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There’s a lot more to what we eat than what we see in our shops, and two new investigative documentaries opening within a week of each other in May deliver shocking insights into the hidden worlds of food manufacture (Food Inc, May 20) and commercial fishing (The End of the Line, May 13). Andrew L. Urban reports.

When British journalist Charles Clover (Environment Editor of London’s Daily Telegraph at the time) walked into the wrong press conference in 1990 in The Hague, he learnt first hand about the dramatic effects on marine life of commercial trawling … it shocked him so much he set off on an investigative journey of discovery and activism which led first to his book (published by Ebury in 2004) and then the aptly titled new film, The End of the Line.

"dives deep inside an industry we all take for granted"

Like the investigative docos The Cove (2009) about seal slaughter in Japan, and Sharkwater (2006), about massive overfishing of sharks to feed the lucrative trade in shark fins, The End of the Line dives deep inside an industry we all take for granted and know little about. All we get to see are the neat rows of fish in our local seafood shop. But heavy duty industrial fishing vessels, hunting every known species of edible fish, are fast depleting the ocean’s resources – hard as it is to believe. The trouble is, those in a position to do anything about it are either unwilling or uninformed. Based on UN figures, the film suggests that if this continues, there will be virtually no fish left to harvest by 2048 - 2050.

Scientists, says Clover in the film, recommend that the blue fin tuna catch be restricted to 15,000 tonnes; but to enable recovery of stocks, that should be 10,000 tonnes. The EU fisheries authority (ICCAT) has mandated a quota of 29,500 tonnes (twice the recommended amount) while the bad boys of the fishing industry ignore the limit and catch 61,000 tonnes. And nobody’s doing anything to stop it. That’s a $26 billion catch; most of it illegal. The biggest buyer, allegedly, is Mitsubishi, according to former tuna fisherman Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi. In the film Bregazzi claims Mitsubishi is stockpiling the tuna in large quantities (frozen) which will dramatically increase in value if and when any action is taken to limit overfishing.

The perils of overfishing are wide ranging for mankind; so are the perils of food that is mass produced without strict health controls.

"deliberately hidden by corporations feeding their bottom lines"

In Food Inc, filmmaker Robert Kenner argues that health and safety - of the food itself, of the animals produced themselves, of the workers on the assembly lines, and of the consumers actually eating the food - are often overlooked in the giant US food production industry. Worse, much of it is deliberately hidden by corporations feeding their bottom lines and even by US regulatory agencies such as the USDA (Dept of Agriculture) and FDA (Food & Drug Admin). Bigger breasted chickens, herbicide resistant soya beans and limitless supplies of minced hamburger beef all come at a price – including the danger of e coli bacteria that causes illness in an estimated 73,000 Americans annually.

Monsanto, represented as the evil empire in this film, which has patented Round Up pesticide-resistant Soya beans, takes a dictatorial approach to farmers, with legal teams and enforcers on the ground generating fear and loathing. It, like most large food corporations, refused to be interviewed by Kenner, as did the USA’s biggest meat packing company.

The aim of Food Inc, say the filmmakers, is to shine the light on the underbelly of an industry that touches everyone; and they succeed. The filmmaking is technically effective, while some of the footage is confronting; the information is certainly surprising and at times shocking.
First published in the Sun Herald

Published April 29, 2010

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(from May 13, 2010)

(from May 20, 2010)

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