Film Review: American Meat

Documentary about the current state of the meat industry is straightforward yet upbeat, almost “feel-good.”

Graham Meriwether focuses on the solution rather than the problem in American Meat, an informative, non-threatening investigation into how meat products are produced and distributed. What it lacks in any sort of cinematic style, the film compensates for by offering a way out of an agricultural nightmare. Audiences might be surprised by the tone but could appreciate the effort.

Meriwether, who directed, co-wrote, co-produced and co-photographed the film, lays out the dilemma facing both farmers and consumers—after years of big industry farming, how do we find healthy, reasonably priced alternatives to the meats readily available at our local supermarkets?

A growing number of small farm entrepreneurs provide the answer as they experiment with more humane ways of raising and treating their animals—not unlike the farm life of old. The bulk of American Meat is comprised of interviews with these farmers, some new to the game and others who have switched course after years of using conventional (i.e., brutal) methods. (One man even compares the conditions to the Holocaust.) Meriwether also speaks to several chefs and food policy experts, though surprisingly few of the consumers themselves.

Succinct and on point, American Meat never strays from its goal to enlighten about its subject, even to the excess of using childish animated graphics. As an introduction to an overwhelming societal problem, the documentary serves its purpose (apart from getting so little of that consumer perspective).

As anything more, though, the production is lacking. For example, the vegetarian answer to the problem is never broached: Tellingly, you do not hear anyone say, “Skip the humane treatment of animals before they are slaughtered—stop eating meat altogether!” (Ironically, the most gruesome moment, the killing of chickens in close-up, comes during a scene depicting one of the “welfare compassionate” farms, as they are called.) Obviously, Meriwether accepts the premise that humans are carnivores and simply bypasses the idea of changing diets that radically.

American Meat fails to go beyond its set limits in another way that might have been too ambitious for this filmmaker to attempt. Whereas Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949) and Frederick Wiseman’s Meat (1976) were as much exposés of social blindness and injustice as reportages about the inside operations of slaughterhouses, American Meat shies away from the worst practices of the industrial meat system or how those practices reflect upon society at large. The changes suggested by the film are more nudging corrections than damning indictments.

Nevertheless, incremental advancements are better than none at all, and American Meat does its best to make that notion a possibility.