If we are what we eat, we're in big trouble according to Robert Kenner's enlightening if not groundbreaking documentary "Food, Inc." Following contemporary mainstream documentary filmmaking's popular recipe of equal parts talking head interviews and field reporting, "Food, Inc." engages in investigations and studies that have been around for a while now about the steroidal industrialization of American food production: it's no surprise that authors Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") are the film's two major presences. But "Food Inc." is important in scope if not discovery, and the large territory it surveys allows it to make crucial connections between the act of buying groceries and illegal immigration, corporate patented seed, and tainted food.
Kenner begins by disabusing viewers of both the myth of the average supermarket's plethora of choices and the false image of agrarian American (resplendent sunsets over heartland farms, et al) sold by what the film calls the "industrial food system." A little more than half a century ago fast food restaurants, and in particular the juggernaut known as McDonald's, brought about an assembly line-like organization to food producers in which uniformity and cheapness of product trumped sound method and quality. Now three or four giant corporations control the meat industry, and the "Your way, right away" demand for more and faster food has resulted in drastic changes in the way animals are raised and slaughtered. A Southern chicken farmer who grows birds for Tyson can't let Kenner's crew venture into his coops--his employers won't allow him. Why? When another farmer, Carole, fed up with the silence she's been pressured to keep, lets Kenner in, we find out: the instituted conditions are deplorable, with sick chickens unable to move, dead carcasses piled high, and so on.
This is nothing revelatory: we've seen similar exposes for years now. "Food, Inc." goes a step further, however, by showing the consequences. We no longer live in the age of "The Jungle" when muckraking could more directly lead to regulation, and Kenner points out how the regulators are now comfortably in bed with the companies they should be regulating. This makes all the more tragic the death of someone like Barbara Kowalcyk's young son Kevin, who earlier this decade died of e coli from a seemingly innocuous fast food burger--the eradication of its replication looks exceedingly dim, and even Kowalcyk won't say on camera what food she eats for fear of corporate reprisal.
There are further horrific and nauseating firsthand accounts (overcrowded animals forced to graze in pools of manure, holes drilled through living cows to gain easy access to their stomachs), but "Food, Inc." is even more interesting beyond the slaughterhouse. For instance, the ubiquity of engineered corn in animal feed and market products leads to bigger problems--cows aren't supposed to eat it but do so because it's cheaper--while working class American families increasingly center their diets around bad calories because those are the ones so heavily subsidized by the industry. Diabetes is on the rise, illegal labor is exploited within dehumanizing plants (these same workers have been driven to the U.S. in greater numbers ever since NAFTA flooded Mexico with cheap corn), and corporations that control seed patents legally intimidate and ruin farmers who use alternatives.
"Food, Inc." would be merely pessimistic if it didn't offer some solutions to these problems, but it may have put all its eggs in one basket, so to speak, by going with organic farming and food production as its sole corrective to industrial malfeasance. A few passionate organic farmers interviewed for the film convincingly preach the virtues of small, properly operated farms that don't have to compromise their methods even when in contract with large corporate suppliers. But now that the market for organic food, and organic dairy especially, has bottomed out due to the recession, the film's optimism in this regard comes across as a little naive. Kenner may not have been able to predict the current economic crisis and all its repercussions while making his documentary, but some sort of plan B might have been explored by a film otherwise so thorough in describing a broken system. Yet while I could have also done without the film's hippie-ish, self-righteous coda--which uses titles and a live rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" to exhort viewers to lobby for and purchase safe, healthy food--"Food, Inc." is mostly much better than that: an informative, fascinating seeking out of compelling human evidence of the repercussions of what Schlosser calls "the food-industrial complex."
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Aba