Rotten: Series 1
Over six episodes, Netflix’s newest docu-series, Rotten, challenges a variety of conditions harming the food industry, from an excess of diluted Chinese honey undercutting American beekeepers, to Mafiosi-like power grabs in New England fisheries. Rotten’s scope is wide, and its message is often hard to determine. Raw milk, the subject of one episode, is depicted as both the potential savior of a dying industry and a kind of snake oil that can literally be poisonous.
The main takeaway from the series is that the business of food is extensive, complicated, and sadly corrupt; and that the consequences affect far more than what we end up with on our plates. No food is immune, the show argues, to the wicked reach of corporations, from garlic to monkfish to almonds. Rotten doesn’t offer a roadmap for ethical eating, but the sheer oddness of its best episodes testifies to how much Western consumers still don’t know about where their food comes from.
The series reveals that 20 percent of American chickens are owned by a corporation in Brazil, whose owners have been charged with bribery and insider trading. Most of the nearly 50 billion pounds of garlic the world eats each year come from China, and pre-peeled garlic from that country is often the result of forced prison labor. Twenty-five percent of the groundfish quotas in New England is owned by one man—“the Codfather,” who is currently serving a 46-month sentence for conspiracy and false labeling. Rotten has been advertised as a true-crime series, and the offenses it documents often feel more like the illegal narcotics industry than the business of food.
The series explains that, although bee stocks in the U.S. are plummeting, the honey business is booming, thanks to an influx of Chinese imports that are diluted with rice syrup. After tariffs were imposed on Chinese honey, producers simply started shipping their goods from other Asian countries to avoid detection, sparking a new, complex science in “pollen analysis” and “molecular tests” to control the legality of honey.
One Chinese garlic company is compared by a lawyer to “a cartel.” A series of events in South Carolina where a disgruntled chicken grower sought revenge after losing his job is described as “serial mass chicken slaughter.” Rotten often exposes how unstable the business of food can be. The value of American milk tanked when Russia invaded Crimea, the episode “Milk Money” reveals, because after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia, it stopped buying U.S. dairy products. Repeatedly, different incidents offer some sense of how enormous the industry has gotten; how even small producers are part of a larger ecosystem that’s susceptible to the fluctuations of geopolitics and the global economy.
What makes Rotten worth watching is that consolidation in the food industry depends partly on the ignorance of consumers, so anything that offers such surprising details, even in haphazard fashion, has value. While 60 percent of the world’s pre-peeled garlic is bought by Americans, it’s hard to believe those same shoppers would care to purchase it if they knew its stalks were removed by Chinese prisoners’ teeth (one of the more gruesome facts revealed in the series is that the inmates’ thumbnails invariably fall off from repetitive labor). Rotten has its basic flaws as entertainment, but it’s hard to imagine any viewer not being compelled to check grocery labels more carefully in the future.