Against the Credit Crunch (SiS 42). This could help implement the fundamental shift to organic farming practices that would put an end to the Food Inc., horror, deliver good health and nutrition to the nation, and much more besides  [19, 20] (Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , I-SIS publication; Organic Agriculture and Localized Food & Energy Systems for Mitigating Climate , SiS 40)

Dr. Craig Holdrege of the Nature Institute based in New York, USA, has initiated a project on Unintended Effects of Genetic Manipulation

Article first published 24/02/10


  1. Food, Inc. Wikipedia, 14 February 2010,,_Inc.
  2. Saunders PT. Food colouring confirmed bad for children. Food Standards Agency refuses to act. Science in Society 36, 30-31, 2007.
  3. Global food markets; global food industry structure, Briefing rooms, USDA, 29 July 2009,
  4. Martinez SW. The U.S. Food Marketing System: Recent Developments, 1997-2006. USDA, Economic Research  Service, Economic Research Report Number 42, May 2007,
  5. Sams C. Subsidised theft. Resurgence 2006. http://www.resu(
  6. Daniel T. Griswold 26 April 2007,
  7. Farm income and costs: 2010 farm sector income forecast, Briefing Rooms, USDA, 11 February 2010,
  8. Food consumption trends. Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, November 2009,
  9. “9 most successful fast-food chains” howstuff, 2009,
  10. Mead PS, slutsker L, Dietz V, mcCaig LF, Bresee JS, Shapiro C, Griffin PM and Tauxe RV. Food-related illness and death in the United States. Emerging Infectious Diseases 1999, 5, 607-25.
  11. Pereira MA, Kartashov AI, Ebbeling CB, Van Hom L, Slattery ML, Jacobs Jr DR, Ludwig DS. Fast-food habits, weight gain, and insulin resistance (the study): 15-year prospective analysis. Lancet 2005, 365, 36-42.
  12. Finkelstein EA, Trogdon JG, Cohen JW and Dietz W. Annual medical spending attributable to obesity: payer-and service-specific estimates. Health Affairs 2009, 28, w822-w831.
  13. MSG- the slow poisoning of America., 12 September 2005,
  14. “MSG use linked to obesity”, Science Daily, 14 August 2008,
  15. Ho MW. GM is dangerous & futile. Science in Society 40
  16. “India and GM food: without modification, a setback for GM in India”, The Economist 11 February 2010,
  17. Ho MW. GM crops facing meltdown in the USA. Science in Society 46.
  18. Ho MW. Cooperative for health, food security and environment against the credit crunch. Science in Society 42, 28-33, 2009.
  19. Ho MW, Burcher S and Lim LC. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuels Free, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2008,
  20. Ho MW. Organic agriculture and localized food & energy systems for mitigating climate change. Science in Society 40, 24-28, 2008.

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There are 9 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

tomas Comment left 25th February 2010 07:07:31
I live in Argentina, and we are just starting to suffer the "overweight syndrome" due to "garbage food" as we call it. What I find missing in this excellent article is the relationship between overweight and malnutrition. Poor people cannot afford or don´t have the time to eat properly, and consume huge quantities of garbage food - thus we get people who are at the same time overweight and starving. You have certainly seen the moving photos of round-bellied, undernourished children - in Africa and in Latin America - and in the US as well. The thing is that the purpose of the large companies - in the food branch as elsewhere - is to maximize benefits, not wellbeing of anyone but their shareholders or even only their executives. It´s not only the food industry that is sick - it is the whole system. At last we have achieven absolute monotheism: the only living God is Money.

kskarnic Comment left 28th February 2010 22:10:40
the report is engrossing. It is unfortunate that many corporates are indulging in such practices that harms the entire humanity including the work force,thier children and the persons who heads such corporations. One or other day these corporates would have to eat the same poisonous food they made (for others) to eat. However, there are scientists who are concerned and are cautioning the Government of the ill effects of GM crops and the need to preserve biodiversity. Hope is not lost. But efforts to convince corrupt governments would be a herculian task.

Rory Short Comment left 25th February 2010 07:07:07
About twenty years ago needing to make some dietary changes myself I was forced to think in a general way about 'food supply'. In my thinking I realised that 'food supply' was an ideal vehicle for those whose only interest was in making money out of their fellows. Concerns about the nutritional quality of the food being supplied was of little or no consequence to such people. This article reiterates that truth. Increased public education on food is the only way out of this trap.

