The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating because if you knew, you might not eat it.
— Food. Inc
“There are no seasons in the American supermarket. You can get tomatoes all year round,” observes a narrator as you look on a pretty picture of big red orbs. But wait, the voiceover continues, “Although it looks like a tomato, it’s kind of a notional tomato, the idea of a tomato.”
This idea is a bad one, of course. Food, Inc. goes on to explain paired processes –of the idea and the lies about it. Nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar and screening 17 February as part this winter’s Stranger than Fiction series, with director Robert Kenner available for discussion, the film reveals that these notional tomatoes, for instance, are genetically engineered and grown in unnatural environments, the tomatoes that are today so perfectly lit and arranged in vegetable aisle bins are signs of a dodgy future already here. This much you probably know. Indeed, you may know much of the basic story laid out here — for instance, that most food in the U.S. is produced in facilities that are more like factories than farms, that junk food is less expensive than healthy food, that the FDA is not doing its job.
What you may not know (or need to hear again), according to Robert Kenner’s documentary, is that this bad scenario is at least partly orchestrated. It’s not a conspiracy, exactly, but it is the result of decisions made in the face of adverse information, decisions based on bottom lines. As it combines and colorfully composes the reporting in a couple of famous sources — Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma — the movie not only presents an array of complaints, but also calls viewers to action.
The examples of things gone wrong in the food industry are certainly plentiful. The movie begins with a quick trot through fast food history, naming the McDonald brothers as primal-scene villains, as they brought the assembly line to the restaurant kitchen (see also: Super-Size Me), with the “unintended consequence” of a “handful of companies controlling the food supply.” As Food. Inc. puts it, “Even if you don’t eat at a fast food restaurant, you’re eating food produced by the system.”
As one example, the film offers up chickens. Specifically, it looks at abuses by chicken growers — that is, abuses dictated to contractors by corporations like Perdue and Tyson. While Kentucky-based grower Vince Edwards extols the virtues of his Tyson contract (“It’s all a science, they’ve got it all figured out”), he is, off-screen, advised by Tyson reps not to show the inside of his windowless chicken houses to the film crew. While the movie notes in an intertitle that “Tyson declined tot be interviewed for this film,” a point made again later with regard to Smithfield and Monsanto), it does find someone who will speak out: Carole Morison, an outraged chicken grower who brings the cameras inside the house to see crowds of chickens looking miserable (“Their bones and internal organs cant keep up with the rapid growth,” Morison explains, “They take only a few steps then plop down”).
Morison appeared as well in Frontline‘s Poisoned Waters, where she showed how the corporate processing of chickens not only makes for sick chickens, but also for a polluted environment. Here her focus — and that of the close-up shots — is on the chickens fattened and crammed together until they can’t walk and/or drop dead. Those who live long enough to be hauled off on the Tyson trucks are brutally killed (activities revealed by hidden cameras). She not only indicts the process, but also the company’s cunning control over farmers’ economic lives: as the growers must put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to put up houses, they go into debt, which means they cannot refuse the company’s orders. “To have no say in your business, she says, “It’s degrading. It’s like being a slave to the company.” (The film reveals that Morison’s farm was “terminated.”)
It doesn’t have to be this way. Food, Inc. makes this much clear in the time it gives to organic farmer Joel Salatin. His Polyface Farms in Shenandoah Valley, PA is a model of good process: his cows eat grass (as opposed to corn, which fattens them but which they were not built to digest), living their short lives out in fields rather than factory-farms. Salatin spells out the broad cultural dimensions: “We’ve become a culture of technicians,” he asserts, “And a culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human being can foist on that critter will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures in the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentality.”
This would be the film’s argument, that mistreatment of animals (or crops and land and air and water or immigrant workers) is bad for individual bodies as much as it is for populations. And while motivated farmers like Salatin lay out helpful maps for alternative growing methods, Stonyfield Farms CEO Gary Hirschberg provides another way of thinking about distribution. If Salatin is happy not to expand his own operation, the film submits that someone needs to figure out a way to supply food to people who can’t get to or can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. His solution — at least for now — is to work with Walmart. Perhaps not an obvious choice, that mega-store is here presented as cooperative for the usual reasons: the reps say they’re responding to customers, and Hirschberg acknowledges it’s not a function of “moral enlightenment so much as economics.
Food, Inc. begins with the premise that food is, indeed, incorporated and there’s no turning back from that fundamental truth. It focuses instead on how to work with and through that truth. If it uses its own gimmicks and conventions to make the case — slick graphics and repetition, the emotionally wrenching story of Kevin’ s Law, advocated by Barbara Kowalcyk, mother of a child who died of E. coli poisoning because hamburger meat was not properly inspected or recalled — it makes the case. And that’s the first step in the work.