Food Inc Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Movie Review: Food, Inc.

It sounds too easy to describe Food Inc. (Dir., Robert Kenner, 2008, USA) as a movie that you might not be able to stomach, but thats just what it is, and more. Director Robert Kenners collaboration with the authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivores Dilemma) is not a feel-good movie.

Kenners documentary investigation of the corporatization of food takes a hard look at what food production has become in the US. Its hard to swallow. The family farm has largely become a factory, and the factory tends to be a sweatshop, filled with Mexican workers thrown off farms back home because they couldnt compete with cheap American corn.

Corn is substituted for grass as cattle feed because it fattens the animals at an accelerated pace. No surprise, it also fattens the people who eat most processed foods made from it. Since corn is subsidized, those foods tend to be cheap, so nutrition is skewed based on income. A family of four who head to McDonalds, strictly on a cost basis, explain it all, even though all four might have diabetes.

Chickens in "Food Inc"

Chickens in "Food Inc"

So, reading this, youve already opted for the safe route, and decided to have chicken tonight. Think again.

Food Inc. opens with a visit to some chicken growers, who raise birds in filth on contracts from the major producers whose cheery labels you see in supermarkets.  Most of the growers wont talk on camera, or show you their operations, lest “the company” find out – although one Maryland woman whos had enough does take us into a chicken house, where birds on antibiotics grow fast and develop large breasts. (Hear that, plastic surgeons?) Lots just die on the floor. Stealth videos of chicken transports turn your stomach.

Barbara Kowalcyk in "Food Inc"

Barbara Kowalcyk in "Food Inc"

So does most of Food Inc. The films heroes are those who resist, like Barbara Kowalcyk, whose son died at age 2 ½ after ingesting e-coli bacteria. She tells of her struggle for accountability from meat producers, until she stops, fearful of vindictive litigation. You can be sued for libel for criticizing beef production in Colorado.

It isnt just that Americans are being sickened by cheap unhealthy food. Their rights to protest are being challenged by industries with proprietary ingredients in the processed foods that are doing the damage, say the filmmakers. They note that their film took years to make, in part, because the corporations who wouldnt talk to them are so litigious.

Sound too conspiratorial to speak about information control? The food giant Archer Daniels Midland was a major PBS funder, until it was replaced by Chevron, the oil behemoth. Grain giant Cargill is still a funder of A Prairie Home Companion, the corn-fed terminally earnest public radio program.  (Disclosure: DArcy reported for NPR until January 2005, when NPR got a complaint from a powerful institution, the Museum of Modern Art, and fired him.)

Food Inc. is a march through a dilemma that mirrors what happens all too frequently in politics, when ordinary people allow themselves to be ruled by a richer minority.

Joel Salatin in Food, Inc.

Joel Salatin in Food, Inc.

Kenner and company stress that consumers have a vote on this issue three times a day. To that end the documentary introduces producers who care about quality and health – rancher Joe Salatin (Polyface) and yogurt entrepreneur Gary Hirshberg (Stonyfield).  An eternal truth about capitalism emerges when Wal-Mart decides to stock organic food, because the consumer wants it. Youre reminded that circumstances could be quite different if people did something about them, or just raised their voices.

Food Inc. serves up an abundance of truth, but without the entertainment of Morgan Spurlocks documentary Super Size Me (2004), in which Spurlock gorged on McDonalds food for 30 days and “super-sized” when asked for his preference. This movie turned the case history of food as poison (Spurlock gained 24 ½ pounds and his blood pressure soared) into an odd ego-twist on performance art, with Spurlocks body, over-stuffed with junk food, as much the medium as film.

If Super Size me was comic, the earnest Food Inc. devolves into a news magazine format – it turns into what health food used to be, something that didnt have much flavor, but someone told you it was good for you.

It is, so go see it. Youll definitely spend less than usual at the concession stand.

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