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May 30 2013

Chinese buy Smithfield: What about food safety, the environment, community health, animal welfare, worker rights?

I first heard about the impending of Smithfield (the gigantic ham-and-pork company) to the Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings, from MeatPoultry.com:

The acquisition positions Smithfield to expand its offerings in China through Shuanghui’s distribution network. Shuanghui will acquire all of Smithfield’s outstanding shares for $34 per share in cash, which is a 31 percent premium…Smithfield’s stock price rose nearly 28 percent to $33.20…Smithfield’s common stock will no longer be publicly traded, and the company will become a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Shuanghui.

MeatPoultry.com also reported a statement from the CEO of Shuanghui: 

We are excited about this…Together, [Shuanghui and Smithfield Foods] can be a global leader in animal protein…We are No. 1 in China; Smithfield is No. 1 in the US…Chinese consumers like American pork. US farmers want foreign markets for their pork. This will be a win-win for both countries.

Not exactly, says a e-mailed news release from the Waterkeeper Alliance:

This deal with the Shuanghui – a company with a very recent history of producing tainted food – raises the specter that Americans will lose more control of their food supply, be exposed to tainted food and be left with even more devastated farming communities and drinking water supplies as a result of increased industrialized meat production.

The New York Times put this sale on the front page and Stephanie Strom has an even longer piece on it in the business section.   The Washington Post also had plenty to say.

Smithfield, you may recall, is a company famous for factory farms, pollution, and truly appalling labor practices documented, in among many other places, the movie, Food, Inc.

In 2009, I commented on a previous attempt by Smithfield to sell out to a Chinese company.

Let’s not be too xenophobic about China. China already owns vast amounts of American real estate, holds vast amounts of American debt, and produces vast amounts of the food we eat–globalization in all its glory. We can no longer survive without China so we better figure out quickly how to make this marriage work.

We also better figure out how to make our food production system more sustainable and less harmful to farm animals, the environment, farm workers, and consumers. I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its report last April. Our report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty—and often antibiotic resistant–microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else.

One major finding of the Pew Commission was that laws protecting communities and the environment currently exist; they just aren’t enforced.  Too bad for anyone living near an industrial pig farm.

This deal stinks?

Additions, May 31: Reuters discusses the ractopamine issue, said to be key to understanding this deal.  The Chinese do not allow use of ractopamine as a growth promoter, but the U.S. does.  Once Smithfield started phasing out its use, the deal became possible.

Ractopamine is a beta-agonist. Initially developed to treat asthma in humans, ractopamine was found to be extremely effective at changing the metabolism of an animal, so that the animal would quickly and cost-effectively add sought-after muscle. The FDA approved the use of beta-agonists in pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and for turkeys in 2008.

Helena Bottemiller writing on NBC News, also discusses this issue.

In March, Smithfield Inc., converted its Tar Heel, N.C. plant – the world’s largest pork processing facility – to slaughter only hogs that were raised without the use of ractopamine….the company’s product line will be 50 percent ractopamine-free as of June 1…Earlier this year, China and Russia demanded that all American meat exports be certified ractopamine-free. The U.S. government initially refused these certification demands, so Russia shut down its market to U.S. beef and pork in February. 

Addition, June 1: The New York Times writes that the Committee on Foreign Investment is about to undertake a national security review of the deal.  The big questions: Are Smithfield’s sales to the military secure?  Does it use special farming technology that could be transferred to China?  Will Shuanghui have the power to disrupt the U.S. food chain for pork?

Another addition, June 1: Apparently, Shuanghui has a history of findings of maggots, excessive bacteria and illegal additives.

Addition, June 4: Guess who owns half of Shuanghui, the company that wants to buy Smithfield: Goldman Sachs, among others.

