Aspen Ideas: Mystery meat – it’s what’s for dinner |

Aspen Ideas: Mystery meat – it’s what’s for dinner

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Magnolia PicturesThe documentary "Food, Inc." will be screened Tuesday at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival. Director Robert Kenner will be present for a discussion of the film.

ASPEN – Going into the making of “Food, Inc.,” his documentary about America’s food industry, Robert Kenner didn’t see himself as a fanatic. “I came to it as a filmmaker who wanted to come to it from both sides,” he said.

There was one big stumbling block to that approach: Getting the side of the corporate giants at the top of the food chain is virtually impossible. In the film, which shows Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, graphics pop up, one after another, informing that another food conglomerate – Monsanto, Smithfield, Tyson – declined to be interviewed. “Food, Inc.” reveals the industrialization over the past half-century of the American food supply, and the results – mostly bad (diabetes and obesity as national epidemics; mistreatment of animals; recurring incidents of food poisoning), but some good (food that is cheaper and more abundant than it ever has been). But the predominant theme is just how secretive the food industry has become, and the fact that the players who control the industry are powerful enough to keep people from poking into their business.

“I think there are people who don’t want you to think about the food you’re eating and where it comes from,” said Kenner, who, with food writer Corby Kummer, will discuss the film following the screening. “They’ll do anything to prevent you from knowing what’s in your food. I was shocked by the power they had. And the power to stop you from talking about it, and stop you from suing them. Ultimately, it’s a film about the lack of transparency.”

The secretive nature of the food giants is not unrelated to the other issues raised by “Food, Inc.” – the over-production of corn and soy; the shortage of nutrition provided by our food; the abusive treatment of workers at the bottom rungs of the industry. The documentary tells a story of the evolution from the most locally based component of life to one dominated by a handful of multinational corporations. Along the way, food has been transformed from items our grandparents would have recognized as such (apples, chicken, an ear of corn) to commodities that can be mass-produced, packaged, shipped and shelved practically into eternity (Twinkies, frozen burger patties, Coca-Cola).

“Our food is fundamentally different than what it was 40, 50 years ago,” said Kenner, whose previous work includes the Vietnam documentary “Two Days in October,” and “Road to Memphis,” an episode of Martin Scorsese’s multi-part documentary, “The Blues.” “Cows are raised in giant feed lots. Chickens are in buildings the size of football fields, 25-30,000 of them in a room with no light. Tomatoes shipped halfway across the world – they can make them look pretty, but they have no nutritional value.”

As the corporate players have become super-sized, their power has grown. “Food, Inc.” tells of the Monsanto Corporation, which managed to patent its seeds for Roundup Ready soybeans – the first time in history that an agricultural product had been patented. The corporation, according to the film, has gone after its own customers, claiming ownership over the seeds produced by the farmers’ own crops. “Food, Inc.” shows how Big Food and the government branches intended to oversee them, like the Federal Drug Administration, have become so intertwined that the industry is essentially allowed to police itself.

Or not. In one scene, a representative of the meat industry explains why she is against mandatory labeling informing consumers that a product contains genetically modified ingredients. “I don’t think it’s in the consumer’s interest to have this information. They’ll be too confused,” she says. In another episode, a mother named Barb Kowalcyk tells of her 2-year-old son dying after eating a hamburger infected with E. coli. Kowalcyk has devoted much of her life to getting the laws involving food safety changed; in particular, she has sought to have the Department of Agriculture empowered to shut down a plant when there are sufficient health concerns. The bill has not been passed.

“On one level, we’ve created food that is very inexpensive. That’s something we have to applaud,” said Kenner. “But it’s food that’s making us sick. Those calories we’re producing are going to bankrupt us. We can’t afford to be poisoning our land and rivers. We can’t afford for one of three Americans becoming diabetic.”

It’s not a pretty picture – literally. Reviewers have noted that “Food, Inc.” can be a revolting experience. But though there are images of chickens so overgrown they can’t stand up, and cows and pigs in overcrowded lots, Kenner says he took pains to make the film palatable. “I went out of my way to make this as clean as possible. I didn’t want a film where you had to keep your eyes closed,” he said.

Kenner also believes he has made an optimistic documentary. On the other side of the fence from Monsanto, and the Colorado-based Swift Beef Company (which is in the midst of a recall of meat that is potentially contaminated with E. coli), are Joel Salatin, who passionately embraces the ideal of the small farmer as a producer of nutritious food, and Gary Hirshberg, the president of the organic Stonyfield Farm yogurt brand, and the inroads he has made by selling his product, on a massive scale, to Wal-Mart.

Kenner raises the tobacco industry as a possible mirror of food. Not long ago, Big Tobacco seemed immune to regulation. But a movement, built largely on information campaigns and public pressure, changed the tide.

“I hope people come away from this empowered,” he said. “There are options to change the system. And as consumers demand it more, things will start happening faster.”

The first step might be breaking down the corporate walls, so that consumers can see what’s inside the food corporations and the food they produce. But even Kenner, who was amazed by how walled off the corporations could be, sees glimmers of hope there. Cargill, a food company with operations in 67 countries, spoke openly with Kenner.

“That’s a healthy response,” he said. “And that’s all we’re trying to do – create a conversation. Because we have a system that is not sustainable. Just like the financial system just collapsed. The food industry will collapse, and we’re going to have to figure out what will replace it.”

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