Rotten Documentary Series Addresses Food With A New Perspective


By Susan Algeo, MPH, CP-FS, Director of Project Management, Savvy Food Safety, Inc.

While watching the new Netflix documentary series Rotten, created by Zero Point Zero Production, I learned some interesting things, such as: Did you know that that selling raw milk in retail locations is illegal in most states? Or that there is a garlic festival every year in Gilroy, California? Or that honey is basically just bee vomit?? Or that Russia invading Crimea affects the milk profits in the United States? The series shows an interesting view on the food world.

Food Allergy
Susan Algeo, MPH, CP-FS, Director of Project Management at Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc.

Over the past few years, we have seen an increased interest in food production, and people want to know where their food is coming from. Local, organic, grass fed; these are all key words that consumers look for on their packages. The public is watching cooking shows on the Food Network and other mainstream TV channels: competitions like Hell’s Kitchen, inspection and planning shows like Bar Rescue, and documentaries like Food, Inc. are how the general population is getting their food education. We know there is a lack of food safety education on these shows, which is a huge concern, as viewers may mimic their favorite celebrity chefs’ habits in their own kitchens. (How often do you see celebrity chefs properly wash their hands or use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of foods?) Although Rotten does not focus much on food safety, it does examine the farm-to-fork production of different products. It also discusses various regulations that govern these items from the growers and producers to the chefs and consumers.

The series interviewed many people to get various perceptive on certain food-related topics. They talked to workers, business owners, consumers, chefs, doctors, researchers, attorneys, all with varying degrees of experience. Most of the time, I think it is good to hear different perspectives. But, sometimes, certain viewpoints can be detrimental to consumers. The best example of this was in the episode “Milk Money.” One of the main points of discussion was the sale of raw milk. Since raw milk is more profitable than pasteurized milk, some dairy farmers have added that to the products they provide (even in some of the states where this is illegal). These farmers talk about raw milk being safer that it was in the past due to cleaner farms, cleaner cows and cleaner workers. They also tell viewers that there are health benefits to consuming raw milk. Although research shows the risk of consuming raw milk is still too high due to possible contamination that can lead to foodborne illnesses.

On the other side of the foodborne illness discussion, the episode also talks to a family that experienced a food safety fail when their young son contracted e-coli raw milk, which led to hemolytic uremic syndrome. Although I value the experience those dairy farmers have, as a food safety professional, I can only hope that viewers will understand the very real risks of consuming raw milk – as evidenced by the child that was featured, who fell ill and will have lifelong consequences from his foodborne illness incident. It’s important the message around the risks of consuming of raw milk is heard.


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Also addressed in the series is the topic of food fraud and adulteration. These are topics that are likely unfamiliar to much of the general population, so it is very important to bring these issues to light. In the episode “Lawyers, Guns & Honey,” they discuss how pure honey is being cut with syrups to increase the volume, and profits, of the product. Honey is sent to labs to for quality tests but, as usually happens, once one type of syrup is detected, people will find another (e.g., corn) that is not detectable. Laboratory scientists were interviewed to explain their process for testing. Also interviewed were the lawyers that prosecuted a German company for illegally selling Chinese honey in America. Two executives were sentenced to time in federal prison because of their actions. I’m sure many viewers would be surprised to learn that this type of situation, from adulteration to jail time for food fraud, is happening.

Every episode of Rotten addresses different products and the issues their industry faces. These are some of the interesting take-a-ways from each episode:

  • Lawyers, Guns & Honey –A queen bee can lay twice her body weight in eggs a day.
  • The Peanut Problem – The National Peanut Board funds considerable food allergy research in hopes of finding allergy cures or treatments.
  • Garlic Breath – In China, it is illegal to export garlic that was peeled by prisoners.
  • Big Bird –In 2015, over 320,000 chickens were murdered over a five week period in South Carolina as a revenge plot to hurt chicken farmers.
  • Milk Money – Only 11 states allow raw milk sales in retail stores. It is illegal to sell raw milk across state lines.
  • Cod is Dead – The saying “there are plenty of fish in sea” is not as true as it once was. Research shows the number of fish have drastically dropped in recent years because of changing fishing habits and regulations and increased fish consumption.

Overall, this series is valuable for everyone to watch. It’s important that topics like food safety, food fraud, regulations, and food allergies are brought to the forefront for the general population. I hope that people watch the series and take away some useful knowledge. And I hope to see more informative programming like this in the future.

Susan Algeo is the Director of Project Management at Savvy Food Safety, Inc. (formerly Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc.), where she facilitates food safety training classes, including ServSafe® and NRFSP®, for corporations nationwide. Susan also provides other food safety services, including food allergy training, as well as consulting, helping operators and their teams improve their standards, procedures, and overall commitment to food safety. Additionally, she conducts third-party inspections of customers’ operations to improve their health inspection results. She is also co-author of the SURETM Food Safety series.  These training manuals are aimed at improving food safety procedures for employees, managers, and trainers in food service and retail establishments.