If we are what we eat, we’re all in trouble. “POV” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) returns with the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.”
A film of massive scope, “Food” sets out to examine the root causes for ongoing problems that the TV news only covers in a sporadic and anecdotal fashion. Why have there been so many outbreaks of food contamination? Why are rates of obesity and diabetes skyrocketing, particularly among the young?
The film details the remarkable concentration of food production in a relatively short time. In 1970, the five largest corporations produced 18 percent of the nation’s beef. Now, four giants account for 80 percent.
“Food” shows how the government’s massive subsidy of corn production has thrown the industry out of balance, resulting in an explosion of corn-based products and cheaper meat. Cattle are processed and slaughtered in far fewer facilities and forced to eat corn instead of grass. They spend their miserable lives standing in their own waste. All of this leaves them far more prone to passing along bacteria to the consumer.
The film offers a harrowing portrait of a highly concentrated industry that has used its powers to quell inquiry and dissent among farmers, consumers and journalists. Farmers are put out of business for not buying one company’s genetically altered seed. Some states have made it a criminal offense to criticize the food industry. The mother of a boy who died after eating a tainted hamburger is threatened with crippling lawsuits. Oprah Winfrey criticizes hamburgers and has to spend six figures on lawyers.
“Food” argues that the collusion of corporation and government policy has subsidized the very foods that are making people unhealthy. The filmmakers follow a poor family as they try to buy produce. Given a choice between a handful of vegetables for $6 or six burgers at the dollar-menu window, this family to opts for the “cheaper” food that has contributed to their diabetes. Is their weight gain a “moral failing” or the result of the government subsidizing the wrong end of the food chain?
A few silver linings emerge. No representative for the food big four — Monsanto, Tyson, Perdue and Smithfield — would appear in the film. But several Walmart buyers and spokespersons explain how they have embraced organic food because it’s what their customers want.
“Food” argues that the checkout counter is a ballot box where consumers can literally “put their money where their mouth is.” But we also learn that not everyone can afford to vote.
• Queen Latifah emcees “Idol Gives Back” (7 p.m., Fox), featuring performances by Alicia Keys, Carrie Underwood, Black Eyed Peas, Annie Lennox, Jeff Beck and Sir Elton John.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Labor arrives on the season finale of “Accidentally on Purpose” (7:30 p.m., CBS).
• On two helpings of “Modern Family” (ABC), Minnie Driver (8 p.m.), family time (8:30 p.m.).
• “E! Investigates Bullying” (9 p.m., E!).
• A pugilist becomes an iffy witness on “In Plain Sight” (9 p.m., USA).
Spike Lee recalls the 1970s in the 1994 family portrait “Crooklyn” (7 p.m., BET).