Review: ‘Food, Inc.’ shows you where your beef’s been
September 17, 2009
In his first big-screen documentary, director Robert Kenner exposes an influential and dangerous cornerstone of the American power structure, but one that carries out its operations in the shadows. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, and an essential one, mighty enough that its policies and preferences not only dictate how legislators vote in Washington, D.C., but also have powerful effects beyond U.S. borders.
Could it be one of those security companies like Halliburton, involved with oil fields and, by extension, military bases, U.S. troops and the wars we fight? Or some proper-sounding Wall Street concern that has its thumb on the international banking system, and effectively controls prices, markets and jobs? Or a media conglomerate that influences what we see, hear and think?
None of the above. It’s the people who put the bacon and eggs on your plate, the folks behind Ronald McDonald, Frosted Flakes, and possibly even the lettuce in your salad. Although to refer to them as “people” is, in a very real way, inaccurate and misleading.
Kenner’s film “Food, Inc.” convincingly – often emotionally and frighteningly – makes the case that the American food system is no longer in the hands of farmers and ranchers, and hasn’t been for 50 or so years. Those images of farmhouses, cows and chickens on the packages of butter and boneless breasts at your neighborhood market? A throwback to a time that is essentially gone. While tomatoes, apples and corn – especially corn, by the mountain-load – are still grown, and beef still comes from cows, the stuff we think of as our food – burgers, fries, juices, nuggets and tenders – are the manufactured products of a mammoth corporate machine.
Corporations are ruled by profit. Profits are largely a result of efficiency (with some doses of government subsidy). And in the case of the foods we put in our body, efficiency is a matter of … well, you don’t want to know what. But, since Kenner has already displayed it in sometimes graphic visual detail, here goes: Chickens bio-engineered for bigger breasts to the point they cannot stand up. Cows ankle-deep in their own waste. Animals fed diets their bodies are not meant to handle, in the name of faster growth and uniform taste. And a nasty, potentially deadly little fella named E. coli O157:H7 that has shown the capacity to contaminate not only cow’s innards, where it often originates, but also spinach, juice and sprouts.
Much of what “Food, Inc.” covers won’t come as a revelation to those who have read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” or Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.” Both, in fact, are prominent talking heads in the documentary, and Schlosser is credited as a co-producer. Kenner has duly acknowledged that his curiosity about the food industry was stirred by Schlosser’s 2000 eye-opener.
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Kenner, who spoke and presented the film earlier this summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival, does add a few new items to the plate. The most heartbreaking of these is the episode of a Midwestern activist mom, Barb Kowalcyk, whose 2-year-old son, Kevin, died from eating a burger contaminated with E. coli. Compounding the tragedy, an inspection had turned up the contamination days before the meat was consumed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, it turns out, does not have the authority to shut down a processing plant, even after repeat violations. Kowalcyk has been working for eight years to get Congress to pass Kevin’s Law, which would grant the USDA such power. The segment effectively personalizes a story that is set mostly on feedlots and populated with animals; it also signals the dire and immediate consequences we face.
Kenner also provides the viewer some daylight, in the person of Joel Salatin. The Virginia farmer, who runs the animal- and earth-friendly Polyface Farms, was a central figure in Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” But his pitch – that a small-scale, eco-conscious operation can be as efficient as, and far healthier and wiser than a mega-farm – is best heard directly from Salatin’s own down-home voice of experience.
The most novel aspect of “Food, Inc.” is the issue of how secretive the food industry is. Advocates for a cleaner food system have made the point that if meat processing facilities were made to use clear windows, that alone would have a huge impact. If people could see how animals were raised and slaughtered, the argument goes, diners, their stomachs properly sickened, would demand improvements. But it turns out that the sealed-off slaughterhouse is an accurate reflection of Big Food as a whole. In “Food, Inc.,” one text graphic after another informs us that the corporations would not speak to Kenner, nor would they allow access to their facilities. The illicit video clips – farmers allowing Kenner to shoot inside a chicken coop over a corporation’s objections; hidden cameras in a slaughterhouse – make it obvious why the companies shun publicity. Theirs is an ugly business.
Which leads us to the other novel dimension of “Food, Inc.,” not seen in Schlosser’s or Pollan’s book: the visual element. When it comes to the topic of food, images – of the inside of a cow, or the inside of a poultry plant, which turn out to be equally off-putting – have a powerful effect.
It’s amazing to consider how quickly this has all transpired. “Food, Inc.” notes that in the early ’70s, the five biggest companies controlled less than half of the beef industry. Today, it’s four companies controlling more than 80 percent. The film notes that it was the advent of McDonald’s – whose first outlet opened in 1940 – that first started turning our food system into an assembly line.
Perhaps “Food, Inc.” will speed the reversing of that process.