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How the Sausage Is Made: Peering Inside the Business of Food

An interview with Karl Weber, editor of <i>Food, Inc.</i>

Picture yourself about to devour a big, juicy cheeseburger.

Stop right there.

Ever wonder what that patty has gone through in order to get to your plate?

That cheeseburger, and plenty of other American favorites, has undergone tremendous change in the past 40 years. More of the dishes we order in restaurants and the meals we put on our tables contain heavily processed, calorie-laden foods filled with sweeteners, preservatives and flavor enhancers scientifically designed to make us keep eating them.

Filmmaker Robert Kenner set out to discover what happens to our food during its creation. He thought documenting the process would be straightforward. But he quickly discovered a nearly impenetrable industry — one whose output can be unhealthy and, sometimes, downright harmful. He also found it nearly impossible to get anyone from the food industry to talk to him. His film, Food, Inc., tells a disturbing story about what happens to food before it reaches our mouth.

The movie’s producers teamed with a publishing house to create a user’s guide that expands on what Kenner learned. The result is the first film companion book that taps up-to-date expertise on the food industry from voices such as investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, best known for his exposé on the fast-food industry, and author and professor Michael Pollan, who has examined American agribusiness and the Western diet in his acclaimed books.

Editor Karl Weber spoke with AARP Bulletin Today about Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer — and What You Can Do About It.

Read an excerpt from one of the book's chapters written by Kenner about his difficulties making the film.

Q: The book says the food industry has been industrialized. What does that mean when it comes to meat?

A: Instead of chicken, beef and pork being produced on farms in small quantities, they’re now being produced in gigantic factorylike settings where the animals lead short and miserable lives. This kind of production makes food cheaper. The typical American family spends 10 percent of its income on food. As recently as the 1960s, it was closer to 18 percent. We can afford more calories than we ever could before. On the surface this appears to be a good thing. But it’s come about largely because the way common foodstuffs are produced has become industrialized.

Q: And what happens as a result? Take a typical hamburger from McDonald’s.

A: The cows that become that meat are no longer raised on farms eating grass. In the warehouses, the animals stand practically touching each other, often ankle deep in their own feces for weeks. They’re pumped full of hormones so they grow much faster and can be harvested much more quickly. They are certainly not as healthy, and are much more fatty. They’re also filled with antibiotics, given not because they’re sick, but as a preventive measure.

Q: A preventive measure?

A: When you have that many animals so densely crowded together, diseases like E. coli spread very quickly and easily through the population. We’ve had more recalls of meat in the last decade than ever before. The only way to keep them relatively disease-free is to feed them antibiotics continually.

Q: Do the antibiotics in the animals affect the people who eat their meat?

A: Filling these animals with these antibiotics is hastening the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms. Doctors who are trying to use antibiotics to treat illnesses in humans are finding more and more antibiotic-resistant strains are developing more quickly. It’s largely because of this overuse of antibiotics in animals. Seventy percent of all antibiotics are used in livestock, not humans.

Q: Is all meat in America produced this way, or just McDonald’s?

A: Well, McDonald’s has tremendous buying power that extends around the globe. The way McDonald’s wants to have beef produced is the way 95 percent of the beef in this country is produced.

Q: What are the chances my hamburger has something harmful in it?

A: A generation or so ago, there were dozens of processors who were producing the vast majority of meat in the country. So if an outbreak of disease happened on a particular farm, the damage would be relatively limited, maybe to a town or a county. Now there are four or five processing plants, so when you hear about meat recalls, they’re talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds of beef. Once disease gets loose, it can contaminate entire sections of the country.

Q: Don’t government regulations take care of this?

A: The philosophy of minimal regulations has been largely dominant in Washington since the Reagan revolution, which means regulations have been slashed. You have far fewer inspections now of meat-processing facilities than was true 30 or 40 years ago, so you have a much bigger industry that’s being monitored now by far fewer people.

Q: The book and the film focus on unfair treatment of farm workers.

A: Over the last couple of generations, hundreds of thousands of family farms have closed and been replaced by giant businesses, which are run obviously with an eye toward profit. Part of the way they maximize their profits is by minimizing what they spend on their workers.

It’s really a scandal in this country. Part of the price of cheap food is that workers who produce our food are really made to suffer. They end up doing this backbreaking work. The average farmworker family, according to the [Agriculture Department], makes about $13,000 a year, and we’re talking about a family here with mom and dad both working in the fields because the work is sporadic and poorly paid.

Q: How does this treatment affect the food cycle?

A: We are able to gorge ourselves much more for less money than a generation ago. In the end, our health is going to suffer, the obesity and diabetes rates will probably continue to rise. The economy will suffer because the amount of money we spend on food keeps going down, the amount of money available to pay farmers and farmworkers keeps going down. It’s a dysfunctional system that is really not sustainable. Unless we change it, it’s going to be bad for all of us.

Q: According to the book and film, it’s tricky to say something about the food industry.

A: Yes, there are 13 states that have food-disparagement laws, which means the laws of free speech are modified. The standard for proving libel is set much lower so that writers or broadcasters can be sued for criticizing food products in those states. Even if a broadcaster or writer wins the case, they may end up spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process of defending themselves. Some of these disparagement laws contain a provision that even if you win the case, you may still be held liable for court costs. They’re really designed to have a chilling effect on people.

Q: Has this worked?

A: Oprah Winfrey was sued in 1998 for a show talking about mad cow disease. She actually won that case but said afterward that she’s never going to talk about this topic on her show again, that she couldn’t tolerate the legal threat. If someone as powerful and wealthy as Oprah is intimidated talking about food safety issues, you can imagine that the regular person or journalist who doesn’t have her platform or wealth will probably find it easier to avoid the topic.

Q: Did working on the book affect your eating habits? Or can you even talk about it?

A: I’m not going to make any disparaging remarks about beef so they won’t come after me! What I will say is that I’ve been eating less meat, partly because of what most of our meat and poultry go through. That certainly has stuck in my mind and made it harder to enjoy meat, though I do still eat it at times.

Q: How do you feel?

A: I do find that it’s easier to control my weight when I eat less meat. I feel a little more energetic and healthy.

Q: What can we do to, literally, clean up our acts?

A: We can all start making more informed and smarter choices — going to the farmers market, subscribing to a farm share program or just looking for local foods and buying less processed foods and buying more greens and fruits and veggies. Gardening is making a tremendous resurgence. More and more city dwellers are discovering ways to use vacant backyards or plots of land. And our first family is supporting this trend.

Q: What about cleaning up the industry itself?

A: I think to really change is going to require pressure from several different directions — through support of organizations that promote safe and healthy food. But also approximately every six years, Congress passes a farm bill — though it really should be called a food bill because it has a huge impact on our entire food systems. It not only covers farm subsidies, it covers food exports, the school lunch program, the food stamps program, nutritional programs. It has a tremendous impact on how we all eat and which companies get subsidized for food production. When the next farm bill is being debated, which will begin around 2012, that’s when we all need to start paying attention to what’s in the news about food and talking to our members of Congress and senators and saying we really want a bill that’s going to be in the interest of all Americans.

Carol Kaufmann is a contributing editor at the AARP Bulletin.