What Fed Up Gets Wrong About the Food Industry

The new documentary Fed Up claims to shine a critical light on the food industry and the "obesity epidemic." But it ignores the real culprit.


Earlier this week I caught a matinee showing of the new documentary Fed Up, at Washington, D.C.'s E Street Cinema. The film mostly rails against foods and drinks sweetened with added sugar. The movie's producers, including veteran news personality Katie Couric—who also narrates—bill Fed Up as "the film the food industry doesn't want you to see."

There's enough to dislike about Fed Up—a New York Daily News critic gives the film two stars—that I suspect viewers like you will find it is the film you don't want you to see.

Fed Up features a who's who of well-known supporters of increased food regulations, including Marion Nestle, Kelly Brownell, and Michael Pollan. That's to be expected. But it gives little screen time to opponents of increased regulation. And when it does, the treatment they receive is unfair by any objective measure.

The film's brief gotcha moment, for example, centers on Professor David Allison of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, whose public-health research the filmmakers targeted because, the filmmakers say, it's been funded by food companies.

"Unfortunately, despite my repeated requests, the producers have not provided me an opportunity to view the film yet and therefore I cannot comment in detail," Allison told me by email this week.

"I am told from others who have seen the film that a clip is shown in which I am asked a question about how one would ideally test whether sugar sweetened beverages contribute to obesity, and that I ask for a few moments to collect my thoughts; after showing me think for about 10 seconds, the camera cuts away before I give my answer," says Allison, who hasn't seen the film. "If this is the case, the film-makers' behavior seems counter to thoughtful dialogue. To ask me a question and edit out the answer, and I did answer every question, shows a lack of interest in a discussion of the evidence."

That is indeed the case. And it's shameful behavior on the part of Couric, who Allison tells he me he recalls speaking with on camera for the film for at least an hour.

By my count, the first mention of federal farm subsidies or sugar protectionism doesn't occur until nearly an hour into the 90-minute film. And it's around this issue that I think Fed Up's filmmakers commit their most grievous error—the misguided portrayal of former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-HFCS), and USDA secretary Tom Vilsack as some sort of champions of healthy food.

A fed up reviewer at RogerEbert.com, who gives the documentary just two stars, takes issue with Clinton's appearance in the film.

"'I don't think high-fructose corn syrup is a good use of corn,' former President Bill Clinton muses at one point in the film, going on to admit that his administration could have done more about this issue," he writes. "(Is it just me or has Clinton said that about a LOT of things his administration ended up not doing much about? Hell, and I like the guy.)"

Toward the end of Fed Up, viewers see Sen. Harkin wondering how food-industry executives sleep at night. Don't they have any shame at all?, he wonders. Moments later, he answers the question: "I don't know how they live with themselves."

Harkin then talks of his nearly 30 years campaigning against obesity.


Outside of the film, the same Harkin proudly notes he's now helped pass a Farm Bill eight different times. The same Harkin who reports he supported the most recent Farm Bill thanks in part to its "beneficial… investments for Iowa farmers," who receive the second-most farm subsidies in the nation, according to the Environmental Working Group.

That same recent Farm Bill also includes "[c]ontinuation of a depression-era sugar program that supports prices and protects growers from foreign competition."

It gets uglier. More than 80 percent of Iowa farmers are dependent on some type of taxpayer subsidy. More than 175,000 of the state's corn farmers received more than $15 billion in subsidies from 1995-2012. Those figures also come from EWG.

In 2006, Harkin bragged that "Iowa lead[s] the nation in corn and high fructose corn syrup production."

So Tom Harkin is a hypocrite. Though that's hardly unique here in Washington. Secretary Vilsack is equally ghastly when he talks about how he's tried to rein in the food industry.

In 2011, for example, Matt Yglesias, then at ThinkProgress, wrote of Vilsack's "unconvincing case for farm subsidies."

Like I said, there's lots to dislike here. Food industry representatives don't love the movie, either.

"Rather than identifying successful policies or ongoing efforts to find real and practical solutions to obesity, it adopts a short-sighted, confrontational and misleading approach by cherry-picking facts to fit a narrative, getting the facts wrong, and simply ignoring the progress that has been made over the last decade in providing families with healthier options at home and at school," said Pamela Bailey of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in remarks reported by The Wrap.

The film does have its supporters. USA Today critic Scott Bowles claims Fed Up "tackles American diets with a ferocity that would make Michael Moore proud," whatever that means.

I found the parts of the movie that make the most sense and are most grounded in fact are those that lay blame at the hands of government policies and programs.

"The government is subsidizing the obesity epidemic," says Michael Pollan partway into the movie.

But for every smart Pollan quote, there are at least a dozen absurd policy prescriptions.

Anti-sugar activist Dr. David Ludgwig (or is it anti-sugar activist Dr. Robert Lustig, who's also featured in the film), for example, claims at one point that the only choices available for stemming the rise of childhood obesity is either expanding gastric bypass surgery or restricting food marketing to kids.

Others who appear in the film offer similar policy prescriptions. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, for example, calls for taxing food or drink that contains sugar and other caloric sweeteners. But why should government screw Americans twice? Why tax us to give a needless handout to farmers who raise crops that are turned into sweeteners and then tax us a second time as punishment for buying the products that contain those sweeteners? Where's the logic in that?

Couric herself concludes that two specific policy steps to reduce obesity are 1) warning labels on cans of soda and 2) requiring celebrities who act as pitchmen and pitchmen for so-called junk foods to also be required to pitch a vegetable.

This is the same Couric who, as recently as this past winter, was offering viewers of her doomed daytime show a chance to win a free "swag bag" that featured a large bag of upmarket crème caramel almonds, a product billed as "the ultimate salty sweet snack."

As I watched the previews before the movie, I noticed that by my count only two of the dozen or so people in the theater were eating. Notably, both snackers were men who appeared to be in their early 30s. One man, who sat a row in front of me and who was heavyset, ate a large bag of popcorn and slurped on a large drink during the movie. The other man, who sat in my row and appeared to be very fit, ate the same size popcorn and drank the same size beverage as did the overweight man.

I don't have all the answers. But unlike Fed Up's filmmakers, I don't pretend that I do.