Just a Fever


I’m running a series of posts from the past while I’m traveling this week. Have you seen “Food, Inc.?” It will change the way you think about what we think is food…

Liam stayed home from soccer camp for two days this week. He came home Monday and seemed fine, but woke up early Tuesday morning with a fever, aches and pains; he said his head hurt, his spine hurt, his knees hurt.

So okay, you do what you do, right? No need to freak out, it’s just a fever, probably a summer cold combined with the physical strain of his first week of soccer camp: running hard for six hours a day, eating not enough lunch (because it’s more fun to run around playing more soccer), becoming maybe a bit dehydrated because the sun finally came out and stayed out.

His feeling achy and tired is normal, I said to myself.  He’s a kid, kids get sick, they stay home and rest, then they’re better and life goes on.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, however, on Monday night I had gone to see “Food, Inc.,” a documentary about the food industry, directed by Robert Kenner, and suddenly, Liam’s fever didn’t seem so innocent – I entered the state that Judith Warner calls “Perfect Madness.”

The “perfect madness” is that condition known to parents (particularly first-time, somewhat older parents) in which a child’s every cough may be the beginning of a deathly illness; every electrical outlet a source of death; the cabinets walk-in tombs. To be a parent, Warner says, is to no longer live without fear. The trick is not to get so paranoid that everything becomes potentially lethal. Usually (I think) I manage to avoid paranoid parenting, but Kenner’s movie set a whole new set of thoughts whirling in my head:

Liam probably has just a summer cold unless the tacos we made for dinner Monday night out of hamburger meat (organic, expensive Whole Foods burger meat, but still, burger meat) gave him some kind of slow-moving but ultimately lethal food-borne pathogen.

Or the little patches of grey in Liam’s hair, and the light-skinned patches on his knees are a sign of an auto-immune deficiency that no doctor has yet managed to catch.

Or his tiny lungs inhaled so many toxins in the weeks after 9/11 that in fact he’s got pulmonary disorders which will soon incapacitate him.

Or the almost nine years of avoiding green leafy vegetables, with the exception of what I can squeeze in, Sneaky Chef-style, have so compromised his system that he’s got anemia or a B12 deficiency.

See what a little imagination and a powerful documentary can do? Kenner’s movie brought together many things that will be familiar to readers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Fast Food Nation, but the power of his visual story telling (let’s just say: hidden cameras inside a slaughterhouse and leave it at that) hit home in a way that neither of those books did–which is to say that two things have happened: I’m now seriously freaked out by how a few multinationals can control our entire food supply from seeds to supermarket, to use the movie’s phrase.The second thing that has happened, I’m afraid, is that I’ve officially become boring about food.

And maybe it is boring for people around me (okay, mostly Husband) to hear about all the bad shit that’s in food (and a lot of that bad shit is, quite literally, shit), but the movie is anything but boring. It’s a terrifying testament to what happens when the fox is put in charge of the henhouse (as when various executives of Monsanto, Con Agra, and Tyson are appointed to the USDA, FDA, or the Supreme Court). Take the despearately sad story of Kevin Kowalcyk, a two year old boy who ate a hamburger while on vacation with his family. Twelve days later, Kevin was dead: he’d eaten a hamburger tainted with E. coli. The plant that produced those hamburgers, the family eventually found out, had failed not one, not two, but at least three USDA inspections.

Kevin’s ghost lurked in the back of my mind this week, as I put cool cloths on Liam’s feverish  head. Liam dutifully swallowed his ibuprofen (comprised, as near as I can tell, from a dab of medicine and a bunch of inactive chemical compounds all derived from corn) and after two days he happily hopped on the bus back to soccer camp.

Just a fever. Nothing to be afraid of.

Except Kenner’s movie suggests that not only should we be afraid of what’s happening to what we eat but also that we should all be paying a lot more attention.

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4 Responses to Just a Fever

  1. Susanbw July 13, 2009 at 8:49 pm #

    I would savor the irony of your post if it weren’t for the worry Sick Liam caused you…there’s just no way a parent can avoid doomsday thinking when any little (or big) thing is wrong. But the irony: driving back from Chicago today we stopped at a big dairy farm in Indiana that is a showcase for teaching families about food production…and then got back in the car and found Michael Pollan holding forth on NPR!
    Glad Liam is better; not sure about the cows.

  2. Manhattan September 10, 2009 at 4:15 pm #

    I don’t know if I should see this. It’s going to make me feel bad about food that I have to eat (I’m not rich).

  3. Deborah September 10, 2009 at 8:08 pm #

    The movie makes the point that as a society, we need to work to reverse the costs, so that “high-tech” food (like McD and Burger K) are expensive and the low-tech food (like veggies, fruits, etc) aren’t expensive. It’s as if we’ve gotten our sense of proportion out of whack: you’d think that foods made out of all that tech would be expensive (like medicines are) and that food that comes out of the ground, from sunshine and water, would be cheap.

  4. Christie August 21, 2013 at 12:19 am #

    I am so terrified of food that I am afraid if I do any checking or investigating, I will be too scared to eat again. I hate how scary food has become. HATE IT.
    Christie recently posted..Unpacking Boxes Is Not A Problem; Bulimia Is A ProblemMy Profile

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