Addition, June 5: The Wall Street Journal has this helpful graphic comparing the pork supply chains in China and the U.S. along with an excellent summary of the issues involved.

image

Aug 13 2011

Q and A: Truck Farm (the movie)

Q. Have you seen this clever project? By the filmmakers of King Corn, comes “Truck Farm,” a movie about the smallest CSA in the biggest city. You can grow food anywhere….

A. Have I seen it? Of course I’ve seen it.

I’m in it.

I joined the CSA and got filmed when they delivered my share.

Cool.

Aug 10 2011

Q and A: Hydroponics

Q.  I would love to hear what you think about hydroponic food. My instincts tell me that organic soil is full of life and traces of nutrients and elements we don’t fully understand and here we have another frankenfood that is scientifically derived.

A.  Frankenfood is too strong but I’m basically with you on this one.  I don’t get hydroponics.  Obviously scientists have figured out enough about plant nutrient requirements to keep them alive in water and nutrient broth but what’s the point?  Soil works really well and is bound to contain substances we don’t even know about.  These may even influence taste.

Chefs say even the best of hydroponic vegetables, according to a recent New York Times article, are not considered serious replacements for field-grown lettuces because they can’t reproduce the flavor.

My suspicion?  People who like hydroponics don’t like getting their hands dirty (but isn’t that half the fun?).

 

Nov 26 2010

Sustainable food films for the holidays

Focus Features has been asking people in the food community for five recommendations of films they particularly like.   Here are my picks:

Folks From the Food Movement on Sustainable Cinema: Marion Nestle

By administrator November 19, 2010

Marion Nestle


Marion Nestle: I would not pick Thanksgiving as the optimal time to watch films about food production systems but I’ve chosen films—documentaries and not—that tell stories worth watching for their entertainment value as well as for their more serious messages.

Super Size Me

1. |Super Size Me

I have to begin with this one because it’s my screen debut! I appear in it for ten seconds as a talking head defining calories, among other things. This is Morgan Spurlock’s account of a month-long experiment eating nothing else but food from McDonald’s. Spurlock’s depiction of his 25-pound weight gain is not only a commentary on the role of fast food in America’s obesity epidemic, but also a fast-moving and riveting examination of the corporate side of our country’s love affair with burgers and fries.

King Corn

2. |King Corn

It’s hard to imagine that a story about how two guys grow corn on one acre in Iowa could be so utterly delightful, but Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis have a sense of humor along with plenty of imaginative smarts. This is the best place to see how industrial farming really works. Spoiler alert: I love the scenes in which they start with corn and cook up a batch of high fructose corn syrup, take two minutes to plant their acre, and discover that their acre is eligible for corn subsidies. This film may be a documentary about corn production and harvesting, but it is a pleasure to sit through again and again.

Food, Inc.

3. |Food, Inc.

This is the most commercially successful of the recent documentaries exposing the evils of the industrial food system, and for good reason. Starting with the splendid opening credits, it is wonderfully directed (by Robbie Kenner) and narrated by food movement superstars, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Even for people who know something about industrial food production, the film breaks new ground. For me, the most moving episode was the 4:00 a.m. immigration raid on hapless Mexican workers at a Smithfield packing plant. The film tells stories ranging from the infuriating (seed patenting) to the heartbreaking (the lethal effects of toxic E. coli on a small child). Best, it is a rousing call to action. Join the food movement!

Tampopo

4. |Tampopo

Who knew that the Japanese made spaghetti Westerns? As it happens, they do or at least used to. A lone cowboy rides into town and teaches a young woman how to cook noodles so delicious that customers line up to eat them. The message? It takes hard work to develop real cooking skills but the results are worth it. The hero may ride off into the sunset, but this film carries its lessons lightly and is marvelous cross-cultural fun.

La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille

5. |La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille

I can’t decide between these two films for my number five. La Grande Bouffe (The Great Binge, in my translation) is a French film of the 1970s that doesn’t seem to show up in food film festivals. It deserves a revival, not least for its splendid cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi, among others. As I recall, the guys spend a weekend gorging on food and sex, giving entirely new meaning to the pleasure of food in general, and to fruit tarts in particular.

