Are you tired of the same spokespeople making the same old complaints about the meat industry? Boy, I am. You know what else I’m tired of? The same old responses by the industry.
The new documentary Food, Inc. is, judging from reports, a vivid litany of the abuses mainstream food companies, including meat and poultry companies, visit upon livestock, employees and consumers. I’ve not yet seen the film (where I live, in the rural Northeast, it will have to be a Netflix choice), but I’m fairly familiar with it. A few years ago the director, Robert Kenner, contacted me about the possibility of gaining some industry participation in his project. We had lunch in Los Angeles and spent several hours talking about meat production. Bob has impressive credentials: he directed several segments for the "American Experience" series on public television, including a terrific documentary about the 1918 influenza pandemic; he also directed one of the segments in the comprehensive, multi-film music documentary, "The Blues," that was put together a few years ago by Martin Scorsese. I found him to be sincere and straightforward, which can’t really be said of very many film executives in Hollywood.
At the very least, Bob told me, he hoped he could film the operations inside a meat plant — and he was especially interested in seeing what the industry considered its best facilities. He had read Eric Schlosser’s "Fast Food Nation," a book that, even as it documents and condemns many industry practices, compliments the efforts of industry progressives. Texas-American Foodservice, the ground-beef processing, and Jack in the Box, especially, are praised by Schlosser. He was reading the work of Michael Pollan, including the long piece that had been published in 2002 in the New York Times Magazine, "Power Steer," which followed the life of a calf that Pollan had bought all the way to its end at the packinghouse. Much of that article — it’s very good — got integrated into his 2007 book, "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," and Mike is a featured presence in Food, Inc.
Turned out, though, that I couldn’t help Bob much, and you can guess why. No one, not even the squeaky-clean plants, wanted movie cameras churning away out on the processing floor. Ultimately, the only industry representative who agreed to appear in Food, Inc. was Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council. Dick told me that he thought he, at least, had been treated fairly in the film. At the documentary’s premier earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Pollan and Kenner thanked him "effusively" for his participation, he said.
Dick agrees with others, though, that Food Inc. gives the meat and poultry industry pretty rough treatment. "In the film I say that we’re producing more affordable chicken on less land than ever and that I can’t see how that’s a bad thing — and then they spend what seems like the rest of the movie saying how that’s a bad thing," he said.
He noted that as far as he could tell, Kenner hadn’t contacted any poultry companies about filming their operations (Dick didn’t know about my earlier efforts). However, he believes the industry often comes off badly in films like Food, Inc. because it won’t allow the cameras in. In the void, people tend to think the worst while at the same time the critics gain credibility simply by being visible. As he does in the film, Dick pointed out for me that all of the broilers grown in the U.S. are raised on about 50,000 acres of land. "That’s a great story, I think. It’s an incredibly efficient use of land to produce millions and millions of pounds of good protein." He added: "I think we need to re-visit this and be more open."
There are some problems with throwing open the plant doors to film crews, of course — liability and biosecurity, to name two. More broadly, industry representatives often say that the general public will be put off by images of the bloody messiness of a kill floor and by the high-volume mechanization of a processing room — "they just won’t understand," is the usual excuse.
I think that’s nonsense. Sure, some people will be bothered by graphic film of meat and poultry operations — some people are bothered by mounted deer trophies hanging on the wall. But more people won’t be bothered. When it comes to food, most people are realists. While they may not want to kill and butcher a steer in their own kitchens, they understand that someone has to do it if steak’s on the menu.
Some years ago I visited a lamb processing plant in New Zealand. The most striking feature at the plant was a glassed-in gallery that paralleled the slaughter line. The gallery served two purposes: natural light from the outside flooded the inside of the plant, especially the work area, creating a much more pleasant work environment than typical in a meat plant, and the gallery provided visitors with an up-close view of every detail of what happens on the line, from sticking through dehiding through final dressing. Not a step along the way was shielded or hidden.
John Signal, the facility’s general manager, told me during my tour that visitors who watch his operation from the gallery include equipment suppliers, local businessmen, local farmers who want to make sure the lambs they’ve raised are dressed right, the plant’s bankers — and groups of schoolchildren. He noticed my amazement at that last category. "The boys like the blood, of course," he said, slightly smiling — boys will be boys — "and the girls don’t usually say much." Then he added: "The kids are the consumers of tomorrow, and someday, if they’re buying lamb, I’d like them to buy their lamb from me." He said he considers the tours he gives to school groups as long-term investments in the market — as "consumer futures."
The Food, Inc. film crew probably would have been allowed to turn on the cameras in this plant. Not only did it have nothing to hide — literally — but the plant’s management was proud of the operation. I can’t say for a fact, but it would surprise me very much indeed if this lamb processing plant in New Zealand is depicted in any industry-bashing film or book or magazine article available in that part of the world.
On this side of the Pacific we needn’t attach glassed-in viewing galleries to our meat plants — but we do need to respect our customers and our consumers, as well as the media, by providing greater information about what the industry does and greater access to see how the industry does these things. Are we proud of our operations? Are we proud of our food safety programs? Are we proud of the quality of meat we provide the world?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then we need to say yes, too, the next time a journalist, writer or film director says, "Show me."