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Joel Salatin, Polyface Farms
The director of Food, Inc., Robert Kenner, cut our phone interview short a week ago. It was perfectly understandable; he had to take the call on the other line—his lawyer. According to Kenner, you have to hire the best lawyers for a project of this scope, which takes aim at what giant food corporations have done to America: "I spent more on this film than my other three films combined." Not on production costs, he clarified, but simply on "the lawyers."
When you've made a muckraking documentary that exposes the shocking failures in the American industrial food system, a good lawyer is imperative. And Kenner has made an excellent, must-see film which could potentially turn the audiences vegetarian and at the least should have them rethinking the costs—human, animal, environmental—of their food. "[We] connect the dots between multiple stories and show you how the system isn't working and how frightening it's become," said Kenner. "It's part of an industrialization of food [in America] that's been transformed without [the public] knowing about it. That's why corporations don't want you thinking about it. They wil do anything to stop the consumer getting information about how your food is grown and how they get it. I don't want to tell people what to eat, I just want us to get the right to choose." He added, "We get that information with our cars. How come we don't get that information with our food?"
Food, Inc. grew out of a meeting with Kenner and investigative journalist, author, activist, and eventual co-producer on the film, Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation). They had discussed a potential documentary version of Schlosser's best-selling book, but, as Kenner put it, "people thought they had seen it with Super Size Me [Morgan Spurlock's 2004 McDonald's doc]." Jumping off from that point, Kenner wanted "to make a film about the industrialization of all food. How do we feed ourselves? I thought it would be an interesting topic. I ended up making a very different film than I thought. I was influenced by [Michael Pollan's 2006 best seller] The Omnivore's Dilemma as well, and he came in as a special consultant when we started to film. It was on the shoulders of both their books, but I think it stakes out new territory."
While the film does hit beats that are familiar to fans of both of these books, Food, Inc. does a powerful job of weaving together the multitude of atrocious problems with our food system. One of the many human stories in this film starts with the rise of McDonald's in the 50s. Small farms that produce meat slowly shift over into gigantic factories. In order to keep up with the demand, cows and chickens are genetically modified into freaks that can't even bear their own weight, stuck in deplorable, inhumane conditions, dying in their own excrement.
These conditions lead to E. coli outbreaks. [And the shots of chickens in their pens and cows in factories are horrifying.] One food activist, Barbara Kowalcyk, started to work towards improving food safety after her two-year-old son, Kevin, died from eating a contaminated hamburger. Her heartbreaking story is given even more weight when she can't even say what food she eats these days on camera—because she could be sued by corporations under the "veggie libel laws." Kenner cited this example as proof that "sometimes hamburgers may have more rights than you do. Oprah was sued [in 1995, for not wanting to eat hamburgers when Mad Cow was in the news] and it took her millions of dollars and years to end this case. It's a story about more than food, it's about 1st Amendment rights, our rights as Americans."
Kenner makes a case that something is wrong in the American food system, with stories ranging from factory conditions and the toll on illegal immigrants to the rise of type 2 diabetes. Some stories just couldn't fit, like "tomatoes that are being designed so that they don't spoil and they're square so they pack easier."
The film, however, isn't all gloom and doom. There are some bright spots, namely the delightful farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia. A major character in Pollan's book, his farm is gorgeous, and the farmer speaks with an arresting enthusiasm and evangelism about why local food is good for you. "Every word he said was interesting," said Kenner. "He's got a real twinkle in his eye. And it was so beautiful there. As Joel said, do you want to live near his farm or a pig farm? These industrial places are not pleasant places to be around. They destroy communities. They pollute the earth and they contaminate the water."
Salatin, in comparison to the other people profiled in the film, is a self-made man who appears to know the secret of a good life. He nearly glows with good health. Many of Keller's other subjects—stuck in the industrialized food system—are worn down by the need to make a living, to deal with these corporations, to figure out how to eat well and live well.
Like Keller's subjects, the average American is stuck dealing with the results of the industrialized food system. So what can we do to change this? The director has small suggestions: "If you can start a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] that's great, if you can go to a farmer's market, that's great, if you can try to do anything you can to buy locally, that's wonderful. If you go to the supermarket, buy less processed goods, get the supermarket to sell organic. You vote three times a day with breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
Food, Inc. opens on Friday at Film Forum in New York. Click here for ticket information. Robert Kenner will be present for a Q&A at four shows this weekend: Friday, June 12 and Saturday, June 13, the 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm screenings.
It expands across the country in upcoming weeks.