You’re probably aware of the growing number of food safety recalls in the United States. Spinach. Peanut butter. Ground beef.

Is this a real problem or just a freaky streak of bad luck?

And what can you do about it?

Food, Inc., the new movie by Robert Kenner answers the first question, but let’s start with the second. It’s just plain common sense: make sure you wash your food. Then, at least, you won’t get sick from eating spinach or broccoli.

But, you can’t wash your peanut butter or ground beef, so we’re back to the insights of Food, Inc. No, say the movie’s producers, our food safety issues are not just a freaky streak of bad luck. Over the past three decades, food production in America has changed, and that’s why our food is increasingly unsafe.

According to Food, Inc., this results from U.S. agricultural policy. To the tune of $10 billion annually, the government subsidizes the production of corn, paying farmers – large corporate growers, mostly – so that the price of corn is significantly below the real cost of its production. Thirty percent of the land in the U.S. is now planted with corn, and the U.S. produces 40 percent of the world’s supply. Cheap corn means cheaper food, but not healthier food. Indeed, cheap corn distorts food production in a variety of unnatural ways.

Take beef production. By nature, cattle eat grass, grazing across large ranges. However, with cheap corn readily available, more profit can be made by confining them in lots, concentrating their numbers and feeding them corn. In the days of grazing, back in 1970s, thousands of slaughterhouses were scattered across the nation. Today, despite vastly larger numbers of cattle for slaughter, there are only 13.

Because cattle are not biologically designed to digest corn, distortions in the digestive process have allowed new strains of E. coli bacteria to develop, which are scattered in feces in the feed lots and then trampled by the contained herds. Brought in on the hoof or dispelled from internal organs during butchering, the bacteria make their way into the slaughterhouses and into the food supply.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented microbial testing for salmonella and E. coli and claimed the authority to shut down slaughterhouses that repeatedly failed these tests. However, taken to court by the meat and poultry associations, the agency lost the power to close plants. Meanwhile, food inspections declined, from 50,000 in 1972 to only 9,164 in 2006.

Food, Inc. also looks at the impact of subsidized corn production on processed food. We’ve all heard of high fructose corn syrup, but corn is a key ingredient in a variety of other food additives, including Cellulose, Xylitol, Maltodextrin, Ethylene, Gluten, Fibersol-2, Citrus Cloud Emulsion, Inosital, Fructose, Calcium Stearate, Saccharin, Sucrose, Sorbital, Citric Acid, Di-glycerides, Semolina, Sorbic Acid, Alpha Tocopherol, Ethyl Lactate, Polydextrose, Xantham Gum, White Vinegar, Ethel Acetate, Fumaric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Baking Powder, Zein, Vanilla Extract and Starch. Read the label. You’re eating corn all the time.

If corn were not so cheap, it would not be so widely used, and processed food would be more expensive. However, because processed food is so cheap, it is widely consumed, particularly by any family on a budget. In Food, Inc., a family of four compares the low cost of a fast-food, dollar-value meal to the cost of fresh broccoli. The processed food is cheaper, inevitably skewing the family’s diet away from wholesome food. Today, in large part due to diet, one in three Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes (among minorities, the rate will be one in two).

We could go on…and Food, Inc. connects all the dots. Not just corn, beef and processed food, but also pork, poultry and soy beans. Not just food safety, but the impacts on family farmers, immigration and work conditions in processing plants. Not just food quality, but environmental degradation and the mounting failure of antibiotics. If you’re already cynical about corporate profit, this movie will provide a lot of very specific, focused ammunition.

But, this isn’t a movie for cynics. It’s for American eaters – that is, for all of us. It should be especially good for teenagers who are beginning to make their own choices about the food they will eat.

Far from cynical themselves, the movie’s producers point out that we vote three times a day on food policy…not in Congress or at the USDA, but in the grocery store and at the dinner table. They say we can change food safety in our country by the choices we make when we buy our food, and they cite examples of changing corporate policy that are resulting from our votes.

Food, Inc.’s producers concede that, given current federal farm subsidies, it costs more to eat healthy. But, if you’re willing and able to fight for a more healthy American diet, they offer these guidelines for voting with your pocketbook:

  • Read labels and avoid processed foods
  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season
  • Buy organic
  • Buy locally grown
  • Shop at farmers’ markets
  • Garden
  • Cook at home and eat together as a family
  • Press schools for healthy lunch programs
  • Support Kevin’s Law (to authorize USDA enforcement of sanitation in processing plants)

Change the World with Every Bite, they advise.

This movie is food for thought. At only 93 minutes, it’s well done, fast-moving and, despite a strong message, readily consumed. If you buy and prepare your family’s food and you’re concerned about food safety, this movie is a must-see. You’ve definitely got to wash your produce, but, with Food, Inc. as background and guidance, you’ll figure out other ways to better protect your family, too.