Review: ‘Rotten’ gets to the bottom of the food chain

Television Critic

The truth is hard to swallow. That’s the tagline for “Rotten,” Netflix’s new original documentary series about the shady business behind the food we eat.

The six-part series, to be released Friday, considers the origin of our groceries with a skepticism usually reserved for true-crime productions and detective dramas. Episodes explore a shadowy garlic business routed through Chinese prisons, the mystery behind America’s sudden spike in food allergies and a global scandal called Honeygate.

The common thread throughout episodes such as “Cod Is Dead,” “Lawyers, Guns & Honey” and “Garlic Breath” is the exploration of how corporate greed and corruption have quite literally changed the nature and origins of the food America consumes.


And as with any well researched and reasonably argued documentary about eating in the 21st century, the idea is to educate the consumer about healthier and more responsible cuisine choices. And, of course, trust no one — as if that trip to the market weren’t already fraught with carb counting, organic versus natural, and decoding countless cover names for corn syrup.

“Rotten” will have viewers deconstructing the human misery that went into making that jar of garlic paste already in their pantry or examining what they really stirred into their tea this morning because honey isn’t what it used to be.

The series’ hourlong episodes are a combination of original reporting, professionally shot footage and compelling personal narratives from here and abroad. Corporations, small farms, doctors, lawyers, law enforcement personnel and consumers are all interviewed, but this series is not quite as academic, or intent on terrifying its audience, as some of its peers.

Zero Point Zero — the production company behind Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” — are the creators here. They know how to entertain as they educate, infusing the show with enough international intrigue, crime and nefarious twists to make legumes and cod fish seem sexy. “Rotten” even offers up hard-boiled, insider vernacular in its exploration of “agro business monoculture,” “food fraud” and, worst of all, “honey heists.”

Each episode opens like a food paranoid’s version of “The X-Files”: stark contrasts, ominous music and foreboding graphics of livestock, produce and foreign currency.


But the dramatic trimmings are there to dress up “Rotten’s” main mission: exposing the effects of greedy corporate practices on small businesses, farms and unsuspecting consumers, and the series does a solid job in achieving that goal.

The setup here can be repetitive and over-explanatory at times. For example, in “The Problem With Peanuts” the filmmakers feature too many firsthand accounts of kids and adults with deadly food allergies. It surely humanizes the problem, but it also takes up the majority of the episode, leaving little time to plumb the depths of what we don’t know — why a significant percentage of young people are suddenly rejecting Western diet staples such as eggs, fish and wheat.

But “Rotten” does answer other questions, such as the mystery behind the decline of bees in the U.S. and globally since the mid-2000s. You’ll have to watch for the full answer, but it has much to do with small American beekeepers competing with imported Chinese honey and the lengths they and their bees have been pushed to in order to stay alive and in business.

The documentary sympathizes both with the uninformed shopper and the “food-enlightened consumer,” the latter being those who make it a point to research the origins of the food they eat. As “Rotten” highlights, however, we’re all woefully clueless in the face of corporate subterfuge and government loopholes. But knowledge is power ... and, perhaps, a locally sourced jar of honey.


Where: Netflix

When: Anytime beginning Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)