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.