Television Review: “Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food” — Chow Down at Your Peril?

By Sarah Osman

All this alarming information about our food is a call to action, but Poisoned plays it safe by not offering any pragmatic directives or posing an activist vision.

Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food, directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Streaming on Netflix

A scene from Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food.

It’s no secret that American cuisine isn’t the safest food in the world, regardless of what various nutritional authorities or politicians claim. Starting with Upton Sinclair’s 1906 The Jungle, writers have consistently exposed the horrors of modern industrial food production and distribution. The latest exposé is the Netflix documentary Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food, an informative and utterly frightening look at just how unsafe American produce and poultry are.

The film begins by looking at the infamous E. coli Jack in the Box case, where multiple adults and children ate undercooked burgers and suffered the consequences. Interviews with the victims’ families are heartbreaking: it is as revelatory as it is infuriating to learn that Jack in the Box executives had been made aware of the problem yet did nothing to fix it. One of the case’s benefits: laws were put in place to ensure this wouldn’t happen again. As noted in the book Fast Food Nation, Jack in the Box is now one of the safest fast food restaurants to eat at.

Unfortunately, the malfeasance didn’t stop at Jack in the Box. Featuring interviews with lawyers, members of the USDA, the FDA, advocates for food safety, scientists, and those involved in the industry, Poisoned goes on to detail other cases of bacteria-ridden food, including several E. coli breakouts in lettuce. One reason for the systemic outbreaks is a needlessly convoluted set-up of government overseers — the FDA is in charge of certain areas, the USDA of others, and lots fall in between the cracks. There is crucial territory neither side has any control over — such as restaurant regulation — which falls under the attention of local health departments. Given this byzantine arrangement, it is no wonder that chicken ridden with salmonella can slip by.

One of the documentary’s more fascinating segments deals with the history of food safety, which in the postwar period was left for housewives to police. Apparently, in those days, the powers-that-be decided that it had to be the wife’s duty to ensure she didn’t poison her family. A selection of ads from the ’50s prove the point. Even more disturbing: an interview with an anonymous USDA inspector, who explains when chickens are examined for salmonella and bacteria — and when they aren’t. The filmmakers, calling in some scientists, tested 150 chickens and discovered 17 percent of them had salmonella.

All this alarming information is a call to action, but Poisoned plays it safe by not offering any pragmatic directives or posing an activist vision. Near the end of the film we learn which foods are the most dangerous (avoid cantaloupe and bags of lettuce) but that is about it. We’re given boilerplate suggestions, such as pressuring our legislators to enforce better regulations against reckless food companies — but we’re not given any specifics, perhaps because the creators are afraid of blowback from the very industries that are hamstringing the government. If Poisoned intended to do more than just scare viewers (for the sake of ratings) — if it wanted to help safeguard ourselves and our families — it falls short. In that sense, the doc is as much part of the problem as it is the solution.

Still, for viewers who are unfamiliar with the dangers of where we get our food, Poisoned is a disturbingly enlightening watch. The film moves at a brisk pace, and pulls off the tricky feat of balancing solid research with emotional impact. If only it had dared to address how we can best channel our fury toward hazardous food companies.

Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman

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