"If you knew what you were eating, you might not want to eat." That pretty much sums up both the message of Robert Kenner's documentary about the food industry and your likely reaction to it. Food, Inc. is a 90-minute ride through what we eat and how it's produced. It makes familiar stops -- supermarkets, farms large and small -- as well as detours into factory food production that resemble outtakes from a movie about a vaguely dystopic future.
These days, the who-what-how-and-where of food is a much chattered-about topic in certain sets. Certainly if you've read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, you're mostly up to speed on much of the film's data-dump. Kenner provides well-filmed visuals to accompany those books' oft-quoted material: the impact of the fast-food business on large-scale livestock and agriculture; how subsidized commodity crops such as corn and soy beans have become the Franken-blocks of processed food; the abysmal labor conditions in factory farming and meat-processing; and how lax food-safety regulations may be endangering us all.
Both Schlosser and Pollan are extensively interviewed on these topics, and serve as impassioned narrators. Kenner also checks in with some other concerned players: a former chicken grower in Maryland; a citizen advocate for food safety; non-corporate farmers; and even the Orozcos of Los Angeles, a working-class family who typify the challenges of eating well. Not surprisingly, Kenner doesn't get many interviews with industry heavyweights such as Perdue or Monsanto.
Some of the most alarming data in the easy-to-follow Food, Inc. is bland enough to be barely noted. Sure, everybody freaks when a hidden camera captures terrified pigs squealing on a kill floor, or when they see their meal come out of a huge pipe. But the real gut punch should be the simplest fact: Only a handful of very, very large companies produce the majority of our food. (Here's one statistic: The top four meat-packers control 80 percent of the market.) As such, these companies have significant power -- over lawmakers, employees, the shape of a chicken and the choices, if any, consumers have. (Pollan describes the supermarket as offering "an illusion of diversity.")
Another recent "food" development that seems a bit dry but has far-reaching implications is the ascension of patented seeds. Monsanto, a chemical company, owns a genetically modified soy bean seed that must be purchased by farmers annually. In 2008, 90 percent of soy beans were from Monsanto-owned seed. So, a commodity crop -- once grown from re-usable public seed -- is now this sci-fi scenario: Food-producing plants have become the protected property of a chemical manufacturer.
It's not all rosy for the big boys: Food, Inc. posits that the more concentrated, mechanized and disconnected from the source the food industry becomes, the less likely it is to absorb shocks to the system -- among them recalls of meat that number in the hundreds of million of pounds, or a cow-based contaminant such as E. coli spreading to vegetables. Virtually every day, the film reminds us, there's a line in the news that reflects a system whose hyper-efficiency has pushed the industry to the edge of crisis.
In that respect, I was struck by how out-of-date even this new movie was, recalling recent food-production nightmare stories: peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, the discovery of E. coli in packaged cookie dough, and a fatal explosion and subsequent ammonia leak at ConAgra's Slim Jim plant in North Carolina.
The more you learn about modern food production -- though the veil is intentionally thick --the less appetizing a lot of it is. Do you really want to eat that cheaper ground beef that has been treated with ammonia? The plant that has been genetically modified to be resistant to a weed-killer? The artificially plumped-up chicken that spends its short life collapsing into its own shit?
But we can't just starve to death in despair. Food, Inc. offers a few inklings of hope. One is the small-scale, self-contained farm highlighted -- Polyface Farm, in Virginia, familiar to readers of Omnivore. Great if you live nearby, but hard to translate to what consumers have come to expect: anywhere-anytime availability and low prices. Then, there's the rise in Big Organic -- brands such as Stonyfield Farms, Kashi and Morningstar. All are now owned by big food conglomerates, who at least take on some of the good practices that grew the brands.
And consumers are increasingly more educated -- see this movie! -- and can vote with their pocketbooks. Food, Inc. notes that even Wal-Mart, that much-derided corporate behemoth, changed its milk brand after tracking shopper purchases; the milk now comes from farmers who've pledged not to treat cows with the rBGH hormone. When a buyer as huge as Wal-Mart tells dairy suppliers "no more rBGH," the impact is significant.
However, it's not as simple as saying "no." Even in its brief length, Food, Inc. does establish that "eating well" involves shifting such monoliths as federal oversight, advertising, consumer spending and eating habits, and undoing a subsidized system that makes soda pop, for example, substantially cheaper than fresh fruit juice.
But try we must. Behind the pastoral farm scene on the packet of cheap breakfast sausages we enjoy, there are myriad hidden costs to public health, the environment, workers, and -- in the worst cases -- our most precious right of all: the guarantee that our food is safe, healthful and what we think it is.
Starts Fri., July 17. Manor