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Food Inc: Michael Pollan and Friends Reveal the Food Industry's Darkest Secrets

The new film Food Inc. is a shocking look at the health, human rights and the environmental nightmare that lands on our plate each meal.
 
 
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It turns out that figuring out the most simple thing -- like what's on your dinner plate, and where it came from -- is actually a pretty subversive act.

That's what director Robert Kenner found out while spending six years putting together the amazing new documentary, Food Inc., which features prominent food writers Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation).

Warning: Food Inc. is not for the faint of heart. While its focus is not on the gory images of slaughterhouse floors and filthy feedlots, what it does show about the journey of our food from "farm" to plate is not pretty.

The story's main narrative chronicles the consolidation of our vast food industry into the hands of a few powerful corporations that have worked to limit the public's understanding of where its food comes from, what's in it and how safe it may be.

But it's also a larger story about the people that have gotten in the way of the stampeding corporate herd -- like farmer Joel Salatin (also profiled in Pollan's Omnivore’s Dilemma), who has bravely bucked the trend to go corporate.

There's also Barbara Kowalcyk, who becomes a tireless food-safety advocate after her 2 1/2-year-old son Kevin died from eating anE. coli-tainted hamburger. And there is the economically strapped Orozco family, which is faced with the difficult decision of whether to save money by buying cheap processed food and spend more later on medical bills, or spring for the more expensive, but healthier food options that stretch its immediate income.

There are also the farmers who appear with their faces blacked out on screen for fear of Monsanto, or the communities ravaged by Type 2 diabetes, or the undocumented workers at processing plants who are recruited from their NAFTA-screwed homelands, illegally brought over the border to work dangerous jobs for peanuts, only to be humiliatingly sacrificed in immigration raids that only criminalize workers and never the employers.

It's really the people that make this film so riveting. If you've read Pollan's or Schlosser's important works, then you already know a lot -- but the film is still eye-opening on so many levels. And sometimes, you really just have to see it to believe it.

Both Pollan and Schlosser narrate the film, but it is the ordinary folks in the film that make you realize how critical these issues are to the future of food, health care, the environment and human rights in this country.

If you care about what you eat, then you should see this film -- and if you do, you'll likely never walk through the supermarket in the same way again. And that's a damn good thing.

AlterNet recently had the chance to talk with Kenner about whether our food is really safe to eat, why the food industry doesn't want us to know what we're eating, and how we can fight back.

Tara Lohan: So how did this film come about?

Robert Kenner: I read Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, and I was struck by the idea that with food, there could be so much we don't know about something we are as familiar with. I began to think about doing a film about how we eat and where the food comes from. Ultimately exploring the idea that -- on one level we are spending less of our paycheck on food today than probably at any point in the history of the world -- and at the same time, this inexpensive food is coming to us at a high cost that you don't see at the checkout counter.

I thought by being able to talk about all the producers -- from the [small farmer] Joe Salatins of the world to big agribusiness -- it could be a very interesting conversation. Unfortunately, that conversation never took place [because the agribusiness companies wouldn't consent to be interviewed], so the movie kept transforming into something different. I was very disappointed in the wall and the veil that was placed between us and this conversation about our food.

TL: What was your learning curve like -- how much did you know about these issues going into this, and what did you learn along the way?

RK: I'm still learning. I didn't come into this as a food activist, I came into this as a filmmaker who found it an interesting conversation. I didn't want to make a film for the converted, I didn't want to make a film for the true believers; I wanted to make a film for people who hadn't thought about the food they are eating. I thought it was most important to try and get people, not to turn their stomachs but to open their eyes.

My previous film was called Two Days in October, and it was a story about Vietnam told from all different points of view, and I found I learned more from the people whose opinions were different than mine, and I thought that was great -- unfortunately, this was the opposite. The people who were different wanted to put up a wall. I didn't realize how subversive the world of food was.

I went to a hearing on whether we should label cloned meats. When the lady who represented the industry spoke and said, "I really think it is not in the consumer's interest to be given this information because it's too confusing," I got goosebumps and thought, "this is scary."

