There’s an unintentionally surreal moment in “Food Inc. 2.” Eric Schlosser, the journalist who wrote “Fast Food Nation,” is talking about how the rise of our corporatized, centralized, industrialized food system stifles the very kind of competition that could pose a challenge to it. He reaches back, with a level-headed liberal boomer nostalgia comparable to that of Michael Moore, to talk about the growth of the middle class in the ’50s and ’60s, and how that was a period of rising wages for American workers, all of which has faded away (a view not so different from that of many MAGA believers, but let’s leave that for that another day).
Here’s the surreal part. To illustrate this postwar reverie, the movie accompanies it with a 60-year-old documentary film clip presenting the wonder of supermarkets, with the camera lingering on stacks of Campbell’s Soup cans and products like Minute Rice, Ritz Crackers, and Van Camp’s Original Baked Beans. (The film makes a point to include the cash register ringing up a total of $2.99, as if there were something miraculous about that Kennedy-era price.) Watching the clip, though, all I could think was: Did the filmmakers get amnesia about the fact that those supermarkets — those products — represent everything that they’re against?
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That, of course, was the head-spinning message of “Food, Inc.” back in 2009: that the food we buy in supermarkets is, to a significant extent, a grand illusion — processed glop and sugar and chemicals and glorified cardboard presented as “nutrition.” (I grew up on Campbell’s Soup, and loved it, but I’m sorry, what those cans contained was very tasty food filler.) I’m tweaking the filmmakers, Robert Kenner (who directed the first “Food, Inc.”) and Melissa Robledo (who was a co-producer on it), for a trivial 20-second mistake. Yet it’s a revealing one. “Food, Inc. 2” has some vital if very familiar things to say about the crisis state of the American food system, but it’s a far less sure-footed and authoritative documentary than “Food, Inc.” was. And it carries almost none of the earlier film’s revelatory charge.
The uncertainty of message is there, too, in the section of “Food, Inc. 2” where Michael Pollan, the great food writer and crusader, does a mini investigative profile of Impossible Foods, the company (launched in 2016) that offers plant-based substitutes for meat products. The first time I had an Impossible Burger, cooked by a friend on the backyard grill, I had the experience I think a great many people have. I bit into that burger, which tasted just like a real burger, and thought, “Wow, they’ve done it!” This was not the hellacious veggieburger of ancient times.
In “Food Inc. 2,” you can feel Pollan trying, in a measured way, to endorse Impossible Foods. He claims that anything we can do to cut down on industrialized meat production is probably a good thing. At the same time, he acknowledges that Impossible Foods, in a certain way, is a Frankenfood company. We learn how the Impossible Burger is made: by fermenting a genetically engineered yeast to create the active ingredient that makes meat taste like meat (it’s called “heme”), and then combining that with products like wood pulp. The fake meat is free of hormones or antibiotics. But even Pollan says, “Make no mistake. This is built on commodity agriculture.” It’s an ultra-processed food; it’s not quite a healthy food. And meat — actual, good meat — does provide actual nutrition.
“Food, Inc. 2” spotlights a whole set of startup companies that are offering substitute products as if they were part of the food revolution: plant-based chicken wings, milk made without cows, coffee without coffee beans, honey without bees. We go into a lab where they can “grow” chicken or beef or pork. Is this an improvement — or is it even more Orwellian? Pollan says that we need to “shrink the meat system,” and he’s right (mostly because of how damaging meat production is in the realm of climate change). But the movie also points out that these products have become a save-the-world fetish for tech companies. “Food, Inc. 2” is of two minds, which makes it honest but also a little blurry.
Fourteen years ago, “Food Inc.” was a documentary game-changer. It was part of a movement of films (and books) that began examining how our food is really made and what it’s doing to us, and while I saw, absorbed, and reviewed at least a dozen of these films, and liked most of them, there’s no question that “Food, Inc.” was the visionary work of the genre. Watching it was like unplugging from the Matrix. It’s not just that you learned about how our food is saturated in high-fructose corn syrup — you learned that all too often, even something like a tomato is not quite a tomato.
“Food, Inc. 2” makes a number of good points about issues at once economic and moral: how factory farming is cruel to animals, the way it’s continuing to squeeze local farmers out of business (“We’ve lost half of our dairy farms in Wisconsin since 2007,” says the owner of a small dairy farm), the obscenely exploitative wages paid to migrant farm workers and those who work at fast-food restaurants, the ongoing travesty of our processed-food culture, and the top-down consolidation that continues to escalate. In the early ’80s, the four largest beef companies controlled 25 percent of the market. Today, the four largest beef companies control 85 percent of the market. A similar consolidation has gone on within the cereal, soft drink, and baby-food industries (which is why infant formula was suddenly not available at a certain point during the pandemic). “Why do companies buy up their competitors?” asks Schlosser. “It’s because they don’t want to compete.” At least one story we hear is inspiring, as we meet a fisherman who now farms kelp (as well as oysters and clams). He’s part of the growing movement to bring back individual farming.
But the truth is that we’ve seen nearly all these points made in other documentaries, notably those that followed in the wake of “Food, Inc.” That doesn’t mean the points have lost relevance, or that they aren’t worth making again, but it means that “Food, Inc. 2” is just one more decent but not better than that food documentary, and that it lacks the perception-altering qualities that made the original “Food, Inc.” a landmark. Our industrialized food system, run by a handful of multinational corporations that control nearly everything, appears to be in the process of locking in its own future, even as the film argues that that’s not sustainable. The real problem, as Pollan explains it, is the weakening of antitrust law that’s been going on for decades. Yet you can’t fix that with a government that’s broken — with a Congress where both parties are being paid off to sustain the corporate system. That’s a problem so overwhelming that “Food, Inc. 2” doesn’t even mention it.
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