Food (Inc.) for Thought

Robert Kenner's documentary investigates the corporate takeover of America's food supply

The American food industry is now controlled by a handful of large corporations with one goal above all else: making money. Robert Kenner’s incisive, warning-shot documentary, Food, Inc., investigates the ways in which these corporations have changed our food system in recent years and the impact this rapid evolution has had on the industry’s various components.

Well researched and niftily presented, Food, Inc. is largely based on the work of two authors, both of whom appear prominently in the film: Eric Schlosser, whose muckraking best-seller Fast Food Nation was an initial inspiration (Schlosser is also one of the film’s producers), and locavore champion Michael Pollan, whose The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Defense of Food look at the growing tension between “the logic of nature and the logic of the industrial food chain.”

[Read tt stern-enzi's review of Food, Inc. here.]

Kenner — whose 2006 Vietnam War documentary Two Days in October is essential viewing on the subject — is a throwback to a more objective documentary age. His approach eschews the often self-involved practices of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, preferring to let his diverse subjects speak for themselves, a select few of whom give the film its philosophical and emotional backbone.

Among them is Gary Hirshberg, head honcho of Stonyfield Farm, who recently signed a deal to distribute his organic yogurt at Wal-Mart (he prefers to affect change within the system). Kenner also looks at the plight of modern-day soybean farmers who have been displaced by Monsanto, the massive agricultural biotechnology corporation that has all but crushed its competition into oblivion over the last decade.

Then there’s Barbara Kowalcyk and her ongoing struggle to pass Kevin’s Law, a Congressional bill named in honor of her son who died of E. coli poisoning at the age of 2. Finally, and in many ways the soul of the film, there’s Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer who waxes poetic about the importance of raising livestock as nature intended — on grass — which runs contrary to the hormone-injecting practices of the top four beef packers that now control 80 percent of the market.

CityBeat recently phoned Kenner to discuss his film, which succinctly lays out the ethical, economic and health dangers inherent in a system that is rapidly being propped up by one ingredient: processed corn, which can now be found in everything from diapers to Cheeze-Its.

CityBeat: How did Food, Inc. initially come about?
Robert Kenner: I was thinking of doing Fast Food Nation as a film at one point, but I think people thought they saw it in Super Size Me. I came to realize that I didn’t want to do a film about fast food. It’s really about how all food has become industrialized, and, adding on top of that, how we are subsidizing these crops — corn and soy — that are responsible for making us overweight and obese. It might not be the only thing, but there is an absolute connection between diet and our health. Sixty-four percent of Americans are now either overweight or obese. A connection to that is that one out of every three Americans born after the year 2000 will have Early Onset Diabetes.

We were basically hoping to have a conversation about how best to feed ourselves and how we can keep ourselves healthy. Food turned out to be a much more subversive subject than I ever imagined.

CB: One of the things the film confirmed for me was that the era of unchecked capitalism, in which a handful of powerful corporations control everything, is at a breaking point.
RK: We finished the film in October of last year, and I thought, “Oh, I wonder what’s going to happen?” All the sudden the economy was crashing. But I realized that it was unfettered markets. It was a credit Ponzi scheme that brought down the health of our financial system. It was these corporations that were too large to fail that kept saying, “We’re better at policing ourselves than the government is.” And it turned out they weren’t.

I think there are parallels with the food system. These corporations say they’re better at policing themselves — they should decide when they should recall a product that is making us sick. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t have the power to make that recall on the meat with the E. coli that killed Barb’s son. That meat sat on the selves for 12 days after he died. They knew where that meat came from, but the government didn’t have the power to recall. Ultimately, there are a few powerful corporations that control this system, and I don’t know if they have the best interest of the consumer.

CB: I think that’s a pretty safe assumption. The way they’ve manipulated the system, especially politically via lobbyists, is pretty scary.
RK: The balance went too far in favor of these corporations. We, as consumers, need more protection. But Joel Saladin, the farmer on that beautiful farm that we’d all love to eat from, might argue with me because he’s always concerned by more government controls. We have to protect small farmers in the process, because every time we have government protection it always ends up helping these large corporations.

CB: He also says that most consumers are disconnected and ignorant about where their food comes from, which is part of the problem.
RK: A lot of people have no sense that if you’re going to eat a piece of chicken, you really have to kill a chicken to eat it. So, yes, we are disconnected, and there are great consequences with how our food is grown for all of us. And, not by accident, on some levels these corporations continued with this myth that this food is still grown on small farms with white picket fences and red barns. In reality food comes to us from factories, and we jam thousands and thousands of animals into small, confined feeding operations. Our food has become industrialized. So, on one level it’s become less expensive and efficient, but it’s also become a lot more brittle and become, ironically, more dangerous. You’d think in this age of science that we’d be making safer food. But they’ve found a way to create this processed food that contains amazing amounts sugar, salt and fat that are making us sick.

