TERRY GROSS, host:
There's a new documentary opening this week that explores the food industry. It's called "Food, Inc." Eric Schlosser, author of the bestseller "Fast Food Nation" is a co-producer and appears on the film along with investigative food writer Michael Pollan. The film also features farmers, scientists and consumers. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: "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 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 the popcorn is a big part of the problem. Thanks to government subsidies, corn is 30 percent of our 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 non-subsidized broccoli head. 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 Kowalczyk's two-and-a-half-year-old son Kevin, who died from E. coli. She's now an activist, here lobbying on the Hill.
Unidentified Woman: We reduced funding for the FDA. We relied increasingly on self-policing for all of these industries, and now we just have really lost our system.
Ms. BARBARA KOWALCZYK (Activist): You know, you are really one of the champions on the Hill for full safety, and it's a very important cause. It's very personal to me and my family. Really our food safety advocacy work started six years ago when my two-and-a-half-year-old son Kevin was stricken with E. coli 157H7, and went from being a perfectly healthy beautiful little boy - I have a small picture with me today that was taken two weeks before he got sick. He went from that to being dead in 12 days.
EDELSTEIN: 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 Eldon Roth demonstrates his new E. coli-killing meat mix-in, a tasty blend of ammonia and ammonia hydroxide. Bon appetite. 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 DDT and Agent Orange manufacturer patented the gene 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.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.