If Netflix’s Chef’s Table is a delectable exercise in the art of haute cuisine food porn, Rotten, its newest docuseries, is more of an appetite suppressant. Over six episodes, the show tackles a variety of afflictions blighting the food industry, from a glut of diluted Chinese honey undercutting American beekeepers to mafiosi-like power grabs in New England fisheries. Rotten’s scope is wide, and its message is often hard to discern. (Raw milk, the subject of one episode, is portrayed as both the potential savior of a dying industry and a kind of snake oil that can literally be poisonous.) But the overarching takeaway from the series is that the business of food is sprawling, labyrinthine, and woefully corrupt, and that the consequences affect far more than what ends up on people’s plates.
It’s an argument that was made more gracefully and with less narrative ADHD by Robert Kenner’s 2009 documentary Food Inc., which delved into the environmental and ethical costs of industrial farming and agribusiness (Food Inc. is also available to watch on Netflix). Rotten—produced by Zero Point Zero, the company behind Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown—is less focused, which means it wastes almost an entire episode documenting how a British man died because there were traces of peanut in his chicken tikka masala. What it does do, though, is branch out from critiquing the usual suspects of Tyson Foods and Monsanto. No food is immune, the show argues, to the nefarious reach of corporations, from garlic to monkfish to almonds. Rotten never exactly offers a roadmap for ethical eating, but the sheer weirdness of its best episodes testifies to how much Western consumers still don’t know about where their food comes from.