The return of Rotten, the “I wouldn’t eat that” docuseries about the American food industry, was far from a sure thing given Netflix’s propensity to cancel worthy programs too soon. Now that it’s back for a second season, though, I’m wondering if renewing it was such a great idea.
The premise is simple: Pick a widely consumed food, drink, or condiment that millions swear by, and uncover the most unpleasant aspects of the supply chain that delivers said delectable to our plates. Obvious example: chicken farms. Less obvious example: Chinese prison labor being used to peel cloves for America’s largest garlic brand.
There is an occasional gross-out factor on Rotten (did I mention the prisoners sometimes use their teeth?), buI think the reason the show resonated with so many viewers is that it made them think — perhaps for the first time in years — about where the food that brings them such pleasure actually comes from.
As emotional beings we tend to develop strong bonds with our eating choices that can verge on co-dependency. That’s why the mythic images of cows grazing in vast, clover-laden fields are hard to expunge from our minds. But Rotten’s episode on corporate greed in the dairy industry will pretty much ruin those pastoral memories for you.
Likewise, the next time you go down the frozen fish aisle, instead of imagining a Perfect Storm-sized vessel tottering bravely over the waves as its crew pull in netloads of cod, maybe you’ll remember the episode showing how those quaint fisherfolk have been effectively turned into 21st-century sharecroppers. That meme, in fact, comes up every time Rotten examines the field-to-table supply chain. As Wil Fulton noted in his review, the show is “more psychologically upsetting than gross-out shocking,” which “might be worse.”
Still, I found last season’s episodes of Rotten gave me something like intellectual indigestion. They were enjoyable at the time, but afterward I kinda wished I hadn't watched. Now that I’ve gone through the six episodes in Season 2, I’ve figured it out. Call it the case of the missing ingredient.
Leaving aside the fact that the definition of “rotten” had to be stretched this season to include shelf-stable products like bottled water and marijuana-infused gummies — a sure sign the cupboard was getting bare — every episode left me feeling weirdly helpless and without good options. Oh, you love that thing? Guess you love exploitation, too!
I just finished watching another Netflix docuseries on one of the most urgent issues of our time, and besides being a far sight better than Rotten, it didn’t just leave me feeling awful. It also challenged me to do something, no matter how small, in the pursuit of justice — because, like $28 campaign contributions, it all adds up.
No such assurances come after watching Rotten. Take the one on avocados that kicks off Season 2. After surviving a dry patch in the ’90s, when Americans thought any fat was bad fat, avocados are now in such demand that California growers can’t keep up and two-thirds of the avocados sold in the U.S. come from other countries, notably Mexico and Chile.
In Mexico, avocados have — like so many thriving industries there — attracted a criminal element. Rotten focuses on one city, Tancítaro, where kidnappings of farmers skyrocketed in the 1990s and early 2000s. Then the residents took matters in their own hands, setting up armed patrols and a nightly curfew. The producers quote disgruntled locals who hate all the security, and that’s certainly one way to look at it, but news accounts (not cited by the show) suggest that it worked.
As for Chile, the problem there is political corruption. The country’s water supply was privatized in the 1970s and cornered by big-ag interests, and now Americans can feed their guacamole cravings all winter long. Rotten wags a finger at Milton Friedman, the famed libertarian economist, for giving Chileans the idea of monetizing public goods. But the real blame lies with Augusto Pinochet, the country’s tinpot dictator from 1973 to 1988, who set up the water rights system and enriched himself in the process.
Obviously these are matters of interpretation, and Rotten is allowed some leeway here. But by presenting a food problem the way a crime show would, with good guys and bad guys, it leaves the viewer without anything to do. Is the takeaway that we should simply stop eating imported avocados? Because that wouldn’t impact the producing nations one bit — Asians and Europeans like avocados, too. In a nation where food confusion is almost as rampant as obesity, Rotten’s true-crime format is not helpful.
Besides, recent genetic modifications may soon yield a year-round avocado to replace the ubiquitous and finicky Hass variety, which means American farms could wind up growing most of our supply, which would be picked by the same poorly compensated migrants who pick the rest of our food. But now I’m describing Season 3 of American Crime, not Rotten.
The bottled water episode is probably the best of this year’s bunch, though again, it’s hard to know what to do with the information it presents, especially if you already tote your own Tervis bottle. The reason I single out the episode is because the behavior of Nestlé, the food conglomerate that has the lion’s share of the bottled-water market in the U.S., was so egregiously exploitative it managed to shock even me.
Perhaps a knowledge bomb like this is what the average Netflix viewer needs. Maybe not everyone knows that bottled water is not “spring water,” that it’s not vital to health outside of Flint and Newark, that cheap water filters rival bottles for taste without shedding zillions of plastic particulates into the water-to-fish-to-human supply. But is Netflix actually recommending Rotten to viewers who don’t know these things? Or only to people who have already watched Food Inc. and What the Health?
Speaking of Nestlé, it pops up again in Episode 5, all about chocolate, that ineluctable treat brought to us by child labor. As we learn from experts and activists, almost all mass-market chocolate in the United States comes from beans that are harvested by poor families in Cote d’Ivoire and other impoverished countries. It’s a system deliberately kept in the Stone Age by Hershey, Nestlé, and Mars, and it’s dreadful. (In fairness to Rotten’s producers, I would rate the authority factor of their interviews and presentation of facts very highly, right up there with Patriot Act.)
But again, what to do? Out of curiosity, I looked up to see if any chocolate makers could certify that their beans were not picked by tiny children’s hands. Indeed, there’s a list of them, and every one of the brands in my locally-owned natural foods grocery store was on that list. And with that discovery, I realized why I wasn’t getting much out of Rotten. I don’t have time to figure out what types of chocolate or coffee or plant-based milks are the most clean (or least rotten), so I pay my local ethical grocer to do that job. It’s worth the rather insignificant markup in prices to get that service, especially when you consider how cheap food is these days. You might call it a values-added tax.
I’m sure Rotten will be an eye-opener for some viewers, but the whole series could’ve benefited from a sharper message — namely, that corporate control is highly unappetizing, so support your local growers and sellers.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.