Growing up on a farm near Yamhill, Ore., I quickly learned to appreciate the difference between fresh, home-grown foods and the commercial versions in the supermarket.
Store-bought lettuce was always lush, green and pristine, and thus vastly preferable to lettuce from my Mom’s vegetable garden (organic before we called it that). Her lettuce kept me on my toes, because a caterpillar might come crawling out of my salad.
We endured endless elk and venison — my Dad is still hunting at age 90 — or ate beef from steers raised on our own pasture, but “grass-fed” had no allure for me. I longed for delicious, wholesome food that my friends in town ate. Like hot dogs.
Over the years, though, I’ve become nostalgic for an occasional bug in my salad, for an apple that feels as if it were designed by God rather than by a committee. More broadly, it has become clear that the same factors that impelled me toward factory-produced meat and vegetables — cheap, predictable food — also resulted in a profoundly unhealthy American diet.
I’ve often criticized America’s health care system, and I fervently hope that we’re going to see a public insurance option this year. But one reason for our health problems is our industrialized agriculture system, and that should be under scrutiny as well.
A terrific new documentary, “Food, Inc.,” playing in cinemas nationwide, offers a powerful and largely persuasive diagnosis of American agriculture. Go see it, but be warned that you may not want to eat for a week afterward.
(It was particularly unnerving to see leftover animal bits washed over with ammonia and ground into “hamburger filler.” If you happen to be eating a hamburger as you read this, I apologize.)
“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000,” Michael Pollan, the food writer, declares in the film.
What’s even more eerie is the way animals are being re-engineered. For example, most Americans prefer light meat to dark, so chickens have been redesigned to produce more white meat by growing massive breasts that make them lopsided. Who knew that breast augmentation was so widespread in chicken barns?
“When they grow from a chick and in seven weeks you’ve got a five-and-a-half pound chicken, their bones and their internal organs can’t keep up with the rapid growth,” explained Carole Morison, a Maryland chicken farmer who allowed the film crew into her barns. “A lot of these chickens here, they can take a few steps and then they plop down. It’s because they can’t keep up with all the weight that they’re carrying.”
Huge confinement operations for livestock and poultry produce very cheap meat and eggs. But at what cost?
The documentary introduces us to Barbara Kowalcyk, whose two-and-a-half-year-old child, Kevin, went from healthy to dead in 12 days, after he ate a hamburger tainted with E. coli bacteria. Even after his death, it took weeks for the tainted meat to be recalled.
“Sometimes it seems that industry was more protected than my son,” Ms. Kowalcyk complains.
She has a point. Agribusiness companies exercise huge political influence, and industry leaders often fill regulatory posts. The Food and Drug Administration consequently dozed, and the number of food safety inspections plunged.
There is some evidence that pathogens, including E. coli, become much more common in factory farming operations. Move feedlot cattle out to a pasture for five days, and they will lose 80 percent of the E. coli in their gut, the film says. And the massive routine feeding of antibiotics to farm animals is a disgrace that reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating sick humans.
Pathogens are now seeping into the unlikeliest foods. On Friday, the F.D.A. advised consumers not to eat Nestlé cookie dough — cookie dough! — because of concerns about E. coli contamination, after reports of illness in 28 states.
American agribusiness truly is wondrous. When I moved back to the United States after years of living in China, I remember visiting a supermarket and feeling a near-religious awe. Yet one consequence of this wondrous system is that unhealthy calories are cheaper than nutritious ones: think of the relative prices of Twinkies and broccoli. We even inflict unhealthy food on children in the school lunch program, and one in three Americans born after 2000 is expected to develop diabetes.
The solutions aren’t simple, and may involve paying more for what we eat, although we may save some of that in reduced health costs for diabetes and heart disease. In any case, “Food, Inc.” notes that we as consumers do have power. “You can vote to change the system,” it declares, “three times a day.”