The carnivores among you will undoubtedly know that the meat on your plate probably didn’t have the nicest life before it got there. There is a slew of food production documentaries that highlight such problems so it’s easy to think to yourself “I know, I know, I know, but I don’t want to know” and avoid them. Netflix documentary, Rotten, is different. Do avocados cause gang warfare? Mislabelling of wine is behind domestic terrorism? Chocolate production is state-controlled? Rotten scans the barcode of the food on your shelf and explores problems delivering it to you that would never even have occurred.
With season 2, Rotten has a whole bunch more common foodstuffs to make the ethically conscious of us fret nervously. The above descriptions were not exaggerating. The level of socio-political difficulty in bringing avocados to supermarkets all year round goes far beyond what you would expect. The ideal climate for the production of ‘green gold’ is in regions of Mexico and Chile. They become financially reliant on their globally popular export. Then organised crime (and defenses against it) become major parts of daily life. Rotten carefully unpicks the production line from field to plate and exposes how kidnapping has become a major part of our food choices.
Rotten is vested in highlighting the worst-case scenarios but this does mean there are some glaring omissions. Unlike avocados, the poverty of cocoa farmers is not something that people are generally ignorant of. Yes, it’s fascinating to have the very convoluted and complex web of chocolate trading untangled before our eyes. The cascades of money never reaching those who actually grow the essential crops is far more complicated than you’d think. That's because there are so many sweet fingered hands that take a cut along the way! But globally recognised certification such as the Fair Trade brand is not even mentioned. We are left unsure if our standard ethical choice is actually worthwhile.
Despite this, Rotten takes great pains to interview plenty of people who are clearly in the know with their industries. You may have heard of wine regions such as Champagne, and Bordeaux, but chances are the majority of French wine you drink comes from the more budget ‘Languedoc’ region. When wiley traders mislabel cheaper Spanish imports as French, or the burgeoning Chinese market makes inroads into France’s centuries-old tradition, Rotten gives light to all points of view. But whilst that is arguably simple market forces at work, be prepared to get good and angry at the underhanded business practices of the deceitful bottled water industry.
Rotten blends in a variety of sources to keep its own delivery fresh. Experts and authors of industry publications have plenty to say, but so does the very human interest of those affected. Graphs and graphics are used to illuminate a point but wisely the show doesn’t rely on these to pad out material. Footage of food consumption and glossy end products is intercut with the production line that makes it a reality. Even just bringing a bag of sugar to your door hides an often heartbreaking story of union busting and wild habitat destruction.
Does Rotten offer any solutions? No. The show skirts around the fact that modern humanity thrives on mass farming and overproduction, at the expense of land, fluctuating markets, and back-breaking labour. But what it does do is inform. Nothing magically appears on your plate. Things are grown and harvested. And if you learn what it takes to place that bottle of ‘spring water’ then your anger could well up something rotten.
Words by Michael Record