Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Review: "Food, Inc."

You probably could guess this from the title, but if you're thinking of doing the dinner-and-a-movie thing with "Food, Inc.", don't make the mistake of scheduling the meal after the entertainment.

And this new documentary by Robert Kenner is entertaining, though also very sobering in its exploration of how the American food industry has moved from a farm-based endeavor to a corporatized near-monopoly that values speed and low cost over healthfulness.

It's also a film that makes it very clear from the outset that it has a point of view -- pro-organic food, pro-independent farmer, anti-corporation, anti-industrialization. The opening narration, after all, claims that we've reached a situation where "both the animals and the workers are being abused."

Kenner's tendency to lecture rather than explore occasionally bogs down his argument, as is the near-total absence of perspective from the big food companies (who, unsurprisingly, decline to talk). Even if one swallows his perspective, as I do, the unrelenting one-sidedness of "Food, Inc." adds an unpleasant tang to an otherwise intellectually satisfying meal.

Divided into sections with titles like "Fast Food to All Food" and "Shocks to the System," the documentary talks to farmers, food safety advocates, industry representatives and notable pundits like Eric Schlosser, writer of "Fast Food Nation," and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan.

There are images from inside the massive food-processing plants, including some surreptitiously recorded by employees, that demonstrate what a nasty, impersonal and often unsafe place it is through which our food passes. This is contrasted with an organic farmer who slaughters and cleans chickens behind his house while delivering a pointed critique of industrial methods.

Statistics are let fly that frighten and enlighten: In 1972, the FDA performed about 52,000 food safety inspections; today, that number is around 9,000. It's no surprise that cases of food contamination like E. coli are on the rise, as testified to by a mother-turned-advocate whose 2-year-old was dead 12 days after eating tainted hamburger.

There are also sections explaining what goes into delivering that 99-cent burger to your local fast-food chain, and the prevalence of corn-based products in nearly everything we eat.

One of the most jaw-dropping stories is that of Moe Parr. A chemical company named Monsanto holds patents on genetically-modified seed of crops like corn and soybean, and threatens litigation against any farmer who dares to save any of his seed corn for re-planting -- as has been done for generations. Parr is a 70-something who tows around an 1800s contraption that cleans seeds, so the company is suing him, even though his customers are the holdouts who refuse to use the altered seed. Still, his legal bills mount to the point he is forced to settle.

Kenner ends the film with a litany of exhortations against a black screen, urging viewers to buy food locally, use organic products, etc. "You can change the world with every bite" is the final message. It's a powerful one, although it would be more palatable if it didn't sometimes feel like it was being shoved down our throats.

3 stars

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