A new six-part Netflix docu-series just unmasked a whole new side of the global food industry — and it isn’t pretty. Rotten is a muckraker style exposé chronicling the corruption in the cultivation and production of honey, peanut, garlic, poultry, dairy, and fish products. An unnamed farmhand featured in the series’ fifth episode summed up the Rotten best: “If you eat food, this is an issue you need to worry about.”
Well that’s bound to catch your attention. Here’s another jarring assertion the docu-series makes: “The food industry is under full scale assault. The crisis is global.” Rotten certainly brought the drama; the first episode is titled “Lawyers, Guns, and Honey.” The docu-series was exciting to watch while presenting informative and sometimes shocking details about all of the wrong-doing within the food industry.
Fake Food — Not to Be Trusted
A major theme of Rotten is that your food is not what you think it is. In the early 1990s, scientists and business owners began to notice that while honey production was decreasing, honey consumption was greatly increasing. The Chinese were undercutting the market in the United States by selling inexpensive “honey” that secretly contained a large amount of sugar cane. Once the United States government began to identify the sugar cane adulterant, the Chinese switched to a rice syrup additive.
The U.S. had had enough; in 2001, the government imposed a hefty tariff on honey imported from China. Chinese honey producers were ruthless, and began paying other Asian countries including Malaysia and Thailand to ship the Chinese honey to the U.S. under the guise of being their own. Rotten’s narrator compares the food crimes to drug trade: “It’s straight out of the drug dealer playbook: cut your product with inexpensive filler to increase volume.” Although a major corporation selling adulterated Chinese honey was busted by the Department of Homeland Security in 2008, many players in the food industry continue to cheat the system.
Another scandal: Carlos “The Codfather” Rafoel’s illegal mislabeling of fish. Rafoel was well-known in his hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, but was sentenced to years in prison after evading federal fishing regulations so that he wouldn’t pay a tariff for his imports. Also important: 94% of fish eaten by Americans come from out of the country, and buyers are unaware of the conditions fish are kept under before purchase.
Other deceptive attempts at keeping food prices low have proven very dangerous, and even fatal. According to the documentary, peanut allergies in children have increased by 50% in the past decade. The prevalence of this allergy is a game-changer for chefs and restaurateurs. In 2016, a man named Mohammad Zaman was sent to prison after two of his restaurants’ food sent two British customers into anaphylactic shock. One of those two people was Paul Wilson, who did not survive. Zaman secretly had his chain of restaurants cook curry with a peanut ingredient instead of almond powder to save money. Zaman was sentenced to six years in prison.
Rotten also introduced members of the food industry who worked hard to keep customers with allergies safe. Ming Tsai is the chef of an Asian restaurant called Blue Dragon in Boston. He prides himself on keeping all customers safe and in-the-know about the ingredients in the meals he prepares. The restaurant has designated allergen tables, and waiters are trained to explain the “Food Bible” to patients with allergies. The “Food Bible” is a thick binder with the ingredients of all food sold by the restaurant, as well as the type of oil it’s cooked in. If a patron with an allergy places an order, a waitress highlights “peanut free” on a receipt, which Ming Tsai then initials before food is brought to the table. The chef says: “I can’t think of a more fundamental thing of a restaurant, of the baseline that you have to do which is clean water to drink and safe food to eat.”
The documentary also speculated on the lack of research about drinking raw milk, which statistically is 150 times more likely to cause illness than drinking pasteurized milk. In the past thirty years, American pasteurized milk consumption has decreased by a third, while raw milk consumption has skyrocketed. Many farmers face an ethical dilemma: sell a product that may make customers sick, or go bankrupt?
Injustice in The Food System
Rotten thrusts the spotlight onto food industry workers — of a wide variety — who are targeted by large corporations, cheated, and underpaid. Episode 3 “Garlic Breath” focuses on the investigation of a middleman operation called Harmoni which was allegedly illegally selling garlic without a tariff. Documentary makers claim that Christopher Ranch ensured that the office not be reviewed by the Department of Commerce. Christopher Ranch is the largest of the four members of the Federal Garlic Production Association, which dictates which companies the Department of Commerce reviews.
Scandal rocks the world of poultry “growers” too. Growers house chickens and keep them healthy before they are slaughtered and sold. The documentary details sixteen crimes that occurred in South Carolina in 2015. Sixteen chicken houses were broken into at night, and temperatures were tampered with to hurt the chicken. 300,000 chicken were killed, which would have amounted to $1.7 Million in sales. Several clues led Rotten creators to assert that “the killer knew their poultry,” however a culprit was never found.
It’s hard to ignore the irony of Rotten’s timeliness. Our culture is obsessed with “clean eating,” and more people are adapting healthy eating regimens including vegetarianism and veganism than ever before. Rotten suggests that the dirty little secrets of the food industry are closer —and exponentially more dangerous —than they appear.