- Directed by Robert Kenner
- With Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Gary Hirschberg and Joel Salatin
- Classification: PG
If you're planning on seeing Food, Inc. as a date movie, make sure you have dinner beforehand. The most effective environmental documentary since An Inconvenient Truth , this film about the state of the food industry will make you far too conscious of every mouthful to be a good dining companion. The best approach may be to get everyone you know to see the movie with you because you'll have lots to talk about.
It takes nothing away from Food, Inc. 's impact to point out that Robert Kenner's film is a superior demonstration of film rhetoric, gradually moving from table talk to a call for action, in a series of separate chapters. His overall argument is devastating. Farm practices in the last few decades are endangering health, allowing appalling cruelty to livestock and putting the food supply in a dangerously vulnerable position.
Though Food, Inc. pushes toward an upbeat conclusion and suggestions for change (a condition of any film in which the philanthropic Participant Films has a stake), many viewers may be left in doubt about whether we've passed the point of no return. Can the increasingly tortuous path that food takes from the field to the plate be straightened out again?
Much of the material and particular case studies in the film are likely to be familiar to those who have read The Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation . Authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser are two of the principal talking heads here. They set the tone as matter-of-fact, good-natured observers of the crisis, but it gradually becomes apparent the problem is massive in scale, touching on almost every area of modern life.
The problem goes back to the 1950s, when government legislation subsidized American corn to unrealistic levels, tilting both the American and world economy, changing eating habits and employment patterns. Corn syrup, in particular, is an ingredient in high-calorie, low-nutrition junk foods that have created the obesity epidemic. Corn is stuffed into animals that were not evolved to eat it, promoting the evolution of E. coli bacteria and requiring antibiotics that are passed on to unwitting consumers. Given that one fast-food hamburger may involve meat from literally thousands of cattle, the effects are inescapable. A handful of companies - like Monsanto, Perdue and Tyson - dictate the rules to a food industry and their former employees hold jobs as government overseers, where they push for less rather than more regulation. Instead of making food production safer and healthier and more humane, the opposite seems to be taking place.
The film also offers a picture of the immediate human cost of industrial food production. Barbara Kowalcyk, a Republican-supporting mother, whose two-year-old son hemorrhaged to death after eating an E. coli-tainted burger, has been on an eight-year campaign to give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to shut down plants that produce contaminated meats. An Indiana farmer, who specializes in the age-old process of cleaning seeds from chaff for next year's crop, is hounded by chemical giant Monsanto, claiming his business infringes on the patent of their genetically engineered soy seeds, which have contaminated the state's soy crop. A poor Hispanic family, in which the parents work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., takes their adolescent daughters out for a Burger King breakfast. The fast food is cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables, and the mother has to save money for the father's diabetes medication.
In many areas, Food Inc. could be accused of being a fast-food version of a documentary - it's everywhere at once, skipping across the surface of a vast subject, and adding nuggets of sweetness to the scary filler.
There's a charming farmer, Joel Salatin, chatting amiably about the ethics of farming while gutting chickens outdoors on his farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. He, too, kills animals for food, but the differences between his farm and the day-to-day brutality of factory farms are vast. Stonyfield Farm's yogurt producer Gary Hirschberg advocates the power of consumer choice, and shows how even the much-vilified Wal-Mart has become an ally in selling quality food. He admits some of his old environmentalist friends are shocked, but quoting Voltaire (everyone in this film is remarkably articulate), he notes that the "perfect is the enemy of the good."
Finally, if Food, Inc. depresses you enough that you want to go on an eating binge, there are some useful guidelines at the end of the film: Try to eat things that are locally grown, organic and preferably from a farmers' market - and don't forget that responsibility for the future of the world sits on the end of your fork.