Rotten by Netflix: What are We Even Eating?

Films
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Have you ever thought the chicken on our plates somehow relates to corruption in Brazil? Well, this is not even the oddest issue found in the freshly released doc series Rotten. Produced by Netflix, the series touches diverse food industry problems and unmasks the immoral business practices. Each of the episodes, around 50 minutes long, takes us on a food journey, from producers to consumers. The results? A bitter taste in our mouth.

Instead of dealing with fast food or other stuff we already know are rotten, the series observes everyday food we don’t think of as “bad”. The episodes are focused on different tastes, from honey to peanuts, garlic, chicken, milk and, finally, fish. The show creators aim at the most common groceries, as malpractice with these foods causes the highest damage to the consumers.

The series is quite conventionally directed, resembling some older BBC or History Channel docs. The stories mostly rely on different interviewees speaking directly to the camera. The plain documentary style is supported by recreated scenes and occasional animations. The narratives also seem to be based on a flat “formula”. With such a simple form, the series had to offer a killer content. And it did. Four essential elements make us stick with every episode: a food-related crime, honest food producers, consumers/victims and different experts. These things combined provide us with a shocking and worrying but outright picture.

For instance, in the peanut episode, we learn about the trend of replacing almonds with peanuts as a cheaper option. This misdeed had a lethal outcome in an Indian restaurant in England. We also meet people who have had severe allergic reactions to peanuts which they have barely survived. Their loved ones, also affected by the rules coming with the allergies, are also in the series to contribute to a more detailed picture. The medical experts enrich the story by adding the scientific facts, stats and therapeutic methods. Among the experts, there is also a chef running a restaurant that takes a special care for the guests with allergies. Finally, there are those honest food producers, in this case, father and daughter running a peanut farm. They are the opening and closing interviewees of the episode, opposed to those standing behind neglectful practices. Those farmers, trying their best to stay fair to the consumers and even support the research of allergies, are eventually presented as the light at the end of the tunnel.

Other episodes provide similarly wide inspections of dangers hiding in our fridges.  The bold digging into specific cases confirms what we could already guess – the game of profit vastly determines the quality of the food we eat. The series is mostly focused on the US market, which shouldn’t discourage the rest of the world from watching it. Some episodes go quite far as they examine the lack of ethics in tangled global food managing. Besides the mentioned peanut episode that deals with cases in the UK, the last episode, warning us that The Cod Is Dead, brings China into the equation. The chicken episode, peaking into a strange case of killing the entire chicken farms, builds a bridge between the chicken growers in the US and a Brazilian company now known for paying their government to conduct unsafe practices. These episodes give us hope that future seasons might go much further and inform us about an even wider map of breaches in the food industry.

Plainly, the top virtue of this series is its educational qualities. There is also the depth of analysis and a strong attempt to create multiple viewpoints. Yet, as edifying as it is, it is more focused on creating questions than entirely feeding our curiosity. Sure, we learn that certain Indian restaurants use peanut instead of pricey nuts but are there other restaurants that do the same tricks? Some Mexican or perhaps English or American places? On the other hand, the complexity of the issue requires much more space than the authors had, so not getting all the answers seems natural.

Another factor biting some of the quality of this series is its lack of “hype”. Remember “Food, Inc” and “Supersize Me”? Those movies bragged loudly about their groundbreaking content and managed to get to a large number of people. Rotten is as provocative as any of the two mentioned pieces – yet, the chances are that the series will go under the radar, destined to reach only those who accidentally find it on Netflix. Considering the importance of the topic for all of us, decent research and didactic value, it is a pity that the project wasn’t at least advertised with a bit more spirit. After all, investing our time in watching this series is investing in our awareness of the world we live in.

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