Friday, August 07, 2009

Food Inc. Unpacked

In response to the cinematic success of Food Inc. - a documentary by Robert Kenner about industrial agriculture - Chipotle is sponsoring free screenings of the film across the country as a part of their Food With Integrity campaign. Their stated goal is to “start a discussion” about food production in America. I went to one such screening in Chicago with a fellow StAR blog contributor.

With animation and color as artificial as the tomatoes in a grocery store, Food Inc. peals back some of the layers of industrial food production, examining health concerns, workers’ rights abuse, animal exploitation and the dirty politics behind it all. In this film where corn is the villain and every head of federal food policy is in bed with Monsanto, an old-fashioned farmer emerges as the Beatrice in an inferno of food. His farm is the idyllic vision one imagines while reading Charlotte’s Web. The animals on his farm approach him when he enters the pen rather than run in fear at the sight of a human hand.

Veganism is by no means implied in the message of the film. Though there are somewhat graphic images of slaughterhouse production, the assumption of the film – and of Chipotle – is that there is such a thing as “naturally raised” or “humanely raised” meat. The takeaway message, then, is that we should buy local and vote with our dollars. This message seems on shaky ground after the film has depicted the dilemma of a financially-stifled Los Angeles family for whom it is an economically-wise decision to buy a $0.99 McDonalds burger rather than a head of lettuce. As my skeptical vegan friend pointed out, the ‘vote with your dollar’ slogan implies that some people get more votes than others. In the Al Gore documentary style, Food Inc. presents problems with only an afterthought to the solutions, which are given a few seconds preceding the end credits. One is left with a sense that they are not much freer in their food choices than the battery-cage hens.

Those who see the film courtesy of Chipotle may be left with the assumption that Chipotle’s food is the solution to this harrowing problem. A Chipotle representative provides an opening disclaimer to the film saying that they are “a pioneer in changing the way people think about and eat fast food,” and that they serve “nutritious ingredients from local and family farmers who are committed to sustainably raising antibiotic and hormone-free meats and organic vegetables.” Despite Chipotle’s claim that their Food with Integrity campaign is not “merely a marketing tool,” there is no doubt that this organization—whose foundations are built on funding from McDonald’s Inc.—is catering its menu and discourse to shifting consumer preferences that are concerned with the environmental and social impact of food. My primary “beef” with Chipotle’s marketing package—and of the film in general—is that there is no honest deconstruction of the many buzz words that have come to be nothing more than marketing ploys, such as “hormone-free,” “humane meat,” or “organic.” Instead, they continue to use these terms as shiny consumerist solutions to a problem inextricably linked to overconsumption, overproduction, and faulty demand signals.


  1. That's an awesome, piercing review! I haven't seen the film, but I think your general criticism of the whole craze with sustainability buzzwords and super vague labels like "naturally-raised" and "humanely-raised" is spot-on. In addition to being inaccessible and unaffordable for many consumers, these animal foods are likely impractical to produce on a large-scale because they require so much more land. There's an interesting bit about Chipotle in "The Way We Eat" by Jim Mason and Peter Singer. Chipotle basically adopted the "naturally-raised" label - which is very, very vague -- because they couldn't qualify as organic. I get the sense that Chipotle is a big step up from other fast food chains in terms of welfare standards (which isn't saying much), but you couldn't call their sourcing humane. And the whole 'food with integrity' montra for a fast-food chain...are you kidding me?

  2. Wow, I didn't realize how large of a player Chipotle was in creating those labels. I do know that up until recently Chipotle was owned by McDonald's Corporation, so I wouldn't be surprised if during that time a McDonald's PR rep. manufactured the labels as a way of appealing to their bourgeois constituents.

  3. As soon as I read the article, the question was: Is or Was Chipotle owned by McDonal's? Wow I just think that they want to own both ends.