April 6, 2013 at 6:00 am

American Meat

“I think farming quite possibly brings you closer to God than any other occupation.” So says commercial hog farmer Chuck Wirtz in an opening scene of American Meat, a “solutions-oriented” documentary about the American meat industry by Graham Meriwether that’s set to officially premiere in theatres on April 12.

The film is an easygoing but insightful examination of the state of American meat today, complete with animated explanations of how our production system became so industrialized and sunny interviews on greener pastures with good food pioneers like the famed Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms.

The film’s theatrical release has been a long time coming; Meriwether has been hard at work on the film for five years and has spent much of the past couple of them touring the United States to present small screenings at universities, schools, and environmental fairs. I had my first glimpse of the then-unfinished film in an animal agriculture class at NYU two years ago and was thrilled at a recent chance to attend a local screening of the final product.

american meat

Overall, I enjoyed the film’s gentle discussion of the divergent sectors of the contemporary American meat industry. Unlike other food-forward documentaries that tend towards demonizing industrial animal agriculture as an anonymous, cold-hearted, corporate entity, Meriwether gave a face and a voice to a few of the many farmers currently operating under the thumb of agricultural monoliths like Pilgrim’s Pride.

By telling the stories of farmers like Chuck Wirtz, who feeds his family by raising commodity pork (though, it should be noted, he prefers to not actually feed them the pork itself, believing the taste and quality of organic pork to be far superior to that of his own product), the film reiterated the hardships suffered by today’s commodity farmers while underscoring their fierce devotion to their profession and their passion for their animals.

However, it could be argued—and in fact, I’m sure it has been—that the film went “too easy” on industrial animal agriculture. There was a notable absence of graphic, under-cover imagery from the sweltering CAFOs and carcass-strewn feedlots we’ve seen in so many other food activist films, books, and articles. There was hardly a mention of the many abuses suffered by animals in our industrial agriculture system: debeaking poultry, snipping hog tails, and castrating male hogs without anesthesia. Not to mention confining pregnant sows to gestation crates for the vast majority of their lives and the clear, psychological, ill-effects that long-term, close confinement causes livestock animals.

The film also skipped over what is perhaps America’s biggest meat problem: the fact that we eat far too much of it. While Meriwether tallied America’s annual meat consumption at a whopping 185 pounds per person per year, he didn’t raise issue with that number or point out that perhaps, regardless of how we raise our meat or where we buy it from, we should be eating significantly less of it.

But, we can’t quite expect a film with ninety minutes to its name to address the ills and the hope of the American meat industry with completely satisfactory breadth and depth, can we? Overall, American Meat was an inspiring look at a handful of the many lives devoted to feeding the carnivore in each of us. It’s worth a view, especially if you’re in need of a lesson—or a refresher—on where your meat comes from and why you should care.

-Chelsea Newson