Film Review: At the Fork

Well-shot shot documentary about ranchers pursuing humane alternatives to corporate agribusiness gives an evenhanded, journalistic portrait of the costs and benefits. When even craggy cowboys say it's better all around, it's not just hippies anymore.
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John Papola, a TV entertainment producer making his first documentary feature, displays a genuine feel for journalism in this overview about how meat gets to the table, and the range of ways that even animals destined for slaughter can be treated humanely the rest of their lives. Evenhanded and nonjudgmental, At the Fork somehow avoids the inequivalence of shoehorned attempts at balance without perspective—the old "So, Mr. Hitler, how do you respond to Mr. Churchill's claims?" That it does so when two of the production partners are Whole Foods and the Humane Society of the United States—top executives of which are among those interviewed here—is a testament to the filmmakers' sense of perspective and ethics. (Full disclosure: This reviewer does not eat meat from cattle or hogs, but does eat poultry; it's an imperfect stance, but two-thirds vegetarian at least contributes. One food writer in this film stays vegan from morning to 6 p.m. as his own way of doing so.)

The meat-eating Papola, his curiosity spurred by his vegan wife Lisa Versaci, who produced the film with him and two others, travels to ranches in Iowa, Arkansas, Indiana, Georgia, Nevada, California and elsewhere to meet independent ranchers who raise their hogs and cattle outside of crates and pens where the animals can barely move. Some brand themselves organic farmers pursuing a philosophical imperative; others do it out of an evolving empathy that they find can also be sound business.

White Oak Pastures owner Will Harris, a craggy multigenerational cattleman, describes how he would ship 95 to 100 cattle to slaughter in a double-decker semi, on a 30-hour trip without food or water. "It's a very traumatic experience. They don't understand this," he says of the cows. So he built a USDA-inspected on-farm slaughter plant, with a design that avoids unfamiliar elements that can startle an animal, creating terror. The famed animal-science professor Temple Grandin says such plants lessen an animal's trauma and are also less expensive than shipping costs. At Crystal Lake Farms in Georgia, which a director of the third-party certification organization Global Animal Partnership says is "by volume the largest higher-welfare chicken farm in the country," birds live a mostly natural, outdoor existence, and when the time comes to send them to slaughter, workers gather them at night, when chickens are calmer.

Sometimes the reasons for more humane treatment are purely practical. "Big is very efficient, but it's fragile," says Grandin, as the 2015 avian flu epidemic that spread through 16 states and devastated the poultry industry showed. Marcus Rust, CEO of Indiana's Rose Acre Farm, the third-largest egg producer in the country, says his bird-flu losses have led him to pasture-farming his poultry. "Five million chickens on that farm and this disease hits, they're all dead," he says. "It's made us look at it from a standpoint of we won't build farms as big [and crowded] as what we've built them in the past."

The range of independent farmers interviewed eschews any stereotyping. Hog farmer Malcolm DeKryger, president of Indiana's Legacy Farms, may be closest to that stereotyped image, as he talks about how "man does have dominion over the animals… God did give those animals to us as a means of support, as a mean of supply..." But then, fellow hog farmer Kevin Fulton of Nebraska's Fulton Farms says animals are sentient beings with feelings and emotions—"That's been proven"—and adds that "dominion does not mean complete domination."

Papola personalizes his immersion into farm culture, which covers hog, cattle and poultry, branching into dairy and egg. Onscreen he serves as a meat-eating everyman who tells his wife he feels empathy and compassion for the animals in the moment, on the farm, but that it fades when, essentially, dinnertime comes. The farmers and scientists here say that balancing abundance, low consumer cost, and ethical and moral concerns about the treatment of animals grown for food is difficult; fewer than five percent of farm animals in the U.S. are raised with higher-welfare certification. But some see a cultural shift, where consumers may be beginning to care more about where food comes from. This likely won't create a world of vegetarians, not in the foreseeable future, but a confluence of factors may very well result in wider acceptance of humane treatment for animals killed for food.

John Brunnquell, head of Kentucky's Egg Innovations, the country's largest pasture-based egg producer, came up through the ranks of cage farming. He says he learned that each time he took an incremental step toward more humane treatment of his chickens—adding perches, allowing outside access, adding shade to that access—the birds' health and productivity went up. He's become a proponent of what he calls "conscious capitalism," and is trying to scale up pasture farming to make his eggs more economical for consumers. Mike McCloskey, a veterinarian and the general manager of Indiana's Fair Oaks Dairy Farm, says, "Between nutrition and cow comfort, you're going to solve 90 percent-plus of any type of health issue." He later adds, hopefully speaking only of farmed livestock, "The purpose of animals is to produce food. But it's also our purpose to make sure they never suffer unnecessarily and that they live a very comfortable life."

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