Review: “Food Inc.”, directed by Robert Kenner


It’s difficult to diet. It’s usually at the point that one decides to cut back that chocolates, cakes and cookies seem to lay in wait in supermarkets and farmers markets, ready to pounce upon one’s tastebuds. The scent of sizzling steak or bacon suddenly wafts through the air, and in the bright early summer sunshine, healthy, hearty individuals appear at tables outside pubs, sipping pints of golden ale.

However, I suggest if you are having trouble getting started with reducing your intake, a good way to begin is to watch Food Inc., which was directed by Robert Kenner.

The film’s stated intent is to peel away the mask from the modern food industry. As it demonstrates at the start, when we think of food, the mental images tend to be pastoral, if somewhat quaint: we envisage cows in a verdant field, chewing on grass. We think of farmers tilling the soil in sun-dappled landscapes. Chickens strut around yards strewn with hay, pecking their way through corn; roosters perch atop fences and crow at the first light of dawn.

However, thanks to the research in part provided by Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation” and Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Food Inc. ruthlessly rips apart our assumptions, and shows how awful the food business has become in the United States.

First, there are no verdant fields. The point is driven home by an aerial view of a cattle ranch: I saw no green, rather, it was just a brown patch of earth, with far too many cattle huddled together. I assumed that the brown was not soil. The cattle are given the wrong feed: rather than provided with grass, they are fed corn, which has the unintended consequence of encouraging the growth of the E.Coli bacillus. As a food safety activist recounts in this film, this disregard for safety has led to many deaths, including the passing of her own young son from kidney failure less than two weeks after consuming an infected hamburger.

Was the food industry’s response to switch their cattle to a grass diet? No. Rather, they send ground beef to a plant in Nebraska which literally washes the meat with ammonia. According to the proud owner of the “washing” plant, his business was booming.

After all, a grass diet is expensive compared to corn. The film also explores the perverse relationship between big business, the American government and corn: the crop is subsidised to the point that its price is below the cost of production, a situation which has driven Mexican farmers out of business and encouraged illegal immigration, and then the migrants end up working for large food conglomerates in low paid, dangerous meat packing jobs. The companies themselves are never charged with any infractions, but they do allow the deportation of some of their workers from time to time. More pertinently, the ridiculous system of corn production has led to the crop being utilised as cattle feed, in spite of the obvious drawbacks. It also makes an appearance in many products as high fructose corn syrup, which has long been used in place of sugar. The film shows us an entire list of products which contain it, some of which were a complete surprise.

What both corn and livestock have in common is that they are treated as industrial products, rather than as anything linked to an agrarian heritage or concern for the land; we are informed that the arrival of the fast food industry was a contributing factor. The assembly line nature of cooking McDonalds’ hamburgers led to a situation in which the contributing ingredients were also produced in an mechanised manner. It has led to larger and fewer conglomerates producing food, who use their leverage to squeeze costs, influence the political process, destroy the environment and overcome safety regulations. It means that fast food is cheaper in the United States than vegetables: Food Inc. introduces us to an impoverished family who are suffering from a bevy of health problems as a result, including Type 2 diabetes.

Just when one reaches the point that one never wants to eat in the United States again, the film shows that it’s no fun being a farmer either. Monsanto, which was recently labelled the most unethical company in the world, develops genetically modified soybeans as a mainstay of its business. But even if you don’t buy their soybeans, they have managed to “patent life” as it were: so if a honeybee lands in a field full of Monsanto beans, and then carries pollen to a field which isn’t, the resulting seed is considered Monsanto’s property. We are shown the heartbreaking case of soybean farmers in the Midwest who didn’t want to use Monsanto’s seeds, but nevertheless were sued as if they were stealing them right out of the factory: it proved to be less expensive for the farmers to just settle. A seed cleaner, whose role it is to help farmers preserve seeds for planting the following year, was similarly subjected to rough treatment: he also settled out of court and apparently was forced to shut down his business.

At this point, the question is raised, where is the government in all this? Well, it appears that it is right in the food industry’s pocket: the revolving door relationship between companies like Monsanto and the government is dramatically illustrated. For example, a lawyer who advised Monsanto on genetically modified product labelling is shown to have ended up being in charge of such labelling at the Food and Drug Administration. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion on the case which allowed Monsanto to “patent life”, had worked for them in a previous capacity. This is by no means a “Republican problem”; Democrat administrations are just as linked and just as culpable.

So: the film shows that the food supply is unsafe and unhygenic, it exploits both producers and consumers alike, and has thoroughly corrupted the United States government and the justice system. So what’s the good news? Food Inc. fortunately isn’t devoid of it: we are shown an organic producer who refuses to scale up, and by and large, lives up to the mental image one has of a farmer: the animals are rightly placed in verdant fields and even though we’re shown how chickens are taken to slaughter, the sight is strangely appetising. We are also introduced to a larger concern, Stonyfield Farms, which provides organic dairy products; they seem to be operating at a higher level of environmental and social concern despite having been bought by the giant Groupe Danone and becoming a supplier to Wal Mart. However, the special features on the DVD made me worried about the latter case: an interview with the director is preceded by a “sponsored by Stonyfield Farms” message. Nevertheless, the CEO of Stonyfield did make one useful point: it is consumers at the point of purchase who are best positioned to change how the food system works at the present time. Given he American government’s bipartisan collusion with the food industry, it’s difficult to disagree.

After the film ended, I tried to comfort myself with the thought that at least the rules in Europe are tighter and genetically modified shenangians are less prevalent here. However due to previous work I’ve done, I have a passing acquaintance with the food industry in Britain: as constrained as they may be, it’s not because of moral compulsion. Given the opportunity, they would like to ape their cousins across the Atlantic; I recall reading one particularly disgusting article about how pies were manufactured: it seriously discussed using cheaper cooking oils plus more water and filler in order to cut costs, yet ensure “quality” was maintained. Indeed, Food Inc. drives the point home that eating anything that doesn’t come directly from the producer runs the risk of coming from such dubious practices; once again, it proves that when faced with a choice between thinking about the customer or the bottom line, and I suggest these two parties are increasingly in opposition, they will always favour the latter. Food Inc. provides a disgusting, if necessary public service in forcing us to confront this reality, as well as having the side benefit of being an excellent appetite suppressant.

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