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Film Review

Food Inc

We are what we eat, and Americans are not eating well. Robert Kenner has produced an smart, important but very unsettling documentary, Food Inc, that looks at what has happened to our food, and the complex relationships between the fast food industry, farm subsidies, the rise of huge industrial food corporations, and the effects on our health. He draws heavily from two recent books, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, with both authors doing much of the narration. Anyone who has read them will find the thrust of the film familiar, but will be astonished, disgusted, and appropriately frightened by the big picture, which is very complex. Perhaps most frightening is the extent of corporate capture of regulatory agencies designed to protect the food supply and the industry tactics to hide the problems with the industrialization of our food system.

Kenner begins his film with gorgeous images of endless corn fields juxtaposed with supermarket shelves, and narration that is not easily forgotten, such as "The way we eat has changed more in the past 50 years than in the past 10,000 years" and "There are no seasons in the American supermarket." His most important point is probably that the food "industry does not want you to know the truth about your food, because if you knew, you might not want to eat it." And consequently have gone to great lengths to conceal the scale of their operations and the content of much of the food we eat. Food Inc is divided into chapters, beginning with Fast Food. He discusses the revolution that the McDonald brothers initiated with their concept of applying factory organization to restaurants, illustrated with some great footage from the 1950's. Their idea was to use standardized components assembled by workers doing a single task, which could produce food quickly at much lower costs. Clearly it was a business success, and now McDonald's is the largest purchaser of ground beef and potatoes in the world, and nearly the largest of chickens. Because their equipment, cooking times, and techniques are standardized, the raw materials must be absolutely uniform. Inherent flavor and nutrition are secondary, as they are chemically added during processing or assembly. Major corporations, such as Perdue and Tyson, have grown to supply the fast food industry and supermarket food. They breed chickens that can barely support themselves due to their accelerated growth and huge breasts, and never see the light of day. This industrialization of chicken farms has replaced tobacco in many southern states, and the interview with a Kentucky chicken farmer and the views of his chicken barns are fascinating, but chilling. He is under contract to Perdue, who has ordered him not to permit any photography inside the barns. Perdue, like every other corporation mentioned in the film, refused to grant interviews or permit filming. An interview with a second farmer, Carole, is more revelatory. She has the older style chicken barns which permit sunlight, but her criticism of the entire system is damning. Perdue refused to extend her contract. There is a shocking hidden camera sequence of chickens being loaded at a Perdue facility that you won't soon forget, which makes it clear why these companies are so secretive.

The chapter on corn is fascinating, and the key to understanding the problem. Corn, and to a less extent, soybeans, are the basis for 90% of our processed food today. Not only high fructose corn syrup, but a long list of other products that we commonly see listed in ingredients. Kenner explains how subsidies for commodity crops, especially corn, have driven down prices, and made it possible for food to be very cheap. So cheap that corn is now the principal feed for cattle now, which has made beef far cheaper than ever, but with unexpected consequences, another chapter. Cattle evolved to eat grass, but feeding them corn lets them gain weight far more quickly. We see depressing footage of downer cows being pushed by forklifts, and astonishing aerial shots of huge feed lots, with the cattle crushed against each other, knee deep in their own manure. The scale of these operations is staggering, a consequence of the consolidation of the meat packing industry, from 1300 slaughter houses 20 years ago, to 4 meat packing firms that now control 80% of the nation's beef. One unexpected consequence is that they are far more likely to harbor E-coli bacteria on a corn diet. And combined with the wide spread use of antibiotics, these bacteria have become more wide spread and antibiotic-resistant. We read about massive beef recalls nearly every month, and the tragedies that often result are shown in a very painful series of home movies of a little boy, Kevin Kowalcyk ,taken just before he died from E-coli poisoning from hamburgers. His mother is now an activist for food safety laws, and her on-camera attempts to persuade legislators show how difficult it is to reform the system.

The chapter on Monsanto and their attempts to intimidate farmers is the most frightening episode in the film. The Supreme Court decided that companies could patent gene sequences, and consequently, genetically modified plants. Monsanto introduced a soybean that is engineered to be resistant to a weed killer, but the farmer must always buy the seed from Monsanto and is forbidden to save any seed for next year's planting. If Monsanto suspects that a farmer has been saving seed from his own harvest, they have a team of 75 private investigators with subpoena power, and make unannounced visits, almost invasions, and often sue the farmers. No farmer can afford to fight them. Their lawsuit against an Indiana seed cleaner is described and filmed; sad and infuriating. You wonder, is this still America? Part of the equation here is that these corporations have essentially captured the regulatory agencies designed to protect us. Clarence Thomas was an attorney for Monsanto, and after joining the Supreme Court, was a key vote for patenting gene sequences. Senior FDA administrators have often been either lobbyists for food corporations or former employees, a trend that was particularly prevalent under the previous administration.

There is so much illustrated and narrated in this relatively short film (93 minutes) that it would take many pages to describe. The cinematography is riveting, whether from hidden cameras or the interiors of these enormous factories with their endless disassembly lines. Some of the footage is horrifying, such as the shots of hogs being crushed by what looks like a huge press on the "kill floor". But this is a sober film, not hysterical, and done with restraint, facts, and interesting people. The narration is always calm, professional, and effective. The printed coda, accompanied by the sounds of Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie's This Land is your Land, is basically optimistic, and tells us that we can effect change, and how. Eat local, eat seasonal, eat organic, support your local farmers' market, and don't eat anything with ingredients that your five year old can't pronounce. And demand that our regulatory agencies regulate with a view toward protecting the public, not the industry. Robert Kenner has succeeded in showing us what has happened to our food, and why. He is to be congratulated. Food Inc is a truly important film that all Americans need to see. You will leave astonished, angry, and with a very different view of our food. Screening now at the Bridge and the Embarcadero.

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