Prince Pieray C. P. Odor Comment left 27th February 2010 01:01:16
Permit me to take advantage of this medium to request that you send me the activities that you intend for "the year of biodiversity", 2010--based on the declaration of the U.N. By the way, I wish to correct the error in my last mail also. The last statement ought to be: "Many people in the USA and the UK rose against President Robert Mugabe and did everything to shoot him down over hunger ad poverty in Zimbabwe but are doing virtually nothing or significantly little and without and force to shoot down the the government of the USA that is perpetrating the Crime Against Humanity of the greatest number of deaths and highest order of ranking by imposing Genetically "Modified" (poisoned) and deadly foods on sovereign, independent and free nations of the world". Prince Pieray C.P. Odor Lagos, Nigeria

susan rigali Comment left 25th February 2010 02:02:51
"It is shocking that a nation that regards itself as a model of democracy should allow its people to be victimized by corporate serfdom. It is also surprising that there has been no popular movement against Monsanto et al. The recent victory against the introduction of Monsanto’s GM egg plant (Bt brinjal) in India is an inspiration. It shows what a coalition of grassroots non-government organisations, farmers, honest scientists, local politicians, and consumers can achieve [16]." "US farmers are isolated from one another, from consumers, and from the entire food chain." Two quotes from publication that say it all. Not only farmers are isolated but so are producers. This is a political stranglehold by our corrupt government and agribusiness, but then I'm repeating myself as they are one and the same.

susan rigali Comment left 25th February 2010 02:02:48
"So, it is down to consumer choice and triumph of the ‘free-market’; an altogether too rosy view. What about the poor families that cannot afford to buy organic? What choice is there for them? What about the farmers that can’t get non-GM seeds and whose organic crops get contaminated by their neighbours’ GM crops so they lose their organic certification?Monsanto's intimidation tactics no longer possible" Anna Carter the "Seed Lady of Watts" has been in the practice of promoting seeds and fresh agriculture in the hood for decades. If ever there were a case for cloning, she is it. A landmark piece of legislation protecting California's farmers from liability was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger on Sept. 27, 2008. The bill, AB 541 (Huffman, D-Marin/Sonoma), was sponsored by a coalition of agriculture organizations and food businesses, and it is the first bill passed by the California legislature that brings much-needed regulation to genetically engineered (GE) crops. These are small but steady steps in the right direction but are only in one state and certainly have not reached the agribusiness stronghold of the mid-west. However thirty years later we have just begun to have a voice at all.

Prince Pieray C. P. Odor Comment left 26th February 2010 01:01:55
I really MUST thank you--ISIS--and so very much, for the information contained in this piece and for leading me to Nature Institute website. I have found Dr. Craig Holdrege's personal and co-authored works very useful. Four things hurt me most about the issue discussed. These are: 1. The evil corporations use our money for enriching themselves and acquiring and usurping political, economic and socially oppressive and deterministic authority, power and influence and causing us to suffer incurable diseases and death. 2. Not many people know this fact or are acting according to the enormity of its criminality. 3. The government/s that was/were elected by the people to serve the interests of the people, including by ensuring that the foods that they consume are SAFE and not merely nutritious or have "no evidence of toxins", and to ensure that people enjoy healthy and long lives, are breaching both the democratic principle intended by "FOR" in "the government FOR the people" and the trust of voters and consumers, with flagrant disregard of these facts: 3.1 The fact that they were voted for to serve us and that they would not be in government without our votes. 3.2 The value of our lives as invaluable and transcendental And with arrogance, insulting of our intelligence, and impunity. And they continue to preach freedom, human rights, and democracy as "the best form of government". 4. The people of the USA and the UK rose against President Mutable and did everything to shoot him down but are doing virtually nothing or significantly little and without and force to shoot down the that perpetrate this Crime Against Humanity of the greatest number of deaths and highest order of ranking. Prince Pieray C.P. Odor Lagos, Nigeria

Zora Mastrovic Comment left 26th February 2010 00:12:38
I would like again to receive your information. I was receiving it many years ago. I was one of the sciences who's signature is on your anti-GMO list of scientists. Thanking you in advance MD, MS Zora Mastrovic

Liam Scheff Comment left 25th February 2010 03:03:47
Great report - I first heard this bit of reporting a couple decades ago, when John Robbins split from his family business (Ice Cream, Baskin and ...), and gave some of the figures for production of meat and dairy in terms of water, land and grain use. (Tons of grain and water to produce little cow, pig and chicken flesh). I was pleased to make a strong dietary shift toward whole grains, beans, vegetables, etc, and it was a happy turning point for me, which I've always been grateful for. And after I moved into nutritional studies more seriously (via Macrobiotics), I have offered my experience and tips to friends and family, and anybody who was interested. But it ain't enough, is it? It's the subsidizing of these industries that should rankle Americans; we who believe that we live in a free-market economy, and yet we pay exorbitant (but hidden) fees and taxes, so that we can produce more of what is truly bad for us, burn mountains of grain to suppress or raise costs, and dump more nitrogen into waterways. Let's get out there and kick some Congressional butt, and make it understood that while no one has to be a vegetarian (that's a personal choice), no industry should be so sheltered and cushioned by secret, and in that sense illegal, use of billions in tax (that's yours and my) dollars.