Spoiling for a Food Fight
Filmmaker Robert Kenner discusses his documentary 'Food, Inc.'

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Robert Kenner never considered himself a foodie. He was like most people, mindlessly plucking products from the grocery store shelves. Making his new documentary, "Food Inc.," which shows how our food is produced, changed all that. The director spoke to Jane Black of The Post's Food section about the film, the vicious backlash and the one thing he'll never eat again. Excerpts:

What is the message you are trying to send? Think about where food comes from?

There is such a conscious effort to not have us think about where our food comes from. I'm not shocked that agribusinesses denied me access to their plants. But they go to great lengths to continue to deliver this image that food is like it's always been, when in reality it's been fundamentally transformed.

Tomatoes look similar but they have no nutritional value and they don't taste like anything. . . . The connection to tobacco is very important. Like tobacco we're up against really powerful corporations that are really connected to government and are putting out a product that's not good for you.

What did you find most shocking?

We filmed a hearing in Sacramento about whether we should label cloned meat. Not whether we should have it. Whether we should label it. I didn't even know there was cloned meat. The woman representing the industry said, "We don't think it's in the consumer's interest [to label the meat] because it would be too confusing." This is really a film about our rights. It's just terrifying. You think in America that we should have the right to buy things on the best information. And I did not have any of that information.

Are you a foodie?

I wasn't a foodie. I'm a filmmaker. I'd read ["Fast Food Nation"]. I'd seen "Supersize Me." I ate a lot of industrial food without thinking about it much. I'm still not a perfect eater, but I'm much better.

There's already been a lot of corporate pushback. The agricultural company Monsanto has launched a Web site to counter the film.

We went to such an effort to try to get them to appear. They wanted to know who was in the film. We asked permission from our characters. We told them what we were talking about. We gave them Stonyfield [Farm]'s name so they could call. We were in discussions for months and we were asking them to appear and we were running out of time. And we wrote a letter saying, "We will take your lack of a response to be a 'no' because we can't fit you in anymore." They then go on the air and say they never said no. It's a very misleading statement.

Monsanto argues that industrial food is necessary. Population is expected to double and without technology millions will starve.

The Union of Concerned Scientists dispute their yield results. A number of farmers I spoke to felt Monsanto yields weren't necessarily greater. I can't answer whether they are or they aren't. I'm not an expert. But the Union of Concerned Scientists is a legitimate operation.

The other answer is people are starving now. We're not feeding the world now and the system that exists now is a totally unsustainable system. It's based on gasoline and pollution and it cannot go on.

What do you say to critics who label you elitist? Some argue that if we change the system, food will be more expensive.

Right now it's elitist to think we can create a system where the food we feed a poor family makes them so sick that they need medicine for diabetes. There's something wrong with a system that makes food that makes them sick.

What action do you want people to take?

One thing is that people say to me, "I'll never eat chicken again." And that's not what I intended. What I intend is that there's a system that's bad. Your tomatoes are as bad as your chicken. The whole system is industrialized. You don't need to tell them the dark side of every item. And you don't have to stop eating foods you love. You can eat chicken, but try not to eat industrial food.

Is there one thing you'll never eat again?

This film is really about connecting the dots of the whole industrial system. But if there's one thing, it would have to be strawberries sprayed with pesticides. We saw people in the field with hazmat suits. The fact that there are people that have to wear those to grow food is really incredible.

What was the Washington screening like?

In addition to the typical food issue enthusiasts, there were many more policy wonks and representatives from industrial agriculture than usual.

Richard Lobb from the National Chicken council was there. He's in the film, and I told him that night that he may not like it. He approached me afterward -- he said that he was very happy that he had agreed to speak and was able to present his argument. He said he felt well represented, even if he didn't agree with all the viewpoints in the film -- he even invited me out for a chicken lunch.

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