For Health Or Profit, But Not Necessarily For Both

Joel Salatin i i

hide captionPolyface Farms' Joel Salatin, an organic-foods evangelist, relaxes in his field in a scene from Food, Inc.

Magnolia Pictures
Joel Salatin

Polyface Farms' Joel Salatin, an organic-foods evangelist, relaxes in his field in a scene from Food, Inc.

Magnolia Pictures

Food, Inc.

  • Director: Robert Kenner
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 93 minutes

Rated PG: Thematic material and disturbing images

The Orozcos i i

hide captionThe Orozcos family gets food on the run.

Magnolia Pictures
The Orozcos

The Orozcos family gets food on the run.

Magnolia Pictures
Businessmen i i

hide captionBusinessmen wander the field toward the factory.

Magnolia Pictures
Businessmen

Businessmen wander the field toward the factory.

Magnolia Pictures

Food, Inc. is a documentary, but the film it reminds me of most is The Matrix — the movie where humans find out they're living in a simulacrum, a virtual world they mistake for reality. It's the stuff of the most paranoid science fiction.

Author and co-producer Eric Schlosser strolls through a supermarket and explains that most of these colorful foodstuffs, this so-called variety, comes from five corporations that now control 80 percent of the market.

Those company names like Farmland, and the little pictures of family farms? They're fantasy. That red tomato? It is, says Schlosser, a "notional" tomato, flavorless, gassed to be red, ready to be consumed year-round.

That plump chicken? Grown in a factory, never saw daylight, bred to be almost all breast meat so its feet couldn't carry it and its organs barely worked.

And us? The way we eat, says Schlosser, has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000. And the reality has been deliberately hidden from view.

The material of Food, Inc. will be familiar if you've read Schlosser's Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma — and Pollan's in the film, too.

But hearing family farmers sued into bankruptcy by giant corporations and seeing chicken factories and hidden-camera slaughterhouse footage — that's gut-wrenching, literally.

Director Robert Kenner lucidly lays out the reasoning of Schlosser, Pollan, scientists and nutritionists; he moves from facts about how we eat now to unintended consequences and hidden costs.

Every line, every frame makes you choke on your popcorn, if for no other reason than that popcorn is a big part of the problem. Thanks to government subsidies, corn is 30 percent of our national crop. It goes into everything, from the high-fructose corn syrup in that soda you're drinking to unlodge the popcorn to the Midol you take for the headache the movie gives you to the e. coli-ridden bellies of factory-farmed cows.

Kenner introduces us to a low-income family buying burgers from a fast-food drive-up, which makes perfect economic sense. Thanks to subsidized corn, it's cheaper to go for the double burger and soda instead of the nonsubsidized head of broccoli. But there is that hidden cost: childhood obesity and mushrooming incidences of diabetes.

The sheer scale of Food, Inc. is mind-blowing: It touches on every aspect of modern life — and death, as in the case of Barbara Kowalcyk's 2-year-old son Kevin, who died from e. coli. She's now an activist, and she carries a picture of Kevin with her as she lobbies on Capitol Hill.

"He went from that," she says, passing the photo of her smiling son to a legislator, "to being dead in 12 days."

Here's one of my favorite bits in Food, Inc., because it's about an insane philosophy. Pollan says you could reduce the e. coli in the guts of cows by 80 percent just by putting them on grass for five days, which sounds like a good deal all around — nature working its magic!

But no, the industry wants a high-tech solution. So supplier Eldon Roth demonstrates his new e. coli-killing meat mix-in, a tasty blend of ammonia and ammonia hydroxide. Bon appetit! (Points to Roth for talking on camera. Perdue, Smithfield, Monsanto and the others declined to give their side.)

The film makes Monsanto out as the scariest. The former manufacturer of DDT and Agent Orange patented a gene that's in 90 percent of the nation's soybean seeds. You'll be driven out of business if you re-use them, as farmers have for thousands of years. You'll even be sued if some of the seed blows onto your land and you wind up with Monsanto-patented soy.

Food, Inc. doesn't end on a down note, though: The music goes from minor to major key. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms makes the case that every food purchase we make is a political act. Wal-Mart sells his organic products because people want to buy them, not because it's morally enlightened.

I was inspired to lobby my local arthouse to stop selling its giant agribusiness popcorn with the fake small-farmer figurehead (a real Matrix character!) and go for something organic. Call me a film critic-slash-activist.

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