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Joy Saha

Michael Pollan on "Food Inc. 2"

“Food, Inc. 2,” the long-awaited sequel to the 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary "Food, Inc,” follows in the footsteps of its revelatory predecessor. The horrifying yet thought-provoking showcase, courtesy of directors Melissa Robledo and Robert Kenner, once again meshes science, data and emotions to illustrate how our industrialized food system has gotten worse nearly 15 years later.  

Much of the focus is on corporate consolidation, which has become a dire problem amid a raging global pandemic that further weakened an already vulnerable system. Several meatpacking plants — notably Tyson Foods facilities — essentially transformed into COVID super spreaders due to corporate corruption and an executive order issued by the Trump administration. In particular, “Food, Inc. 2” spotlights a Tyson meat slaughterhouse based in Waterloo, Iowa, where 13,000 out of 25,000 workers tested positive for COVID. It’s just one of many examples of how corporate power continues to fuel disparities in various sectors of society: health, economics, the environment and so much more.

Special attention is also placed on ultra-processed foods, a new category of dangerous foods that have increased in popularity and consumption in recent years. Such foods (think ice cream, chips, candies, sweetened carbonated beverages and some breakfast cereals) currently make up an estimated 73% of the US food supply. Ultra-processed foods, the documentary reveals, are major money makers for big businesses. They aren’t mass-produced solely because they taste good. They’re primarily made for capitalistic motives.

In addition to Robledo and Kenner, “Food, Inc. 2” sees the return of journalists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, this time as co-producers. The duo famously co-narrated the first film and has since covered the food system at large, including workers’ rights and antitrust law. Despite the troubling situation, Pollan and Schlosser are confident that the system can be changed for the better. The documentary itself ends on an inspiring note, urging viewers to visit a campaign website that includes ways to take immediate action.

Following the documentary’s theatrical premiere, Pollan and Schlosser sat down with Salon to discuss why it’s necessary to have greater transparency within our food system. They also delved into food legislation along with the pros and cons of food science technology.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What encouraged you both to work on a “Food, Inc.” sequel more than a decade after the first film was released?

Michael Pollan: So, neither of us had any interest in doing a sequel. We'd been asked to do one — as had Robert Kenner and Melissa Robledo, the directors — until the pandemic. Something really interesting happened early on in the pandemic, as I say in the film, the curtain was pulled back. There's a great line from Warren Buffett: “Only when the tide goes out do you learn who has been swimming naked.” And we saw who was swimming naked and it was the food system. I wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books about what we were learning, talking about concentration and antitrust and how specialized the food system had gotten. The companies  that were supplying institutional buyers, like schools and factories and offices, their market fell apart. But they were so specialized that they couldn’t adapt. It was a real sign of how brittle and non-resilient the system was — I wrote a piece about that. 

Unbeknownst to me, because we hadn’t been in touch, Eric published a piece, I think a week before mine in The Atlantic talking also about what we had learned and we realized the story had changed. It was time to take another look and this was the occasion for all of us to dig in and start reporting again and see what had happened. Was the system more concentrated? Yes. And you had other developments too, like the rise of the category ‘ultra-processed food,’ which was not something that people talked about in 2008 or really even understood.

We didn’t want to do a sequel just to do a sequel. We wanted to do a sequel because the story had advanced and we’d learn things too.

Eric Schlosser: I’d originally gotten engaged in food issues by following the harvest and writing about migrant farm workers. During the pandemic, both of those groups were sacrificed for profit. Michael wrote an article that was more an overview of how brutal the system was. And the article that I wrote was specifically looking at how meatpacking workers were risking their lives to keep meat getting shipped out the door and the very close relationship between the big meatpacking companies and the Trump administration. When I wrote the case, it seemed outrageous that Trump would issue an executive order preventing local health departments from shutting down meatpacking plants that were the vector for COVID into rural communities. But it was only months later, after we'd already decided to make the film, that we learned that that executive order was written by the legal department of Tyson Foods. You can hardly find a better example of the corruption of government by big business, which ties into all these issues about consolidation and oligopolies and monopoly power.  

Let’s focus on ultra-processed foods for a bit. When would you say the conversation surrounding such foods escalated? Was it during the onset of the pandemic or prior to then?

Pollan: I first heard about it from Carlos Monteiro, this epidemiologist in Brazil. He reached out to me and I actually went to Brazil and met him and his team of graduate students who were doing all this research at the time. It was a pretty specialized little niche in nutrition until Kevin Hall at the National Institutes of Health — a skeptic of the idea that there was such a thing that had unique properties that imperiled our health — did this study. It was a side-by-side study and he created two sets of meals with equivalent amounts of salt, fat and other macronutrients and found that people who ate the ultra-processed version of the same nutrients ended up eating about 500 calories more per person per day, which is an astonishing result. There's good evidence that there's something uniquely harmful about these foods. We don't know exactly why, or what it is. We know they've been engineered to make you crave them in various ways. But that's the next step in that research. I foresee a day when we regulate all processed foods by calling them out on labels and educating the public. That's very hard to do in the current political climate, but I think it's coming.

What kind of progress have you made with trying to get ultra-processed foods labeled?

