The State of the Food Industry Is Rotten

A new Netflix documentary series tries to shine a light on how corporate malfeasance and fraud affects everything we eat.


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.

Consider this: 20 percent of American chickens, the series reveals, are actually owned by a corporation in Brazil whose proprietors have been charged with bribery and insider trading. Most of the nearly 50 billion pounds of garlic the world eats each year comes from China, and pre-peeled garlic from that country is often the result of forced labor in prisons. Twenty-five percent of the groundfish quotas in New England are owned by one man—a Portuguese immigrant known as “the Codfather,” who’s currently serving a 46-month sentence for conspiracy and false labeling. Rotten has been advertised as a true-crime series, and the offenses it documents often feel more akin to the illegal narcotics industry than to the business of food.

The best episode, “Lawyers, Guns, and Honey” (with apologies to Warren Zevon), makes the honey business—that cozy stuff of home baking and Winnie the Pooh—seem better suited to an episode of Breaking Bad. Although bee stocks in the U.S. are plummeting, the episode explains, the honey business is booming, thanks to an influx of Chinese imports that are diluted with rice syrup. “It’s straight out of the drug dealer playbook,” the narrator explains: “Cut your pure product with inexpensive filler to increase volume.” After tariffs were imposed on Chinese honey, producers simply started shipping their wares from other Asian countries to avoid detection, sparking a new, sophisticated science in “pollen analysis” and “molecular tests” to ascertain the legality of honey.

It isn’t just the sweeteners market that has invited illicit activity. One Chinese garlic company is compared by a lawyer to “a cartel.” A series of events in South Carolina where a disgruntled chicken grower sought revenge after losing his job is described as “serial mass chicken slaughter.” (This particular scene, while intriguing, doesn’t shed much particular light on the larger state of chicken farming in the U.S., and it takes about 20 minutes to play out.) When it isn’t surveying food crime, Rotten often exposes how fragile the business of food can be: The value of American milk tanked when Russia invaded Crimea, the episode “Milk Money” reveals, because after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia it stopped buying U.S. dairy products. Over and over, different incidents offer some sense of how gargantuan the industry has gotten: how even small producers are part of a larger ecosystem that’s vulnerable to the fluctuations of geopolitics and the global economy.

What the series doesn’t explain is that this isn’t entirely new. As Lizzie Collingham explores in her 2017 book The Taste of Empire, food has always been tied to trade, politics, and power. Pepper, as Sarah Lohman reveals in Eight Flavors, was ubiquitous in American kitchens during the 18th century until the Revolutionary War ended its importation from Britain. Nor is food crime uncommon, as the Great Maple Syrup Heist of 2012 attests. Food is a commodity just like oil or gold, and thus is equally susceptible to both market forces and criminal subterfuge.

What makes Rotten worth watching, though, is that consolidation in the food industry partly depends on the ignorance of consumers, and so anything that offers such surprising details, even in haphazard fashion, has value. While 60 percent of the world’s pre-peeled garlic is bought by Americans, it’s hard to believe those same shoppers would care to purchase it if they knew its stalks were removed by Chinese prisoners’ teeth (one of the more gruesome facts revealed in the series is that the inmates’ thumbnails invariably fall off from repetitive labor). Rotten has its structural flaws as entertainment, but it’s hard to imagine any viewer not being compelled to check grocery labels more carefully in the future.