The Unsavory Business of Feeding America
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 19, 2009
In the muckraking tradition of Upton Sinclair and the slick documentary stylings of "An Inconvenient Truth," Robert Kenner's "Food, Inc." seeks to lift the curtain on the cynical and often sickening workings of the modern industrial food system. This absorbing film looks terrific and does a superb job of making its case that our current food ways are drastically out of whack. The trick will be getting "Food, Inc.'s" message beyond its natural constituency of the already-converted to the millions of shoppers whose choices in the marketplace, the film argues, represent a tsunami of untapped power.
Starting with the chicken and beef industries, the filmmakers trace how fast-food culture created the corporate concentration of agricultural production and the disappearance of the traditional family farm. With damning hidden-camera footage and interviews with such pioneering journalists as Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, "Food, Inc." deftly demonstrates how issues such as illegal immigration, public health and intellectual property law intersect at the largely hidden nexus of Big Meat. Like Richard Linklater's adaptation of Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation," and the 2007 documentary "King Corn," "Food, Inc." traffics in imagery of animals guaranteed to jolt filmgoers out of their popcorn-munching complacency (where does that popcorn come from, anyway?). Make no mistake, many animals were harmed in the making of this particular movie. But Kenner goes beyond sensationalism to connect a number of seemingly unrelated dots, raising worthwhile questions not just about corporate behavior, but also about a burgeoning organic market worthy of just as much skepticism. Some of the most provocative scenes in "Food, Inc." feature the founder of organic-yogurt-maker Stonyfield Farm as he mulls doing business with Wal-Mart.
Most heartbreaking are personal stories of loss, including a mother's crusade for tighter food regulation after her toddler son died of E. coli poisoning, and Midwestern farmers engaged in legal battles with agribiz giant Monsanto.
As one observer notes, the American tradition of "faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper" has resulted in food that would be barely recognizable as such by our forebears. (A beef executive proudly describes his meat-processing operation as the perfect "marriage of science and technology.") Most important, Kenner reminds viewers that, the first lady's encouraging pronouncements from her kitchen garden notwithstanding, Americans' dining habits aren't merely a matter of healthy choices, but political ones, too. (We are what we eat, but we eat what we subsidize.) Everyone should see "Food, Inc." -- maybe after dinner -- but they should see it.