Then I realized that this is happening time and time again, and I hadn't been aware of it -- whether it's GMOs that these corporations say are really good and will save the world but then they'll fight like hell to make sure you don't know it's in your food.

Then there is [food-safety advocate] Barb Kowalcyk, who can't tell me what she eats because of the veggie libel laws. And I'm thinking something is off. If you live in a free society and are going to have free trade, it has got to be based on information; and if we are being denied that information we can't make the right choices. I didn't realize I was making a film about First Amendment rights. There is a lot to the story about our food.

TL: You mentioned not being able to have the conversation you wanted because there were so many corporations that wouldn't go on camera with you, but there were also ordinary people who were afraid to talk.

RK: You know, if you talk, and you're involved in this world of food production, you do so at great peril. And you pay the price. It is amazing how vulnerable you can be if you step forward and enter this conversation.

TL: One of the startling things in the film was the industry connections that so many of the people had who were in positions of power at the FDA and the USDA.

RK: One thing we say in the film is that we are not opposed to people going from industry to government, that is OK. The problem is when they go from industry to government, rule on things they are involved in in industry and then go back to industry with great bonuses. That seems a conflict of interest.

And it wasn't only in the Bush era. In a funny way this crosses boundaries between Democrats and Republicans. On some of the levels, Monsanto has gotten a free ride because people think they are going to save the world with GMOs and their seeds. It has cut across party lines. It feels like tobacco research. Unfortunately, the ag schools have been taken over by industry, and they are now publishing reports.

I think the parallels to tobacco are really true. Eric [Schlosser] has a line that sums it up: that they are huge, powerful, rich corporations thoroughly connected to government issuing misleading statements about their products, saying they are not unhealthy -- ultimately, there are real parallels, and I think as we start to see how unsafe this food is, like tobacco, we are going to change it.

TL: Are you seeing any changes in the first few months of the Obama administration?

RK: Well, I think this wasn't a high priority because, obviously, there are huge crisis situations that have to be solved, but I don't think you can solve health care without changing the food system, when 1 out of 3 Americans born after the year 2000 is going to get early-onset diabetes; it is going to bankrupt the health care system. And I think there is a direct connection between food and health.

I don't think you can deal with the environment without dealing with the food system when 20-25 percent of your carbon footprint involves growing and transporting food.

I think these issues are coming to the surface and are becoming more important, there has just been some movement on food safety where the FDA will have the power to recall food (which they do not have now), such as Nestle's cookie dough, which has E. coli in it.

TL: So, right now, the FDA doesn't have the power to recall food?

RK: The hamburger that killed Barb's son prompted her to help create Kevin's Law to get the USDA, which is in charge of meat, to be able to recall food. It's a complex situation -- the USDA oversees meat, but if it's a cheeseburger, then it's the FDA, because it's dairy. But neither of them have the power to recall food. The hamburger that killed Barb's son sat on the shelves for 12 days after he died when they knew where it came from, but the government couldn't recall it -- it was up to the corporation. Hopefully that one will start to be changed.

But we are subsidizing food that is making us sick in an even bigger way than E. coli, and that's obesity and diabetes. And I think that we have to figure out a way to turn the farm bill into the food bill.

TL: What does that mean?

RK: To start representing eaters' interests, not agribusiness. Unfortunately, that bill doesn't come up again until 2012. When we screened the film for [USDA head Tom] Vilsack, he said "we need a movement to follow. If there is a movement, we can help follow, but we can't change farm subsidies without people demanding it." Because he's up against agribusiness, and they're very powerful.

TL: To me one of the shocking numbers in the film were the figures for diabetes, which you mentioned -- 1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 and 1 in 2 who are minorities -- are there people in the health community who are drawing these connections?

RK: Oh yeah, that's why we can't have health care reform without fixing that. Diabetes is going to be so expensive. I really hope that we battle this idea of elitism, that people say that the can only afford bad food. That's why I think that family in the film was so important, because we have people who have a hard time paying for healthier, less-processed food, but meanwhile, they are now paying for it in their health care costs. The invisible costs are becoming very real for them, and how many people in that community have diabetes is astounding. They could not believe I didn't know someone without Type 2 Diabetes.

