STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This year's summer action films include a suspense thriller that chases the action on the farm. It is, in fact, a documentary, and it's a fierce argument for Americans to pay attention to where their food really comes from. It's called "Food, Inc." and it takes aim at corporate giants behind the food supply. It makes heroes out of unlikely characters, like small-scale organic farmers who denounce big agribusiness.
Mr. JOEL SALATIN (Farmer): When you add up the environmental costs, societal costs, health costs, the industrial food is not honest food. It's not priced honestly. It's not produced honestly. There's nothing honest about that food.
INSKEEP: That opinion comes from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, one of the characters featured in "Food, Inc." And we're going to talk about the movie with the director, Robert Kenner, as well as food advocate and author Michael Pollan, who is featured in the movie. Welcome to you both.
Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author): Thank you.
Mr. ROBERT KENNER (Director, "Food, Inc."): Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: Michael Pollan, this film in which you collaborated begins early on with shots of supermarket aisles stuffed with food. I see one thing when I look at that. What do you want me to see if I walk into a supermarket?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think I want you to see the kind of pastoral illusion that we're spinning in the way we market food.
INSKEEP: You mean the pictures of the barn and the farm field, and...
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, you know, it looks like - you would think it comes from farms and that the meat comes - you know, ranchers in big hats on horses are producing the meat. But, in fact, our food system has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, and that, you know, that is in some ways a very disturbing, although gripping, story.
INSKEEP: You want me to be disturbed when I go into the supermarket?
Mr. POLLAN: I want you to think. I mean, I think the key is to eat more consciously. We eat in this haze of disinformation without really thinking what is at stake, you know, that an animal died so you could have your hamburger, and that there was a whole elaborate food chain and that people worked to produce that hamburger. You know, it's an engagement with the natural world.
Mr. KENNER: We're also not getting the information about what this food is doing to us, and I think there are parallels with the tobacco industry. These are very powerful corporations who are serving us this food. They have very strong connections to government, and we're not getting the information on what this food is doing to us.
INSKEEP: There is a single sentence early in this film that seems to lay out your entire argument. I think we could spend the rest of the interview discussing the assertions you make in this one sentence. And let's listen.
(Soundbite of movie "Food, Inc.")
Unidentified Man: Now our food is coming from enormous assembly lines where the animals and the workers are being abused, and the food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us.
INSKEEP: Let's go through the clauses of that sentence, gentlemen. Our food is coming from enormous assembly lines, you say. What do you mean by that?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, if you want to see where your chicken comes from, it is huge, you know, the size of football fields, chicken houses, 40,000, 50,000 birds. They live a fraction of what their life was because now with the kind of pharmaceuticals we have, the kind of feed we have, the kind of breeding we've done, they've sped up their life to the point where they develop these huge breasts in a couple weeks.
INSKEEP: They get very fat very fast.
Mr. POLLAN: They get very fat, and, in fact, they can't really stand very well. Their legs cannot keep up with their breasts because we want to eat breast meat.
Mr. KENNER: But it's across the board that our food has become industrialized. It's not only the chickens, it's the lettuce and it's the tomatoes, that we've figured out how to be very, very efficient in growing this food. But it's also not nearly as nutritious, and it comes at a high cost, as I said.
INSKEEP: Michael Pollan?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, there's a - in a couple ways. I mean, look, we've gotten really good - and we should acknowledge this achievement, that for less than you would earn at the minimum wage in America, you can walk into a fast food outlet and get thousands upon thousands of attractive calories. That is an achievement. I think it's just important that we recognize the cost.
And one of the costs is safety. I mean, we have an epidemic of food-safe, food-borne illness. And it's not that we didn't ever have them. I mean, Aunt Mabel's potato salad has been killing people for generations, but it was contained because we had a decentralized system. Now if you've got one hamburger grinding plant feeding millions of people in a week and the average hamburger has material from 400 different cows in it, that if there is a problem in that system, it's a big national story.
INSKEEP: I want to come to the next phrase in that sentence. You say that food is coming from enormous assembly lines and go on to say where the animals and workers are being abused. Now you just talked about chickens. It sounds appalling, and the pictures are appalling. And yet I was thinking about it, even under the old system, aren't these chickens living a very short life and being killed, anyway? I mean, do these things really make that much difference?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, their lives are about half as long as they once were, actually.
Mr. BRENNER: But on Joel's farm, he says my chickens - you know, every day of their life is a happy day, except for their last day.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is Joel Salatin, the organic farmer, not the industrial farmer.
Mr. BRENNER: Correct. On the industrial farm, these chickens basically - it's not a very pleasant existence. But I was as interested in the life of the workers who are processing this food. A vast majority of our food is both grown and processed by illegal immigrants because these are jobs most Americans don't want, and these people are the ones who are being arrested when the raids come, not the companies who are hiring them.
INSKEEP: Let's go through a little more of this key sentence that you have here. You've said our food is coming from enormous assembly lines where the animals and the workers are being abused, and go on to say and the food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us. You insist upon the word deliberately.
Mr. BRENNER: These companies will do whatever they can to keep the illusion that this food has not changed.
Mr. POLLAN: The major - 90 percent of Americans would like to see a label on products as to whether they're genetically modified or not - 90 percent. We have no such law. And the industry that makes these seeds, Monsanto and others, has fought tooth and nail to make sure we don't know this information. They don't want us to know that. So, yeah, deliberate, I think, is a fair word.
INSKEEP: What is the evidence that companies like Monsanto are fighting tooth and nail, as you say, to make sure, Michael Pollan, that we don't know this?
Mr. POLLAN: Oh, the lobbying effort on Congress. They've lobbied Congress. They've lobbied the government, testified repeatedly against any efforts to label their products.
INSKEEP: I want to play one more piece of tape from the film "Food, Inc." And this is one of the industry representatives who did speak with you. His name is Richard Lobb, and he represents something called the National Chicken Council.
(Soundbite of movie, "Food, Inc.")
Mr. RICHARD LOBB (National Chicken Council): What the system of intensive production accomplishes is to produce a lot of food on a small amount of land at a very affordable price. Now somebody explain to me what's wrong with that.
INSKEEP: Does he have a point this far? That this is a country like the rest of the world where people used to be very badly malnourished and where people used to spend a lot higher percentage of their income on food than they have to do now, that there are benefits to this industrial agriculture?
Mr. POLLAN: Without question. There are benefits. And I think he laid them out really, really well. But I think we've got to be very candid about the tradeoffs, that driving to a system that allows all of us to eat nine ounces of meat per person, per day, that allows us to feed ourselves on only nine percent of our income, less than any people in history, that is quite an achievement. But it has come at an exorbitant cost, because this system depends on cheap fossil fuel to work. This system depends on antibiotics to work. This system depends on abused workers and animals to work. And, you know, if people want to pay those costs for cheap food, that's great. But let's tell them about the costs first.
INSKEEP: Michael Pollan is author of, among other books, "In Defense of Food." Thanks.
Mr. POLLAN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And he's in our studios with Robert Kenner, director of "Food, Inc." Thanks very much.
Mr. KENNER: Thank you so much, Steve.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.