Before you decide to put on the new Netflix documentary titled Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food, you’d want to put your plates to the side if you have a weak stomach. There’s nothing extreme about “Poisoned”; it only puts out hard facts about the food supply chain in the United States while also delivering a message to the government to take action. I’m not sure if it’ll really make a difference there, but it’s got grit and uses case studies to examine the seriousness of the situation. As the documentary begins, you hear loads of people from the industry talking about how America has one of the safest food supply chains in the world, and as the documentary progresses, you realize how untrue that statement really is. The documentary runs about an hour and 20 minutes and is compact with a very straightforward point.
The documentary mostly speaks from the point of view of food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who is at the center of this dirty political business. The story begins in 1993, when Marler switched lanes to become a food safety lawyer at the heart of the E. coli outbreak. Many people had been affected, and one of his former clients’ daughters had been in the hospital for about four months just from eating a hamburger. The problem here was a Jack In The Box fast food restaurant that ended up serving undercooked hamburgers and caused this outbreak. At the same time, Darin Detweier had a 16-month-old son who had been affected not by consuming the product but by being in contact with someone who had. Unfortunately, Darin lost his son, whose systems completely stopped working because of the bacteria. At that time, it was determined that the problem came from poorly sourced beef. One box of ground beef could sometime be the product of as many as 400 animals, which was the primary cause of this outbreak. Marler, on the other hand, was able to determine that the higher-ups at “Jack In the Box” had ignored government rules that stated that burgers were supposed to be cooked to a temperature of 155 degrees to be safe. Darin then became a food safety advocate and continues to share his knowledge with younger people as a professor.
Mike Taylor, the USDA administrator at the time, decided to declare that particular strain of E. Coli as an adulterant in beef, so such an outbreak could never take place again. This was a game changer in the industry, and when action was needed, it was rightly taken. In more recent years, though, the problem is no longer beef but the leafy vegetables you eat instead. Lettuce, baby spinach—all of these became contaminated because they were grown in places near animal facilities. So, the water resources could be contaminated, and that’s how it would reach the leaves. The Yuma farm was specifically the origin of this outbreak in 2018.
We then hear about another case where a 17-year-old named Stephanie Inberg had eaten a salad at a restaurant and then gone into a coma on a summer vacation trip to the Dominican Republic. She had been taken back to the US as soon as possible, and doctors thought she had hours to live. Her parents, Scott and Candie Inberg, had no hope, but Stephanie ultimately recovered and regained her strength. Stephanie almost suffered permanent brain damage because of this food-based illness. She may have to undergo lifelong dialysis. Of course, it’s brought to our attention that these products are also exported around the world, and pathogens can end up in any country.
Even though there are a dozen organizations that are meant to look at food safety, there’s a lot of overlap between these organizations when it comes to each food item sold at a restaurant, so it becomes a very complicated process. Sometimes they don’t have the authority to do anything about certain things, or that’s what they claim in this documentary. Because there’s no one organization that’s responsible, it just becomes a game of finger-pointing. In 2007, the LGMA (Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement) was created to regulate fresh leafy vegetables. It becomes rather evident that these regulations are not perfect, and even after the creation of the LGMA, there have been many outbreaks and deaths because of leafy vegetables over the years.
We then move on to peanut products and the outbreak of salmonella in 2009. A company named the Peanut Corporation of America had been completely unbothered by the conditions their factories had been in, and thanks to a whistleblower, things were brought to light. There were rats in the facility, holes in the roofs, etc., that may have contributed to the salmonella in the peanut products sold by this company. There were over 40 products from various companies that were using their peanut butter, and they were all recalled. Even after realizing that the company had an idea about the risk of salmonella and still sold their product, there was only 3 months in prison as a penalty.
The documentary then switches to chicken and shows us how there are two major companies in the USA that supply eggs. Even with over a dozen regulatory organizations, inspections, etc., nobody can actually go to the farms where the supply comes from. We learn quickly that inspections are taken very seriously, and many times, a lot of products are contaminated by human employee error. After testing 150 chickens, filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig was able to find that 17% of the chickens were positive for salmonella, and these were all bought from grocery stores. One of the companies, “Perdue,” gave Stephanie access to their farm and process and allowed her to shoot their process. It’s made very quickly clear that no matter how careful you are, there are still chances of disease and danger, specifically because the food you bring into your homes is already contaminated by bacteria. It’s also positively clear that one should completely avoid romaine lettuce, as it’s the biggest contributor to this particular bacteria.
Marler’s work continues to make a difference in the industry, and salmonella in some chicken products has been banned. The film definitely makes us hope that it will change soon enough. The government needs to regulate these food supply chains, and only then can there be a real change. There’s nothing organizations can do if, legally, salmonella in chicken is allowed and food is considered just a commercial product and not a basic human right for these big businesses.
The film is extremely insightful for its short duration and also makes you question everything you eat on a daily basis. It makes you wonder how safe you really are when everyone is telling you there’s nothing to be worried about. We’d definitely recommend watching Poisoned to be informed and understand what’s going into your system. Warning, though: if you panic easily, then maybe just ask a friend to explain the important details to you in a non-serious manner. We’d give the documentary 4 out of 5 stars.