LITTLE ROCK Maybe you think you're pretty careful about what you eat. No fast food, no junk food - maybe you're just this side of smug about what you put in your temple of a body. You probably don't want to see Robert Kenner's professionally realized agitprop Food, Inc., a gut-wrenching expose of corporate food processing, lest it explode your illusions of wellbeing and self-determination. The film suggests that healthy eating is harder to accomplish than reading labels and counting calories.
Early on, one of the documentary's two guiding stars, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, imparts the film's key argument, that the food industry doesn't want us to know what goes on in its labs and slaughterhouses. We have become disconnected from the natural cycles of nutrition, accepting the romanticized view of a pastoral American agriculture still promulgated on package labels and commercials.
Meanwhile, the reality is that we have been distanced from our food, and that the factory has supplanted the family farm as the supplier of our foodstuffs. From Virginia organic farmer Joel Salatin we learn it's generally illegal to slaughter chickens outside in the fresh air; these days most of that necessary dirty work is done in windowless processing sheds.
Salatin, who emerges as one of the few uplifting voices in the documentary, is also one of the heroes of The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals - a best-selling book by Michael Pollan, who serves as the film's other primary talking head. If a lot of what's recounted here seems familiar (and it might, given that the documentary Super Size Me, Richard Linklater's feature Fast Food Nation and Aaron Woolf's 2007 documentary King Corn all cover the same thematic territory), that doesn't make it any less important. You don't need to stake out a McDonald's to see that America has an eating disorder.
Director Kenner, a longtime producer for PBS, begins in the supermarket and methodically follows the chain back to the feedlots and fields of America's increasingly industrialized farms, revealing the huge influence of the corn lobby (the cruelty of chicken producers, the frightening consequences of altering a cow's natural diet and the horrific case study of 2-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk, who died after eating a fast-food hamburger tainted with E. coli bacteria). While it's obviously a one-sided affair, invitations were extended to representatives of the food industry, who universally declined the chance to speak on (or off) camera.
Though there's an attempt at injecting a bit of optimism at the end, Kenner's film makes it clear that the demand for cheap food has resulted in a glut of suspicious, possibly dangerous comestibles. Like a 21st-century updating of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's activist novel, Food, Inc. is infuriating and disheartening, as it introduces us to the unpleasant verities of eating and the cynical rationalizations of those who purport to feed us.
MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 07/17/2009