Marks out of 10 - Don't have a cow, man

2nd April 2010 at 01:00

Food, Inc.

General release

Kevin Kowalcyk was two-and-a-half when he awoke with diarrhoea and a fever. He was taken to hospital the following day but sent home, before being readmitted the next day suffering from dehydration and bloody stools. He died eight days later, having contracted E. coli. Investigations pinpointed a hamburger as a possible source for the infection, although it was never proven.

His story is one of the more shocking examples of the effect fast food could be having on our health. It also highlights the often murky world of food production and the fact that few people know where their food comes from.

Since it was set up in 2003, the Food for Life Partnership has aimed to change that by educating children about where their food comes from. There are currently 1,800 Food for Life schools, with 10 more signing up each week and aiming to progress from bronze, silver and gold certification over a couple of years.

It's fitting that in the weeks prior to the Food for Life awards ceremony for schools on April 22, this Oscar-nominated documentary has lifted the veil on food production in the US.

The book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser achieved cult status for uncovering the dark side of American fast food and the dramatic impact that the industry has on local and global food production. Robert Kenner's film Food, Inc. takes the investigation a step further and examines how demand for fast food has allowed agriculture to be monopolised by a handful of large corporations and the impact this has on the economy, the environment and our health.

Kevin's mum, Barbara Kowalcyk, features in the film. Following her son's death, Barbara became an advocate of food safety. She campaigned for the US Department of Agriculture to have the power to close food production plants that produce contaminated meat. Although "Kevin's Law" was introduced into the US Congress with this in mind, it never became law.

Most viewers would no doubt be amazed at what is in the food they eat and where it comes from, and it's no surprise that children will have even less of an understanding. But the next generation will have to radically change the way it thinks about food if there is any hope of avoiding an obesity epidemic.

The large-scale methods of fast food production are also closely related to environmental crises and the "perfect storm" of food, water and energy shortages that the UK Government's chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, predicted will come to a head in the next 10 to 20 years.

Films such as 2004's Super Size Me, in which Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald's, have spread awareness of the dangers of fast food. But it's hard to compete against the processed food industry in the US, which spends $8-10 billion a year (#163;5.2-6.5 billion) marketing their products.

The food that children eat in schools has a huge impact on their overall health, and yet Food, Inc. also shows how schools in the US don't have the same restrictions on advertising or the high food standards that operate in the UK.

The film, accompanied by a book Food, Inc.: A Participant Guide: How industrial food is making us sicker, fatter and poorer - and what you can do about it, raises the point that unhealthy, processed food is cheap food, and that obesity is a social issue, affecting those who can't afford to buy healthier, more nutritious food.

Alongside this problem, the media promotes images of very thin people, and teachers and parents are dealing with a growing number of young people with eating disorders. "Both, I think, are the reflection of a society that has an unhealthy relationship with food," says Eric Schlosser, who narrates Food, Inc. and who spoke to TES Magazine on a recent visit to the UK.

"On the one hand, these food companies are aggressively marketing fast food that makes you obese when you eat it in large quantities. At the same time, the mass media is giving women, and increasingly young men, unrealistic expectations about body size."

Food, Inc. is a shocking documentary, intended to make viewers think twice about what they eat. But thankfully, it leaves us with some hope for the future.

The verdict: 910.

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