Food, Inc.

By Michael T. Dennis


“Food, Inc.” is a film long overdue, though not for lack of trying.  In this documentary, the issue of industrial food production in the U.S. is explored in an engaging, informative way that was lacking in earlier attempts.  The film's subject is timely and its message powerful–it may affect the lives of viewers who see it.


Based loosely on Eric Schlosser's best-seller “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and the award winning “The Omnivore's Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, “Food, Inc.” is a study of the food we eat, where it comes from, the problems it causes, and what alternatives are available.  Opening with a quick history of the food industry, as we know it today, which rose up in the mid-20th century to supply the rapidly expanding fast food chains, the film is part exposé, part call to action.


The movie achieves a balance that's been lacking in other films about the food issue. “Fast Food Nation,” directed by Richard Linklater and based on the same book as “Food, Inc.,” forced too many random, disconnected stories onto the screen in an attempt to explore the human cost of food production.  Its gross-out footage of cow guts is somehow removed from the experience of buying beef at the store, and other than going on a hunger strike no options for fixing the system were offered.


“The Future of Food,” directed by Deborah Koons in 2004, takes a more traditional docu approach but turns into a dry, narrow discussion of the legal questions surrounding genetically modified food products.  It may be important but it's hard to sit through.


With “Food, Inc.”, director Robert Kenner calls on his background in TV documentaries to produce a film that tells stories while offering useful information; it's like finding a creative way to get a child to eat their vegetables.  The broad scope of the discussion, broken neatly into dozen segments, feels comprehensive.  While much of its discussion is negative (there is a lot of down side), the conclusions are refreshingly sensible and hopeful.


Pairing statistics with images keeps the pace brisk and the information stream flowing.  It's one thing to read that “30% of the land in the U.S. is used for planting corn.” but it's quite another to witness the endless fields in a soaring helicopter shot.  Likewise, slaughterhouse footage is in turn distressing and saddening.  A camera following a “good” farmer as she walks through her chicken house, collecting dead animals from the overflowing pens, has strong impact.


Furthermore, Kenner makes strong characters out of his interview subjects, who range from the mother of a child, who died after eating tainted meat, to an old school farmer, whose family business is a model for what a healthy food infrastructure might look like.  An ex-environmentalist talks about shoppers gradually forcing Wal-Mart to abandon industrially produced milk and yogurt, and a union leader explains how the food companies employ a revolving-door policy of hiring illegal immigrants—until they are inevitably arrested and a new group can be bussed in.  That these participants come from such a wide variety of backgrounds makes it easy to identify with them, suggesting not only how widespread failures of the food market are but how they affect our lives in multiple ways.


“Food, Inc.” does come down pretty hard on Big Food.  Ominous music creeps into the soundtrack whenever special interest politics or corporate lawyers are mentioned.  In several instances, on-screen text notes that the company under discussion refused the filmmakers' requests for interviews (though how an abstract entity like a corporation shows up for an interview is a mystery to me).  It's important to keep this subjectivity in perspective.  While there might have been a time when it would have been considered a shortcoming, in the age of Michael Moore it is merely a symptom of the postmodern documentary.  With a clear agenda it documents one particular side of an issue.  To its credit, the film illuminates points that are difficult to talk about–in some cases, interview subjects stop talking in mid-sentence to consider the legal implications of their words.


The second half of “Food, Inc.” contains more talking heads and is less interesting, but this is made up for in the quality of the discussion and the presence of the strong characters.  It lures you in, then spills the facts, some of which are hard to swallow.


Ultimately the effectiveness of this film should be judged on personal level.  Unlike “Fast Food Nation” and “The Future of Food.” it actually made me reconsider my eating habits.  This writer loves the occasional burger and sings the praises of veal, but it may be a long while before I partake of either again.  A recent trip to the local market was the most satisfying food buying experience in recent memory, and my purchases were definitely informed by what I learned here.  By turning the subject of two popular books into a perfectly watchable documentary, “Food, Inc.” signals that it's time to take this issue to the mass audience and start an “eating revolution.”




Participant Media and River Road Entertainment

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures

Directed by Robert Kenner

Producers, Robert Kenner, Richard Pearce, Elise Pearlstein, William Pohlad, Jay Redmond, Melissa Robledo, Eric Schlosser, Robin Schorr, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann

Original Music, Mark Adler

Cinematography, Richard Pearce

Film Editing, Kim Roberts