By Terri Taylor
If “we are what we eat,” the American food chain is in need of a makeover, according to the new documentary Food, Inc.
Just as An Inconvenient Truth issued warnings about pollutants and rallied us to protect the planet, Food, Inc. raises the red flag on food conglomerates and challenges American consumers to value and reclaim the good things that nature has laid upon their tables.
“I didn’t set out to create a scathing piece on the food industry,” explains the film’s director Robert Kenner. “I simply wanted to show how our food is produced. What I got was a much larger story.”
Food, Inc. is an informative mix of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, clever graphics, and engaging music: a sweet/sour blend that both educates and entertains.
“There are moments that will make you smile and others that will make you wince, but I hope you leave the theatre a more knowledgeable consumer,” says Kenner.
The director’s collaborative partner for Food, Inc. was renowned investigative journalist, Eric Schlosser, author of the book Fast Food Nation. Schlosser is featured in the film along with another prominent food expert, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book that greatly influenced the director. Kenner’s own impressive list of credits includes the award-winning Vietnam documentary, Two Days in October.
“When Eric and I began talking, we realized that all food has become like fast food. In today’s marketplace, quantity is valued over quality, and efficiency over flavor,” Kenner states. “We want our chickens to be boneless and our tomatoes to be season-less. Unfortunately our regulatory agencies are too often toothless.”
Fifty years ago the McDonald’s brothers revolutionized the restaurant business with highly profitable assembly line kitchens that emphasized uniformity and cheapness. In time, the massive buying power of the fast food industry transformed the entire food production system. Today the American diet is more in sync with the latest marketing slogan than the changing of the seasons.
“The way we eat has changed more in the last fifty years than in the previous 10,000,” explains Kenner. “These days decisions dictating how food is produced are more frequently made in corporate board rooms than on the family farms.”
Kenner was not surprised by what he heard about the state of the industry; what he was not prepared for was the shroud of secrecy and fear that hindered his ability to get the story.
“The degree of intimidation was shocking,” say Kenner. “I encountered it again and again. One of the reasons it took us so long to complete the movie was because it was nearly impossible to gain access to these large corporations. Lots of false smiles and promises, but little cooperation.”
Ultimately Kenner with camera in hand wriggles through the fence holes and peels back the packaging. What he finds is a handful of companies tightening their stronghold on the way the nation’s food moves from “seed to super market.”
He discovers a world of massive factory farms and mega industrial plants, the antithesis of the storybook red barns and bucolic green fields of Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, whose homespun words and grass-fed livestock are sprinkled throughout the film.
Alongside Salatin are other forthright farmers, businessmen, labor activists, consumer advocates and food experts who put themselves at risk by speaking out.
A Maryland chicken farmer lets filmmaker Kenner see first hand what antibiotics and high-tech breeding are doing to the nation’s chickens. In North Carolina, Kenner’s camera peers into the largest slaughterhouse in the world, where over 32,000 hogs are killed daily.
Kenner accompanies a union organizer to witness a midnight raid on a group of illegal immigrants who work in a processing plant. The activist wonders why these men are treated like common criminals while the company officials who lured them to El Norte go unpunished.
In the Midwest, Kenner finds farmers and seed cleaners who fear the shadowy agents employed by multi-national giant Monsanto. The company’s hired guns lurk around barnyards, turning neighbor against neighbor, in their efforts to insure that no farmer is saving Monsanto’s patented seed.
The film’s most poignant moments belong to Barbara Kowalcyk, a mother who becomes a food safety advocate after her two-year-old son Kevin dies from consuming a hamburger tainted with E. coli. During a pivotal moment, Kenner asks Ms. Kowalcyk about the changes she’s made to her own eating habits since the death of her son. Though she works tirelessly to inspire awareness and change laws, she won’t respond to the question.
“This floored me,” said Kenner. “Barbara, who’s lost a child, refuses to comment on film because she’s afraid she’ll be sued. That really drove home the point regarding the power these companies wield.”
According to the film, the average American supermarket offers consumers 47,000 products, an illusionary “cornucopia of choice.” In fact, most center aisle junk foods are factory-processed rearrangements of the same few government-subsidized commodity crops.
Kenner follows a working-class family of four who finds it too costly to choose nutritious fruits and vegetables over the cheap empty calories of fast foods, in spite of the fact that the father struggles with diabetes.
“What people fail to consider,” says Kenner, “is the huge health costs down the road. Healthy eating should not be an elitist movement. Why is a pound of broccoli more expensive than a bag of cheeseburgers?”
Kenner finds rays of hope both inside and outside the system.
Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg, who has grown his seven-cow farm into the No. 3 yogurt provider in the country, believes that the best way to create dramatic change is by becoming a Goliath. He reminds skeptics of the vast quantities of pesticides that are saved each time a retailer like Wal-Mart issues a purchase order for his organic yogurts.
“The irony is that the average consumer does not feel very powerful,” Hirshberg tells Kenner. “[…] Trust me, it’s the exact opposite. Those businesses spend billions of dollars to tally our votes. When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we’re voting.”
Though Kenner worries that he let Wal-Mart off too easy in the film, he reiterates Hirschberg’s sentiment that an informed, demanding consumer is the key to making a difference.
“Things can change in this country,” says Kenner. “It changed against the big tobacco companies. We have to influence the government and readjust these scales back into the interest of the consumer. We did it before, and we can do it again.”
Facts from Food, Inc.
- 30% of the land in the U.S. is used for planting corn.
- Corn products include: ketchup, cheese, Twinkies, batteries, peanut butter, Cheez-Its, salad dressings, Coke, jelly, Sweet & Low, syrup, juice, Kool-Aid, charcoal, diapers, Motrin, meat and fast food.
- One in three children born after 2000 will develop Type 2 Diabetes in the course of his or her lifetime. In the minority community, the statistic rises to one out of every two.
- 70% of processed foods have some genetically modified ingredient.
- In 1996 when it introduced Round-Up Ready Soybeans, Monsanto controlled only 2% of the U.S. soybean market. Now, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented gene.
- In the 1970’s, the top five beef packers controlled about 25% of the market. Today, the top four control more than 80% of the market.
- In 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2006, the FDA conducted only 9,164.
- The modern supermarket now has, on average, 47,000 products, the majority of which is being produced by only a handful of food companies.
What You Can Do
- Buy foods that are grown locally.
- Shop at farmers markets.
- Visit a farm and get to know a farmer.
- Plant a garden.
- Cook a meal with your family and eat together.
- Make sure your farmers market accepts food stamps.
- Ask your school board to provide healthy school lunches.
- Tell Congress to enforce food safety standards.
- Read labels.
- Educate yourself about food issues.
- See the movie Food, Inc. and read Edible Austin.