Director : Robert Kenner
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2009
Robert Kenner’s disturbing and important documentary Food, Inc. is like an episode of Unwrapped, that late-night Food Network staple in which former Double Dare host Mark Summers cheerfully takes us “behind the scenes” of how our favorite foods are produced, recast as a horror movie. Using a mixture of interviews with those who work inside of and on the fringes of the multi-billion-dollar agribusiness and footage of how the food industry operates (i.e., where your food comes from), the film paints a bleak portrait of our current condition, showing how a few massive corporations driven by pure profit motive control virtually every aspect of food production. As the film’s narrator informs us in the opening moments, “The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000,” and it’s not for the better. Food is cheaper and more abundant than ever, but it’s also now a less nutritious and potentially dangerous industrial product. The film’s message is best summarized in a throwaway moment from Say Anything … (1989) when John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobbler is told by his older sister (played by his real-life older sister Joan Cusack) “there’s no food in your food.”
The idea for Food, Inc. came from director Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser, the journalist whose 2001 food industry exposé Fast Food Nation supplies the basic template. Schlosser appears on camera numerous times to discuss the ideas in his book, particularly how the development and rapid popularization of fast food in the 1940s, which for the first time applied factory assembly-line techniques to food production and preparation, forever altered the basic business principles of all the interrelated food industries, including farming and meatpacking. Nourishment and safety are at the bottom of the importance list, with speed, efficiency, convenience, and most of all profit going to the top. As the film notes early on, virtually the entire industry is now in the hands of a few mega-international corporations, including Tyson Foods, Perdue, Smithfield, and Monsanto, the latter of which is a chemical company responsible for developing Roundup weed killer but now controls 90% of the soybean market in the U.S. because it has developed a genetically modified soybean that is resistant to weed killer. Not surprisingly, none of these companies have any screen time because they all declined to be interviewed, although in Monsanto’s rather anemic response to the film on its web site, they claim they invited the filmmakers to visit them at a trade show.
In this regard, there is a danger that Food, Inc. may be too one-sided, but the fact that these huge companies refused to allow a representative sit down and address some of the issues provides rather damning evidence to support Kenner’s accusations that the industry as a whole is more concerned with keeping its operations secret than watching out for human welfare. One of the scariest things in the film is the way in which these food companies go out of their way to keep consumers from knowing anything about how the food they eat is created, to the point that there are pending bills that would make it illegal to publish photographs of feed lots. Kenner tries to right this imbalance throughout the film by giving us firsthand views into such “forbidden” areas, including a chicken house stuffed with squawking, genetically modified hens whose abnormally large breasts make it almost impossible for them to walk, various feed lots in which thousands of cattle wade knee-deep in their own manure on their way to eating the subsidized corn that their bodies were not engineered to digest, and the inside of food processing facilities that are filled with illegal immigrants recruited by the companies. Kenner gives us a few truly shocking images--a sick cow being pushed to the slaughter with a forklift, pigs being shoved into some kind of horrific killing contraption--but for the most part he avoids visual sensationalism in favor of a steady and thoughtful argument that brings to the surface issues that the gleaming efficiency of your neighborhood supermarket tend to obscure.
Interviewees in the film include Barbara Kowalcyk, whose two-year-old son died of E. coli poisoning from a tainted hamburger and now works as a food safety advocate (her pet project is “Kevin’s Law,” which has the audacity to give the FDA the legal right to shut down food processors that repeatedly fail safety and health inspections); Moe Parr, an Indiana man who had worked as a seed cleaner for 25 years until he was run out of the business by a lawsuit filed by Monsanto that claimed he was inciting farmers to skirt the patent laws protecting their ownership of the genetically modified soybean; and Carole Morrison, a chicken farmer who allows Kenner’s cameras into her facility and subsequently lost her contract with a major food company because she refused to convert to chicken houses that have no windows and therefore keep the chickens in the dark their entire lives. It is not all despairing, though, as the film provides evidence that safe and healthy food can be profitable. One example is a man named Joel Salatin, whose Polyface Farm uses natural and sustainable methods to produce beef and chicken that some people are willing to drive hundreds of miles to buy. At another level we have Gary Hirschberg, whose organic Stonyfield Farm company is now stocked at Wal-Mart due to customer demand.
Although relatively short, Food, Inc. drives its message home with both authority and clarity. It’s a frightening film, easily one of the most important of the recent spate of socially conscious documentaries (including An Inconvenient Truth, The Corporation, Sicko, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price). The portrait it paints of human health suffering because of corporate greed should be a rallying cry for all who see it, and I for one know that my own food choices have been affected as a result. It’s not enough to keep me away from red meat, but to put a slight spin on the infamous claim that landed Oprah in court opposite the Texas beef industry, it has stopped me cold from eating another burger unless I know it is organic.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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