The message of the new documentary film "Food, Inc." is that most of what Americans now eat is produced by a handful of highly centralized mega-businesses and that this situation is increasingly detrimental to our health, to the environment, to our very humanity. The ugly facts of animal mistreatment, food contamination, and government collusion are covered up by a secretive industry that wouldn't talk to the filmmakers or let the interiors of their chicken farms, cattle ranches, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking plants be filmed.
Informed by the voices and outlook of bestseller authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollen (The Omnivore's Dilemma), this new film is an exposé that offers some hope that things can be made better through grassroots efforts. True, Kenner points out, Monsanto, Smithfield, Purdue, et al. are rich and powerful. But so were the tobacco companies, and if Philip Morris and Reynolds could be fought successfully, so can the food industry. The fact that the vast Walmart is switching to organic foods because customers want them shows people vote effectively with their pocketbooks every time they buy the fixings for a meal.
Other documentaries have covered much of this ground before. The 2008 French documentary "The World According to Monsanto" (2008) focused on how that company, with government support, monopolizes seed planting, and Deborah Koons' 2004 The Future of Food went over similar ground. Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's sweeping 2003 film "The Corporation" (2003) touched on Monsanto's monopoly too. In more general terms, the ominous, narration-free German documentary "Our Daily Bread" (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2003) delivered "Food, Inc."'s message about dehumanized factory-style food production with a European focus. Richard Linklater's 2006 "Fast Food Nation" grew out of Schlosser's book about how bad and disgusting American fast food is and how it undermines the health. These are all provocative and informative films, and there are and will be lots more. As this new film mentions, exploitation and malpractice in the meat industry were exposed as far back as Upton Sinclair's 1906 muckraking book, The Jungle.
Where "Food, Inc." stands out is that it's a populist and down-to-earth film that speaks with the voices of farmers, advocates, and journalists, and focuses on food, what's wrong with it, and what we can do about it. Kenner offers lots of practical information and appeals to everyday people.
Kenner goes back to the Fifties to show how much fast food has contributed to food production that's more and more centralized and less and less diverse. Macdonald's is the biggest American purchaser of chicken, beef, potatoes, and many other foods. The film shows how a handful of companies have come to control not only most of the beef, pork, chicken, and corn produced in the US but most other food products as well. A surprising amount of the tens of thousands of products sold at today's supermarket—that packaged junk racked in the center of the store that Dr. Atkins and now Prof. Pollen have told us to avoid—all comes from corn. Corn is the dominant food fed to livestock too. Because of the way certain food products have government support, fast food hamburgers wind up being a cheaper way to fill your tummy than fresh fruits and vegetables. Kenner focuses on the low-income Mexican-American Orozco family in California. The two working parents know the value of home-cooked meals from fresh ingredients but feel forced to rely on fast food meals because they fill them and their kids more economically and quickly than fresh produce in the supermarket, which they look at wistfully before returning to Burger King.
The new industry has developed chickens that grow bigger and faster and have more breast meat. They're kept in closed dark pens. The story is the same for all those many other poor critters raised under the aegis of food monopolies whose meat is made to look neutral and then fed to us in the pretense that they came from a cute little farm. They've lived a lousy life, these animals, crammed together in great numbers, filled with antibiotics, deformed, suffering, ankle deep in their own excrement, then brutally killed. And the workers in the food factories aren't treated much better. The film has revealing reportage about the big southern meat producer Smithfield showing how the new mega-food industry feeds off of exploited low-wage illegal immigrants who it treats as expendable, just like the animals.
An important voice of sanity and hope in "Food, Inc." is organic farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, who's also an author, though the movie doesn't mention his books. His cattle are grass-fed, and watching them graze, we realize that's the way it's meant to be. Salatin's cattle roam free and live a healthy life while feeding themselves and trimming back the grass and fertilizing it. Cattle weren't meant to live on corn, and doing so has led to infection. The industry solution to such problems is not to change back to earlier methods, but to add more chemicals. They're even adding bleach to hamburger filler to keep the burgers from being poison.
It's hard to keep a balance in such a documentary, but Kenner tries. That Hispanic family is important. Slow food and organics have been a thing of the rich, as their dilemma illustrates. There could be more focus on everyday people and their difficult daily choices. The Walmart story is important too: Walmart customers are everyday people. It's easy enough for well-heeled families to buy boutique produce at farmers' markets. Average Joes don't have the time or the money for that. Also important is Barbara Kowalcyk, who works in Washington with her mother as an advocate for stricter laws. Her 2 1/2-year-old son Kevin died in 12 days from a virulent form of E. coli after eating a hamburger on vacation. She wants not sympathy but control of an indifferent industry. Carole Morison is another vivid voice: she is a southern chicken farmer who lost her contract with Perdue for refusing to switch to dark enclosed tunnel chicken coops, the latest in a series of enforced "improvements" that lead to more production at the cost of more cruelty. She also explains how the farmers in thrall to these big companies are kept in debt like indentured servants. It's surprisingly medieval—except in the Middle Ages serfs lived in a more natural relationship to the land.
Armed with witty, clear graphics and ironically bright color, "Food, Inc." has a chance of gaining more converts to "slow," organic, local food and inspiring more opponents of crooked food regulation and our monopolistic industry. This seems one of the most balanced and humane treatments of the subject yet.
The Atlantic review by Corby Kummer talks about more of the people featured in the documentary.
Video of a Fox/Monsanto exposé: some fired Fox reporters tell how their story about contaminated milk was killed by Fox under pressure from the chemical giant.
©Chris Knipp 2009. The author writes from San Francisco. See more of his work on his website.
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This story was published on July 7, 2009.