“In a world where corn dominates man, scientists manipulate genetics to create untested plants and animals, and the government is a puppet to a handful of food companies, no one is safe.”
No, that’s not the promotional trailer for a summer action movie, nor is it the actual lead-in for the “documentary” — and I use that term loosely — Food, Inc. But that’s the impression the filmmakers want to make. It “lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer...,” says a promotional piece.
It may not find its way into your theater, but your city counterparts will have access to Food, Inc. It’s just as well that you don’t shell out $8 for a ticket and boost the movie’s theater ratings or revenue. But renting a DVD and seeing what it has to say about U.S. food production today would be a few dollars well spent. There’s also a companion book of the same title set for release.
The film is the love child of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Eric Schlossar, who wrote Fast Food Nation, which became a movie in 2001; and director Robert Kenner. Pollan, whose numerous books and articles have decried the physical and even moral hazards of the industrial food system, and Schlosser both make dominant appearances throughout the film.
To be sure, Food, Inc. is well constructed, clever and even entertaining at times. It features just the right tone of “facts” that will give it significantly more credibility with the public than it deserves.
The movie begins with picturesque scenes of American farmland, panning from golden wheat fields to a cowboy riding the range with his cattle. Then the camera zooms in on a grocery cart piled with packaged, processed food as it rolls down supermarket aisles. In the background eerie music plays, presenting an ominous image and feeling.
The film points out that the pastoral fantasy of American agriculture placed on package
from breakfast sausage to cereal boxes is not the reality; that in fact, great danger lurks behind cheery images of farm families; and that the food industry doesn’t want consumers to understand their food’s origins.
Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and Monsanto are all singled out to take particularly big hits. For example, a Smithfield packing plant is the focus of an immigration discussion. However, the film does not take an equal look at the produce industry and its dominant immigrant workforce. The produce industry is virtually absent, as director Kenner focuses the camera on the meat, poultry and corn industries, food manufacturers and the “industrial food complex.”
Repeatedly the film tells the audience that the various featured companies were contacted to participate in the film but refused. As I watched the film, those “revelations” eventually met with boos and hisses from the audience. There’s certainly more to that story; those companies are savvier than to just say “No.”
Not surprising, the film touts the wholesome virtues of natural and organic food products, as well as folksy “sustainable” agriculture. “We can feed the world with sustainable agriculture,” claims an organic farmer featured in the film.
Most significantly, the film draws a distinct correlation between today’s “Big Food” industry and yesterday’s “Big Tobacco” industry. There is a clear message that “the food industry knows it’s manipulating Americans and providing them with unhealthy food — and it doesn’t care.” The other point it drives home is “you — the public — have to demand change because the industries, manufacturers and the government won’t.” Kenner and his partners want to trigger Americans to rise up and take aim at lawmakers and government regulators they say have been corrupted by lobbyists for agribusiness.
It’s easy to think this is just another crazy film with a radical message, but it has gotten a lot of public traction. Radio and television coverage has been plentiful — Good Morning America, The Daily Show, ABC’s Nightline among others, a variety of radio interviews and print coverage, including Time magazine, The New York Times and much more. It got two thumbs up from the At the Movies hard-nose reviewers.
Still, who cares? Don’t kid yourself; this is just one more piece that continues to add up and seep deeper into the public psyche. With legislation to ban antibiotic use in food-animal production, ever-expanding environmental protocols and growing animal well-being pressures from outside sources, do you really need to ask if these efforts aren’t having an impact in the halls of Congress, classrooms or homes?
An alliance of meat and poultry groups did set up a Web site to counter nearly every claim in the documentary — check it out at safefoodinc.com.
Of course, several food and agriculture groups stepped forward to speak up and defend food producers. Janet Riley with American Meat Institute did a particularly nice job in her response on Nightline. But to think this is a passing fancy would be a mistake. Anyone involved with food production, particularly meat, poultry or corn, needs to see what’s being said in this film and what consumers will increasingly accept as true.