A film about what we eat could well win the award for the best horror flick showing in theaters this summer. Take a look, if you’re game, at Food, Inc., though a heads up for animal lovers and vegetarians: This documentary is hard to stomach.
If you’ve read both Fast Food Nation by writer Eric Schlosser, a Food, Inc. co-producer, and Omnivore’s Dilemma by author Michael Pollan, dubbed the ethical epicurean by the New York Times, you may feel like there’s nothing new to be said on the subject of mass produced food. Nonetheless, these two food gurus serve as the talking heads on this doco by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner. In the course of the film Schlosser rightly refers to himself as an investigative reporter. As a journalist with a muckraking past, I was pleased to hear the term and disheartened that it now applies to covering what we consume. Still, as a mostly vegetarian farmers’ market fan, I also figured I was immune to the evil things cooked up by the multinational food conglomerates that Pollan and Schlosser calmly and methodically feed us throughout the film.
Wrong on both counts. I was surprised and outraged all over again about what’s happened to how food is grown and sold in the U.S. and how a few large companies control almost all the food served up in supermarkets. Consider, too, as the film does, a poor Latino family of four who deal with a dilemma faced by many working Americans, namely how to eat cheaply and well. When a burger costs a buck at a drive-through and you can’t even get a pound of broccoli for that, what are you going to do? Deal with a dad with type 2 diabetes and a young daughter well on the way to getting the disease, that’s what.
And don’t get me started on the whole soybean seed saga. Turns out Monsato, a chemical company infamously known for producing both DDT and Agent Orange, has the monopoly on that franchise — its patented a gene in 90 percent of the country’s soybean seeds — and uses its multimillion-dollar muscles to squeeze out any small-time, old-school, seed-saving farmer who stands in their way. Nice.
Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm yogurt is supposed to play the role of the bright spot amid the gloom. Hmmm. Not sure I buy that one. We watch as Hirshberg starts selling his organic yogurt to Wal-Mart and listen as he tells us that every food purchase is a political act. There’s an ironic moment when an organic dairy farmer tells the fresh-faced Wal-Mart reps that her family has boycotted the chain store for years. And we learn that Stonyfield was recently bought by global behemoth Groupe Danone, the France-based makers of Dannon yogurt. Call me a worrywart, this kind of corporate match-up makes me nervous. Despite the film’s lively use of music and graphics and a catchy call to action at the end it all feels a bit bleak — until Schlosser points out that Big Tobacco eventually took a beating from consumer activists — take that corporate corn lobby! I hope he’s right. Time will tell.
Hungry to see the film for yourself? A word to the wise: Have a meal before heading to this movie. And skip the artificially-buttered, non-organic, genetically-modified popcorn, which, as the screen reveals, is a big part of what’s wrong with the current food system. As for high-fructose corn syrup? It’s the stuff of nightmares in our house now.
The last word goes to my son, who sat cowering in his seat for much of the playing time, when he wasn’t whispering, ” Mum, why did you bring me to see this movie?” Mind you, this is a kid with a healthy appetite for screen violence, fantasy films featuring orphaned children, and other frightening standard movie fare. But animal abuse, E. coli, and early death by diet — it’s enough to turn a young one off his food forever. As he said on the way out, “Sometimes the scariest films are the ones that are real.”
Food, Inc. screens nationally, check local listings for details.
This is the third in a trilogy of food-themed films reviewed here this season. Read about the documentaries The Garden and Food Stamped in previous blog posts. And chime in if you have your own recommendation in this genre. I hear, for instance, that both King Corn and Dirt! The Movie are good, but haven’t seen either documentary yet. Have you?