Rotten, a new documentary series about corruption in the food world, is sure to spark some strong reactions from Netflix viewers. Created by Zero Point Zero Production, the team that works with Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown, these six hour-long episodes feature a number of farmers, fishermen, scientists, and doctors shedding light on the surprising and at times downright disgusting ways that common foodstuffs are brought to market.
It’s a unique entry into the Netflix catalog — but is Rotten worthy of your precious TV watching time? Here are some questions and answers to help you decide if this original series is right for you.
Is this boring? Especially if you don’t care about agriculture or food policy?
While Rotten is not exactly an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, the series moves along at a steady clip and it’s packed with surprising revelations. In terms of tone and pacing, each episode feels like an especially crunchy segment of Dateline or 20/20.
Can I trust the facts?
Yes. From the get-go, it’s clear that Rotten’s storytelling is grounded in facts, unlike a certain other food documentary that was very popular on Netflix last summer. Many of the stories in Rotten are pulled from the headlines of major newspapers, and feature commentary from the people who lived through these incidents. The rest of the talking heads are mostly doctors and scientists from esteemed universities and government organizations. Rotten also includes several moments where the experts admit that there’s no consensus on why certain phenomena are occurring.
Who are the heroes?
Rotten certainly has more villains than heroes. But the most endearing person in the series is Sonny Nguyen, a sweet-hearted and tireless chicken farmer in South Carolina. As a viewer, your heart also aches for the Martin family in California, whose son developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome — and almost died — after drinking raw milk. And it’s hard not to root for the independent fishermen of New Bedford, Massachusetts, whose livelihoods have been completely turned upside down by the relatively recent institution of an arcane seafood quota system.
Who are the villains?
A bunch of big corporations, including American garlic kingpin Christopher Ranch (which is denying the film’s allegations that it profits from Chinese garlic peeled by prisoners), Brazilian beef behemoth JBS, and honey hustler Alfred L. Wolff Inc. Rotten also paints a pretty gnarly picture of crooked Massachusetts fishing magnate Carlos Raphael, who the locals call “the Codfather.” And Organic Pastures proprietor Mark McAfee also gives off strong villain vibes — although clearly, a lot of people have no problem with the product he’s peddling.
Say I only want to watch one episode, which one should I pick?
Episode 4, “Big Bird,” plays out like an hour-long, poultry-centric episode Serial. This installment tells the story of two chicken farmers in South Carolina — Sonny Nguyen and Bill Corker — who have each perfected the art of raising broiler chickens for Pilgrim’s, one of America’s top five poultry companies.
Business for Bill and Sunny was nice and steady until one night a few years ago when someone killed tens of thousands of chickens by tampering with the electrical units in their grow houses. Similar incidents occurred at several other farms in the area. The events sparked a manhunt for the farmer — because only another farmer could understand how to destroy the grow houses so efficiently — who committed the crime.
A close runner up is “Garlic Breath,” which tells the tale of how two New Mexico farmers got involved with a mysterious Chinese garlic company hellbent on world domination.
Are there any episodes worth skipping?
Nope, there are no bum apples here. Every episode gives you a lot to think about.
What are some of the most surprising food facts revealed in this doc?
Here are three: 1) Six years ago, a German company tried to unload a bunch of honey in America that was made with an illegal and potentially deadly antibiotic called Chloramphenicol. The feds caught onto the honey-laundering scheme before the ink was dry on the deal and arrested the company reps before they could leave the country. 2) A portion of the cheap garlic that’s sold in America is peeled by prisoners in China who sometimes use their teeth to get the bulbs out of the roots. 3) In the U.S., there’s been a nearly 50 percent increase in food allergies among children over the last two decades.
Anything else I should know?
The ZPZ team does a really great job of making somewhat dry subject matter pop on screen. It’s definitely the best-looking documentary series about food corruption ever made.
Have you seen Rotten? Please share any and all thoughts about this series in the comments of this post.
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