Somewhere in a nearby theater, a movie purporting to be a new food documentary is playing to rave reviews. The central theme of Food Inc. is that today’s supermarket food is becoming much more dangerous. And while very little of this film focuses on food retailing, the message is still clear. The modern American supermarket, with its assortment of 47,000-plus products, supports huge multi-national corporations with their enormous assembly lines where animals, workers and the environment are all being abused. The movie claims that our industry does not want shoppers to know the truth about what is sold in grocery stores and that somehow our boneless meats, year-round produce and multi-national corporations are providing dangerous and unhealthy food to society.
Just as An Inconvenient Truth attempted to create an environmental crisis story, Food Inc. is trying to create a food crisis. Indeed, it would be all too easy to dismiss this movie as but another propaganda film. Or, some may look at this film as a pseudo-documentary on food production for the gullibly inclined who never questioned the accuracy of facts or half-truths.
But it would be a mistake not to respond aggressively to the message of this film. This movie was created by the Emmy Award-winning filmmakers and talented narrators who also helped produce Al Gore’s 2006 Academy Award-winning film. Only time will tell whether Food Inc. remains a cult movie shown at film festivals or becomes a tool that awakens a sleeping public and takes away the trust between food shoppers and their favorite brands.
In the last few years, food shoppers have become attuned to the issues of nutrition and food safety. More and more consumers are becoming aware of compromises required to obtain year-round produce along with the loss of flavor, nutrition and texture of gassed produce. There is also a growing sense of fear that imported products come with more safety risks.
This film goes well beyond the traditional propaganda of big is bad, local is better, organic is best, by calling our industry inhumane, economically and environmentally unsustainable. And while the usual poster companies are singled out for criticism, the deeper message is clear.
Our industrial style of food production must end. We already eat four times as much meat and dairy as the rest of the world. As poor countries grow richer, their populations will want the same high calorie, high protein diet that we eat in America. Simply put, the world cannot sustain an American diet worldwide.
Recently Time, in partnership with CNN, reinforced our need for a new American diet in a story titled Getting Real about the High Price of Cheap Food. The article condemns our nation’s food system and its soil destroying, obesity creating, healthcare cost epidemic model of cheap food. The Time article sites further proof in a study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 soft drink calories but only 250 vegetable or 175 fresh fruit calories. America is getting fatter because it costs too much to be thin. At some point in our nation’s fight over healthcare reform, state and federal governments which continue to pay an every increasing percent of medical bills will challenge America’s $147 billion obesity bill and how we eat.
What should be done? First, we must see this food challenge as a total industry challenge and not just an individual company problem. If there was ever an issue to bring agriculture, manufacturers and retailers together, it should be to defend the consumer’s connection to food. We must do a better job of telling our story of food:
Safe, nutritious, affordable food all year long;
Added emphasis on foods that promote consumer wellness and family health;
Shopper help through dieticians and “useful” nutritional labeling programs storewide; and
Food safety programs that connect suppliers, retailers, employees and customers on food handling and safe storage.
And finally, we must do a better job of telling the grocery industry’s 30-year history of partnering with Feed America and its 206 Food Banks that provide food to more than 25 million hungry Americans each year through modern agriculture and product production.
A little over 100 years ago, the food industry arose to the challenge of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Our success tomorrow requires retailers and suppliers alike to work together to protect the best in our food system while re-inventing new models of distribution that are environmentally and socially responsible. c
Patrick Kiernan, managing partner of Day/Kiernan & Associates, is affiliated with The Center for Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia; the Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Encore Associates, San Ramon, Calif. He can be reached at KiernanPat@aol.com.