TL: So, based on everything you've learned in this film, do you think of our food as being safe to eat?

RK: I try not to eat industrialized foods as much. What is the bigger danger, is the idea of how they figure out how to deliver salt, sugar and fat to us. Sixty-four percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. I think, like tobacco they are trying to figure out how to sell you a product that is a bit addicting, and they are using billions of dollars of advertising, and they are training kids to do it at an early age, and they are overwhelming taste buds. So that's the scary part.

TL: One of the things I liked in the film was talking, not just about the environmental and health impacts of the food we are eating, but about the labor laws and the treatment of the workers in some of the processing plants.

RK: For me, one of the shocks of making this film was that at every rural location we went to there were parts of towns that only spoke Spanish and that our food is grown and processed by illegal immigrants, and it is really this hypocritical world that we live in because we are depending on them to deliver this inexpensive food to the supermarket, but yet we also don't want them in our communities because people think it taxes communities -- the health care and schools.

But unfortunately, the people who get arrested are the workers who are working hard and doing their part, and the reason they are being hired is because they are doing difficult, dangerous, low-paying jobs, and only people without rights would want to do that work. And that for me was as important as talking about how the animals are mistreated -- I tried not to even go there. But people are always shocked by animal mistreatment in the film, and I didn't think I even put it in.

TL: I think there were some pretty gruesome scenes.

RK: God, I was just talking with my editor, and we thought we took them out. What you don't see in this film, and I didn't even want to go there ... you see the chickens, but the fact is that pigs don't move except for the day they are executed, or cows just sit in their own excrement -- you know thousands of them in these giant factory feedlots. We've created megafactories, and it's not just the meat, it is the tomatoes and all the way down the line -- we've created a machine of great efficiency that produces the food rather inexpensively, but it comes with great consequence.

TL: One of the lighter scenes in the film is where the Wal-Mart reps go out to this small organic dairy farm that is selling its milk to Stonyfield Farms.

RK: Oh yes, this happened right at the end of the film, and we were trying to get Wal-Mart in, and all of a sudden they said yes, we'd like to come. Whoever was willing to appear in the film, I wanted to present them in the best possible light. It is very easy to say a lot of negative things about Wal-Mart, and we wouldn't be the first to do it, but I also thought that I wanted to use that section of the film to show that consumers have power and that we are not out to make a film about how terrible every corporation is, because I do think there is a role in corporations helping to change the system, and we have to talk about that.

TL: What's so funny is when the farmer meets the Wal-Mart reps ...

RK: Yeah, she says, "I've never been in your stores -- we boycott you -- and I've been doing it for so long, I can't even remember why." She was great.

TL: It makes you realize how complex the food system is, when small organic farmers are also dependent on Wal-Mart to sell what they are producing. What do you think people should be doing -- shopping locally and organically is good -- but what else?

RK: I think the big thing is that we're not going to be perfect, so if you can change one meal a day, you're going to have a huge impact. Go totakepart.com -- that lists things we can be doing and organizations to get involved with to help make change.

We say, we vote three times a day -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- but we also vote with our vote. When it comes to our meals, there is local, which I think is the best, it affects things on so many levels. There is organic -- I was in fields where people had to wear spacesuits, and I don't think we should be eating food when people need spacesuits to grow it. When you go to the supermarket, start to read labels. All those funny words are corn and soy, and they are going to not be good for you. And know you have power -- talk to people, ask for things you want. But don't feel bad if you're not perfect.

People think if they can't do it all the time they don't have to do anything. Change one meal. But then we have to stop subsidizing food that is making us sick, we have to change the national school-lunch program. If we supported local farms and got that to the school systems and spent a dollar there, we'd save a a fortune in medicine and train kids to eat right, and we'd have better communities.

We have to vote with our votes and our forks. I am really optimistic that it's going to change. I feel a sense of real growth -- it might not be quick, but it is going to change, there is a real growing movement. The question is when. This is an unsustainable system, it can't go on.

To seeFood Inc., find a theaternear you.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @ TaraLohan.