Inside America's Sausage Factory

Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. explores the gargantuan machine behind our nation's food industry. The generally abysmal food that ends up in our...

Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. explores the gargantuan machine behind our nation's food industry.

The generally abysmal food that ends up in our restaurants and supermarkets is the cause of widespread obesity and diabetes, and is produced by a few giant corporations operating in plain sight of the FDA and USDA. To whit, in the grand tradition of such films and books as Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, and, to some extent, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. offers a terrifying appraisal of the way we eat-as well as what we can do to improve things. GOOD spoke to Mr. Kenner on the eve of Food, Inc.'s release, to fill us in on gaining access to corporate players, why he wants the film to anger people, and just how Orwellian the eating industry has become.GOOD: Your film will not be well received by Big Food. Was it difficult finding people that worked for these large companies to interview?ROBERT KENNER: It wasn't easy. We spoke to 40 or 50 organizations, far more corporations than were actually in the film. They wanted to know everything we were doing, and we would tell them, but they just didn't want to be on camera-and they certainly didn't want for us to film where they created their food. It was disappointing, but now they are very anxious to talk. You know, the meat association and the cattlemen said, "this is going to be a major motion picture and you better see it because your customers sure will." Monsanto just created their own web page. Now they are anxious to talk and it's funny because we asked them like 12 times.G: What was your intended end result for the film? Did you hope to elicit outrage?RK: Yes. But to start out with we had no preconceived notion where we were going. But then, as we were editing and finalizing the film, I became angrier about how we were being denied access to knowing what is in our food and how it is grown, and even being prevented from talking about it. So I was becoming upset, but at the same time I wanted to empower people to show them that we could change this system.We changed tobacco and that was as an insidious a system as there ever was. Here were these corporations that were lying to us about their product and they couldn't have lied anymore than they did. And they couldn't have had any more power than they did-they controlled the Senate. I don't think food is that different than tobacco. What I wanted to leave people with is the idea that we can change this industry.G: How do you feel about big companies like Wal-Mart selling organic food?

RK: It is great that they were helping to get rid of rBST, the growth hormone in milk production. Wal-Mart's actions here can influence the United States government. McDonald's has also done good things, like get rid of the gestation crates for the pigs. The problem is, we have too few corporations controlling too much of the system. Ultimately, we've learned that these companies are only interested in their bottom line; they aren't concerned with their own reckless behavior. They just want a short-term profit. They aren't even worrying about the long-term profit. But, you can't keep getting your customers sick and keep making a profit.G: We subsidize the corn industry tremendously. Will the new administration start to change these subsidies?RK: We have been subsidizing corn and it was making our food generally cheaper. Then with ethanol, our cars were starting to eat food and that was raising the price of food. It didn't make a whole lot of sense to me because it took so much oil to produce the corn in the first place.G: Is there a general consensus that farm subsidies should be eliminated?RK: Well, Michael Pollan certainly thinks that they are a problem. I think it would be a lot healthier for us [to eliminate them]. The food will become more expensive, but our health care costs will go down. It is amazing how inexpensive food is, but there are invisible hidden costs that are really extreme-the health care and environmental costs are off the charts.G: What is your biggest surprise from making this film?RK: My biggest surprise was how much was being denied to us. Going with Eric Schlosser to the state legislature and hearing him say "Shouldn't we put a label on cloned meat?" and hearing a woman from the industry respond "No, I think that would be too confusing for the consumer." This idea kept coming up over and over again-that it's better that the consumer doesn't know where the food comes from or how it's grown. And we can't even talk about it.Look at [food-safety advocate] Barbara Kowalcyk. Her son died from eating a hamburger [tainted with E. coli]. In the film, she can't tell me how she eats now because she is scared she will be sued. I had no idea that was coming. I thought it was a stupid benign little question and she couldn't even answer me. A big thing I learned in the film was about the Veggie Libel Laws [which grant food the same defamation rights that a person has]. There is a pattern of these corporations creating this Orwellian world, where they can create the myth that the food is being produced in the same way that it has been for 10,000 years. Just Mom and Pop on the farm. But in reality it's all coming from mega-factories. Our food is being created by people who have no rights, by illegal aliens, and we are not even allowed to know what is in it. The Veggie Libel Laws are the one of the ultimate elements-we can't even talk about this topic.G: What is the role of the supermarkets in influencing how we eat?RK: That's a good question. I love the farmers markets and the CSAs but in reality people shop at supermarkets the vast majority of the time and there is going to be somebody that fills this niche and they are going to clean up. You've got Whole Foods but there are going to be other players that step into this role. These food companies are smart at exploiting organic, though. There are new ‘local' mass-market items like potato chips.But consumers are becoming more conscious, and we're starting to see good local produce. Will the grocers follow the consumer? Yes I think so; the consumers are hungry for something that they're not currently getting. They are going to be hungry for food safety and flavor and a better system environmentally. There are going to be better supermarkets that figure this out and cater to this demand. A challenge to this new model will be setting up efficient distribution networks so that we don't have to ship food from places like Mexico.We are all moving so quickly, we don't have time to eat with our families. I didn't want to go out and make an elitist foodie movie, and in a way what I think is elitist is subsidizing poor people's terrible food. We are all going to pay the price for giving them that type of food. Ultimately, we are going to spend a lot more money on their health care and that is something that we just can't support.I wasn't of this world. I'm a filmmaker that came to this subject. But I'm seeing a tremendous level of anger and activism and it's not just liberals or democrats, it's people across the board because we all have to eat this stuff.Check here to learn when Food, Inc. will show in a town near you. Watch the trailer here.Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
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