Pollan: We've talked to people in government and the first argument they make is that we don't have a really good definition yet. Lots of marginal cases that are fairly simple. A potato chip only has two ingredients. But Doritos has got like 20 ingredients — that’s a very complex corn chip. So, what do you do about those marginal cases? That's one thing. The other thing is do you need to establish causality? Is it the additive? Is it the emulsifier? Or the lack of fiber? Or the colorings? Or the flavorings that are the problem and that's making people eat too much? That science hasn't been done yet. So that needs to happen to bulletproof the concept against charges that it's anti-science or it's vague. I mean, junk food is pretty vague too. Some countries have had success though. In Mexico and Chile and Brazil, they figured out a workable definition of junk food. I think they have a different attitude toward the food companies. If you're in South America, US and European food conglomerates are imperialist opponents. That’s why it was a little easier to come after them in those countries. But here, it’s going to be tougher and it comes back to campaign finance issues. They wield a huge amount of power. And that too brings us back to concentration. It's one of the ways the ‘ultra-processed foods’ story and the ‘concentration’ story dovetail.

Ultra-processed foods have been expressly designed for a purpose. Not to satisfy you, which is how your parents cook for you, but to make provability and snackability and, essentially, addictiveness. We don't like being hoodwinked. To put out information that tells you here's what's going on with your food and here's why you can’t stop eating those Doritos, it seems to me would be helpful information to people. And if companies are so proud of their products, they should be proud of the ingredient list.

Schlosser: One of the other things is these are new foods. How long have people been consuming Baconator-flavored Pringles? So it would make sense that the harms of these new foods would only now be becoming apparent. I'm not in favor of banning them, or immediately taxing them. But notifying people, this is what seems to be de minimis. The industry's argument has been that there are all these great benefits of processes, including increased shelf life and all these terrific things. If it’s so terrific then they shouldn’t have any problems with labels. It’s in the marketplace of ideas and free speech that you get the right answer.

This was almost 25 years ago when I visited a flavor factory and what was stunning to me is that companies are not required to list the ingredients in their flavors. If they had a list of ingredients in their flavors, it might be longer than the list of ingredients in the product. By using a phrase like ‘natural flavor,’ it sounds like a good thing. Whereas if it were ‘natural flavor’ and then in parenthesis a long list of bizarre chemical names, you might think twice about eating it.

I wanted to discuss some current food legislation. On April 1, California’s $20 minimum-wage mandate officially went into effect, much to the dismay of franchisees and big businesses. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about this new law.

Schlosser: I applaud the law. Specifically in the state of California before the passage of this law, one-third of the fast food workers relied on public assistance, either Medicare or food stamps. If you’re going to work, you should be paid a wage that allows you to buy food — especially if you’re working for food companies — and pay you rent. The minimum wage is $7.25 at the federal level. It's the longest period since the minimum wage was established in 1938 that there hasn't been an increase. And I feel badly for some of the franchisees because the franchisees in the fast food industry have very limited power over any of the operations. They have to sell certain goods. They have to install certain equipment. It’s a very clever policy that the one thing that franchisees have control over are the wage rates and the major companies don't take responsibility for these workers. So for the franchisees to earn a profit, they feel like they have to screw over their workers. And that's just wrong. 

The president of McDonald's is paid $20 million a year. Before the passage of this bill in California, the median annual income of the fast food worker was $15,000 a year. If you do the math, a fast food worker in California would have to work 1,333 years to earn what the head of McDonald's earns in a year. To me, that’s the perfect symbol of how excess corporate power has fueled inequality in this country. 

Pollan: I also think those fast food companies are gonna find that when you pay people more money, they have more money to spend on food. This is Fordism, this was an old ideology in America. Henry Ford figured out you had to pay people enough money that they could buy the cars. And this was a really driving ideology in America for much of the 20th century. And it worked. You had a vibrant middle class that could afford all these consumer goods and it was a virtuous circle. We've gotten away from that, and so doing things like what California did is taking us a few baby steps in that direction.

There’s also Kentucky’s Senate Bill 16, which aims to criminalize the use of any recording equipment inside concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and commercial food processing and manufacturing plants without consent from the operation's owner. If this bill were to become law, how would it impact our already vulnerable food system?

Pollan: This is really happening in a lot of places. I know it’s proposed in Kentucky, but it’s in place in several states — I think there are 14 total states that have similar bills. What we need in the meat industry, particularly, is transparency. If more people could do what we both had the chance to do, which is go to a slaughter plant and go to a feedlot, It would change everything about how people eat meat. If you want to change meat eating habits, go to a feedlot. Factory farms understand that. They understand that their business is only ideologically sustainable to the extent we don't know what they're doing and how they're doing it. I used to say that these laws would never survive Supreme Court review. But I’m much less sure of myself now.  

Schlosser: The bill itself is a confession of guilt because it says that there’s something wrong.  It will make life more difficult for whistleblowers, but the truth will always come up.

The documentary spotlights Impossible Foods, the company that develops plant-based substitutes for meat products. On one hand, the brand’s Impossible Burger helps cut down on industrialized meat production. But on the other hand, it is “built on commodity agriculture,” as you said Michael. It’s ultimately an ultra-processed food, not quite a healthy food. Should we vilify technology-fueled plant-based foods then? How exactly should we view them?

Pollan: You should have your own thoughts about them. I'm equivocal. I think a company like Impossible Foods was really born of idealistic motives, a desire on the part of a scientist who happened to be vegan to destroy the American meat system. That was his avowed goal, although he's quiet about it for a long time. But there's some problems with it. Compared to a lot of food processing, this is a more interesting, more publicly beneficial application of that food science technology. But the result is — although it presumably means less meat will get eaten if it's successful — is an ultra-processed food. It’s a complicated food and it's got at least one ingredient that hasn't been in the diet. But they're interesting efforts, so I didn't feel I needed to condemn it. However, it is a mixed bag.

What do you hope viewers will take away from “Food, Inc. 2”?

Schlosser: That there’s still some serious problems within our food system. That there are very powerful interests that are profiting from it. But it’s not inevitable and it can be changed in a way that’s sustainable and just.

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