CB: What surprised you the most during the course of making the film?
RK: For me the scariest moment in the film was when I went to the hearing on whether we should label cloned meats. I didn’t even know there were cloned meats. But when that industry representative said she thinks it’s too confusing to the consumer to give them this kind of information — it would just be a burden to them — I got goose bumps. I realized that this is happening time and time again.

CB: And they’ve almost made it illegal to criticize their products.
RK: Yes. They’ll sue you if you say something negative about their product. So I’m thinking if we’re in a free society, and we have free markets, it’s got to be based on information. It’s sort of the Communist system that didn’t give you the information, and we’re not getting the information anymore. That’s what was most scary to me.

CB: Can you talk about Eric’s role in shaping the film?
RK: Fast Food Nation was certainly the first thing that got me to think about our food system. That was really a seminal book. It confirmed that something had happened (within our food system). It’s not an evil conspiracy. People sometimes ask me, “Is there a conspiracy between pharmaceutical companies and the food companies?” I don’t think there’s any conspiracy; I think that we solve problems too well. We’re now creating too many calories very inexpensively. But the hidden costs are too expensive. There are consequences that have gotten out of control, and the power of these corporations has gotten out of control.

That’s why I think the analogy to tobacco is really important. Tobacco was represented by a few very powerful, very wealthy corporations that had incredible connections to government, that were putting out absolutely misleading information about the health consequences of their product. Tobacco basically funded research saying that cigarettes were not bad for you. Ultimately, we were able to change tobacco — there’s a ruling now saying what’s in our cigarettes. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to get the information about what’s in our food. I think as people start to understand that this food is making them sick and it is costing us too much money — even though you don’t know that when you go to pay for it — that things will start to change.

CB: One of the things the film investigates that I wasn’t familiar with was the rise of Monsanto as a major player in agribusiness. When I was a kid, I lived pretty close to a Monsanto plant on the Ohio River, and I remember thinking it looked like this very strange, scary place.
: Good instincts.

CB: Well, the most alarming thing in the film for me was how, in such a short amount of time, they could go from having a 2 percent share of the soybean market to having 90 percent based on these often questionable business tactics.
RK: And they’re not even satisfied with that. And the method they use to get more (of the market share) is of concern. It’s not just Republicans who were backing their efforts — it’s Democrats and Republicans who thought, “Oh, they’re going to save the world.” Well, I question that, and I question their (Monsanto’s) lack of transparency. They didn’t want to talk to me about what they were doing, but then come out with Web sites about Food, Inc., and they say they never declined to be in the film. I’d have to say, and I’m using the word my lawyer got me to say, that is “misleading.” I would have used other words.

And I just want to say that when someone from industry did appear, we bent over backwards to represent them in the best possible light — whether it was the man from the National Chicken Council, who said we grow more chicken from less land for fewer dollars, which is an argument that some people think (is worthwhile), and it should be represented in the film. They might not like the film, but they have to be happy they were represented. I don’t understand why so much of industry didn’t want to want to step forward and be part of that conversation.

CB: This is such a complex issue. I’m sure there was a lot of stuff you had to cut to get to the 93-minute running time. What was the biggest challenge in putting this film together?
RK: The biggest challenge was, “How do you make a fair movie when so many people don’t want to talk to you, when the industrial side doesn’t want to talk to you, and you think they should be part of the conversation.” I’m not Michael Moore. I didn’t set out to make a “gotcha” kind of film; I set out to make a fair exploration that hopefully is entertaining and, ultimately, empowering.

I really hope people see that it’s a system that can be changed, that there are consequences and, ultimately, that it’s not a fair system. It’s not fair to the animals, it’s not fair to the workers, it’s not fair to the Earth and it’s not fair to the consumers.

But as Gary Hirshberg says in the film, “We, as consumers, get to vote three times a day with our fork — breakfast, lunch and dinner — and if we can just change one of our meals, we’re going to have a huge impact.”

CB: That said, how do you keep the film from being too preachy or didactic?
RK: I came to it as a filmmaker. I want to make entertainment as much as I want to tell a story. That means you have to come up with a visual language. I hope the film is beautiful to watch. I think the graphics and animation is fun to watch. You use music — we got Bruce Springsteen (whose version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” plays over the closing credits). Things like these really help make it something you can feel comfortable watching. I didn’t set out to turn people’s stomachs; I set out to open people’s eyes.

FOOD, INC. opens July 10. Read the CityBeat review here. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
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