“Rotten” Documentary a Fresh Opportunity To Talk Food Safety

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Much of the country has been in the grip of a bitter, record-setting cold snap so intense that meteorologists have even called it a “bomb.” For a lot of us, that means a little hot cocoa, and a lot of streaming videos.

Netflix on Jan. 5 released a six-part docuseries called “Rotten,” created by the producers of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” and “The Mind of a Chef.” According to the network, the series “gives food the true crime treatment, diving deep into the food production underworld to expose the corruption, waste and real dangers behind your everyday eating habits.”

That description alone suggests that “Rotten” has a rather strong point of view, to put it mildly. While our job at the IFIC Foundation isn’t focused on business practices — which the majority of the show comprises — it is our mission to look at the science behind food and nutrition issues. So we thought we’d offer a less hyperbolic take on the series and the issues it raises.

Here are our thoughts on the episodes that have a major focus on food safety:

Lawyers, Guns and Honey

This episode explores “the new global honey business,” with a particular focus on production in Asia and alleged dumping in the U.S. market.

It discusses the treatment of honey bees in Asia with the antibiotic chloramphenicol, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned for use in food, animal feed or food-producing animals in the U.S. Chloramphenicol can cause “serious acute reactions, including aplastic anemia,” a rare but sometimes deadly reaction.

In the past, traces of the drug have been found in some Asian imports. Such honey is declared “adulterated,” which can lead to various enforcement actions. FDA’s new Foreign Supplier Verification Program “requires that importers perform certain risk-based activities to verify that food imported into the United States has been produced in a manner that meets applicable U.S. safety standards.”

The Peanut Problem

This episode looks at the “surge of people suffering from severe food allergies.” According to Food Allergy Research and Education, some 15 million Americans have a food allergy. The show states that one-quarter of children with a food allergy are allergic to peanuts.

Restaurants are a focus of the episode, pointing to the increased attention being paid by some restaurateurs — including one who even created a simple spreadsheet to track which allergens are in the dishes he serves.

Food allergies, including peanut allergies (which account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions), indeed seem to be increasing. But there are also indications that we are overreacting. While only a small part of the population has a food allergy, the episode notes that 30 percent of us think we have one—and that these “fake allergies” could backfire by making restaurants less likely to take the problem seriously. If you suspect that you have a food allergy, you should get tested.

Fortunately, recent research is giving cause for hope that we could eventually find effective treatments for peanut allergies.

Milk Money

This episode looks at recent increases in “raw” (unpasteurized) milk and is a spot-on account of a highly risky and expensive trend that yields few to no benefits in return — unless you consider a lighter wallet to be a benefit. Without any basis in credible evidence, advocates of raw milk believe it is a more healthful option. In reality, according to the segment, you’re 150 times more likely to get sick if you drink raw milk versus conventionally produced milk.

The episode notes that milk was a leading cause of foodborne illnesses (e.g. diphtheria, anthrax, scarlet fever, tuberculosis) around the turn of the 20th century. Thankfully, Louis Pasteur’s creation of the eponymous pasteurization process in the late 19th century almost entirely eliminated the problem.

But few of us were around in the early 1900s. Sadly, human memory can be short, and raw milk has been making a big comeback with terrible consequences. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that raw milk in recent years accounts for an alarming increase in illness outbreaks.

The trend is one of the more dangerous manifestations of the naturalistic fallacy. As my colleague Liz Sanders wittily observed, it’s time to put raw milk “out to Pasteur.”


Overall, “Rotten” shares much in common with the recent spate of documentaries on the food system, many of which are also on Netflix or other streaming services. In some cases it gets things right, but in others it distorts or leaves out critical context. However, there is more balance and focus on facts than some documentaries that came before, and its views often aren’t as extreme as the statements promoting the show would indicate.

Either way, it’s an important discussion to have, because the truth matters — and nowhere more so than in a subject like food safety, where literally thousands of lives are on the line.

Contributing to this post were Alyssa Ardolino, Silvia Dumitrescu, Tony Flood, Kamilah Guiden, Megan Meyer, Liz Sanders, Tamika Sims and Ali Webster.