Ratatouille is, of course, about a cartoon mouse who yearns to become a chef, and does so with great panache. The film is surprisingly faithful to the day-to-day reality (OK, exaggerated) of professional kitchens, and the extraordinary amount of teamwork involved in producing superb restaurant food. It may not make anyone want to become a chef, but it gives plenty of insight into what it takes to do so.

Mar 31 2010

Joel Salatin in New York this weekend

I’m a big fan of the movie, FRESH, so much so that I took it with me to Rome last fall, showed it at the Food and Agriculture Organization on the occasion of World Food Day, and left my copy with the American Embassy.  Its director, Ana Joanes, announces two lectures by one of its featured stars, farmer-citizen Joel Salatin:

1.  “Can you feed the world? –Answering elitism, production, and choice.”

Sunday, April 4, 5:00 PM – 6:30 PM

Teachers College / Columbia University (Broadway between 120th and 121st Streets)

By far and away the two most common questions asked of Joel Salatin are: How can we afford local artisanal heritage-based food? And: Is it realistic to think we can really feed the world with a non-industrial food system? Using his own Polyface Farm principles as a foundation, Joel builds this vision one piece at a time by blending theory and practice.

Tickets: $35.  This comes with a movie voucher to see FRESH at the Quad Cinema from April 9-15. Get tickets here.

2.   “The sheer ecstasy of being a lunatic farmer.”

Sunday, April 4, 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM

Teachers College / Columbia University (Broadway between 120th and 121st Streets)

In this mischievous lecture, Joel Salatin compares the industrial global food paradigm with the heritage local food paradigm. Using hilarious stories from his family’s Polyface Farm experience, Salatin examines the contrast on many different levels: fertility, carbon cycling, energy use, relationships, marketing, and spirit.

Tickets: $35 At this event you will receive a movie voucher to see FRESH at the Quad Cinema from April 9-15. Get tickets here.

He’s worth a listen.  Enjoy!

Jun 12 2009

Food, Inc. is out at last!

Today is the official release date for Food, Inc., the latest film about our food production system and its discontents.  This one has generated tons of interest, and for good reason (I’ve seen it twice).  For one thing, it is star-studded: Eric Schlosser!  Michael Pollan!  For another, it takes a hard look at the less savory aspects of industrial food production for a purpose: to make you think before you eat.

To that end, the film comes with:

And, not least,

  • Its very own anti-Food Inc. website, a contribution from meat and poultry trade associations eager to provide a point-by-point rebuttal of every scene in the movie.

Here’s my favorite quote from the review in the New York Times:

one of the scariest movies of the year, “Food, Inc.,” [is]an informative, often infuriating activist documentary about the big business of feeding or, more to the political point, force-feeding, Americans all the junk that multinational corporate money can buy. You’ll shudder, shake and just possibly lose your genetically modified lunch.

Go see it and decide for yourself!

Feb 12 2008

In memorium: Earl Butz

Earl Butz, former Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration, died last week at the age of 98. He had a long and varied career, but in the context of food systems he is famous for having revolutionized U.S. agricultural policy. Instead of paying farmers not to produce food, he encouraged farmers to produce as much food as possible. They did, and indeed produced so much corn that new uses had to be found for it. Voila! High fructose corn syrup! The movie, King Corn, includes an interview with Mr. Butz. He was proud of having so greatly increased U.S. food production. Indeed, the number of calories in the U.S. food supply increased from about 3,200 per day in the mid-1970s to the present 3,900 per day, with all the consequences that I discuss in Food Politics and in What to Eat. His passing marks the end of an era.

Oct 12 2007

King Corn: coming to a theater near you!

King Corn (the movie) is opening in New York today, but you can read about it on the blog site of one of its makers, Curt Ellis. Enjoy!

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