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Where your food comes from
by Jason Blair
FOOD, INC.: Directed by Robert Kenner. Cinematography, Richard Pearce. Music, Mark Adler. Starring Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Magnolia Pictures, 2009. PG-13. 93 minutes.
|Joel Salatin in Food, Inc.|
In the business world, corporate mergers lead inevitably to consumer assurances, namely that consolidation results in greater efficiencies and, therefore, a cheaper product. It’s a familiar tonic that better resembles a warm bath: It feels good at first, but with the passage of time, a lukewarm reality sets in. Food, Inc., a superb documentary about the American food economy, looks at the unseen costs of factory farming, including why, despite tenfold increases in efficiency, our food is less safe than ever. What Food, Inc. reveals is a reckless disdain for safety on behalf of multinational food companies, a disdain which our government, through lack of oversight, can only be said to support.
Food, Inc. is a synthesis of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, two landmark inquiries into the way we eat now. Aided by testimony from the authors of those books, as well as the few farmers willing to speak out, Food, Inc. lifts the veil of secrecy surrounding our highly secretive food system. It’s an ugly, if disturbingly familiar, picture. Modification of food genes continues unabated, allowing chemical companies to “own” our food for the first time. Illegal immigrants are still being bused from Mexico by the very food companies who, after briefly employing them, allow them to be arrested, only to have them replaced them with more illegal immigrants. Sick animals continue to live in crowded conditions, often blanketed in their own shit. Engineered to mature faster than nature intended, many animals can scarcely carry their body weight, meaning most of their brief lives are spent immobile in the dark. It’s a portrait of a system as corrupt and self-serving as the tobacco industry was before it. The difference is that people could choose whether to smoke.
Then again, what Food, Inc. makes abundantly clear is that we do have choices. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is the main attraction in Food, Inc., and he doesn’t disappoint. With his weary, assured vocal style, his interviews tend to be his best material — hunt down his “Fresh Air” interview from 2006 — and his is the first and last voice you hear in Food, Inc. Pollan’s central question of factory farming is, in his words, “Can I have a look in the kitchen?”, and the fact that this question has radical undertones is a sign of how far we yet have to go. Still, a few renegades from Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma appear here, including the wonderful Joel Salatin, the owner of a traditional farm in Virgnia who might be said to resemble Thoreau after eight cups of coffee. On Joel’s farm, the slaughter of chickens by hand strikes you as profoundly more humane than its mechanized counterpart.
You won’t easily forget Carole, the only chicken farmer willing to be interviewed for this film. Her careful elegance reveals a fertile mind and a spirit crushed to bits by Perdue Chicken. (Her neighbor whiffs chicken shit and proclaims, “Smells like money to me.”) Or Larry, the food engineer with a Pentecostal enthusiasm for chemically engineered foods. Or Barbara, the Republican food safety advocate whose young son was killed by an E. coli outbreak. Even in food-conscious republics like Eugene or Austin, Texas, where a relatively enlightened citizenry might find some of this material familiar, Food, Inc. should be required viewing. If it makes you a little sick to your stomach, it will also inspire you to make healthier and more informed choices. Such is the inconvenient truth of Food, Inc.: Few industries are as intensely concentrated as food production, but few industries are as vital to our quality of life.
Food, Inc. opens Friday, July 24, at the Bijou.