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Down on the Factory Farm

A new documentary does for food what Sicko did for health care



If he were alive today, Henry Ford might be one of the few who could watch Food, Inc. — a documentary by Robert Kenner about the current state of the American farm and food industry — with a smile on his face. The father of the assembly line was expected to inherit his dad’s Michigan farm, but he fled the fields to pioneer the techniques that eventually spawned what we now refer to as “agribusiness.”

Will Food, Inc. help reverse what Ford wrought? Should it? Coproduced by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, the film features numerous interviews with him and media darling Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It has a twofold purpose: first, to shock and awe watchers with the horrifying realities of slaughterhouses, industrial farming and supermarkets; second, to sooth those same scared viewers into believing that buying a head of organic rather than conventional lettuce, or selecting the right brand of yogurt, can make an actual difference.

Already, Food, Inc. has garnered breathless acclaim from film critics — it currently has a 97 percent “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes site — and from whole-food advocates such as Martha Stewart. After screening the film for her staffers, the household doyenne let loose with a series of gushing Tweets: “see the film then tell me organic is too expensive for you and your family. it is so upsetting that good food is hard to find … see it please, listen to it, act on it.”

While Food, Inc. — narrated by both Pollan and Schlosser — is an imperfect piece of public education, it’s undeniably effective. The 93-minute movie is broken into thematic segments with names such as “Unintended Consequences,” “The Dollar Menu” and “In the Grass.” Each chunk focuses on a piece of the modern American food chain.

The film opens with footage shot in a generic grocery store. The camera swoops down aisle after aisle of products, while a voice-over assures us that the quaint pictures of farms, happy barnyard animals and green fields that decorate so many of the packages are part of an orchestrated falsehood about where our food comes from: “You go into the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers, the picket fence. It’s the spinning of this pastoral fantasy … The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating, because if you knew, you might not want to eat it.”

The meat aisle is the perfect place to drive the point home, and it is there that the film drops the first of many visual bombs: an illustrated beef label melts into a view of thousands of head of cattle standing on a massive tract of arid land. Next, the camera takes us inside a mechanized poultry factory where masked workers of color hang carcasses on an automated conveyor. I’ve seen these kinds of images before, but for me, they never fail to serve their gut-wrenching purpose.

In this segment, the audience learns that not only are animals kept in disgusting conditions and sent to the slaughterhouse when they’re ill, but farmers and factory workers are also mistreated. Chicken farmers contracted by companies such as Tyson and Perdue go deep into debt to build structures according to the manufacturer’s rules, but can lose their contracts for refusing to restrict animals’ sunlight or, it’s implied, for talking to reporters about the conditions in which livestock is kept.

Smithfield, which runs the biggest slaughtering operation in the world, openly recruits employees from Mexico. But when the government cracks down on undocumented workers, it’s the laborers who are arrested, not the bigwigs who brought them to the United States in the first place.

Having set the scene, Kenner reminds us that factory conditions are not a remote rights issue but a pressing public health one. He tugs the heartstrings with the story of 2-and-a-half-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk, who died in 2001 after eating a hamburger riddled with E. coli. Eight years later, his mother and grandmother are still fighting for legislation that would allow the USDA to shut down processing plants that repeatedly and demonstrably turn out contaminated meat. The bill, nicknamed Kevin’s Law, has yet to pass.

Why? In part because the food industry has so much money and an incredibly powerful lobby. In one segment, we see just how many of Clinton’s and Bush’s appointees to the EPA, USDA and other bodies meant to regulate food-processing businesses once belonged to the very industries they’re tasked with overseeing. Particularly damning is the information that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas used to be a lawyer for Monsanto — a chemical company that also bioengineers seeds — and wrote a majority opinion in the Supreme Court case that allowed Monsanto to sue farmers for saving seeds from their crops rather than buying a new batch from the company each year.

Like much of the movie’s content, the many evils of Monsanto will be familiar to fans of Pollan’s and Schlosser’s work. But there is merit in repeating the same message in different media until people catch on. As popular as The Omnivore’s Dilemma became — and it was a New York Times bestseller — even members of the choir have confessed to giving up somewhere in the 104 pages about industrial corn production (yes, I’m guilty as charged). However desirable it may be for average Americans to pick up and absorb a 450-page book devoted mainly to the topic of grains, that isn’t likely to happen. Hence it makes sense to wrangle some of the same ideas into a more or less easily digestible film.

The result is flawed, in part because the subject matter of Food, Inc. is so complex that there may be no straightforward, linear way to explore it. Yet Kenner pretends the lesson is simple. Just to make sure everybody “got it,” he ends the film with a list of prescriptions for better eating. Some of these are practical and simply stated: Buy foods that are grown locally; shop at farmers markets; plant a garden. But others are coy or general to the point of being obnoxious: “If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us and the planet healthy; you can change the world with every bite.”

Another problem: Although the generally opinionated film touches on the fact that mega-companies, such as PepsiCo and Wal-Mart, are now producing and selling organic products, it doesn’t weigh in on whether that’s a good thing. While they don’t shy from prescribing behaviors, neither the filmmaker nor the interviewees provide a guide for making practical choices between organic veggies trucked from afar and conventional local produce, between smaller companies and larger.

With a mission to spread the word as widely as possible, Food, Inc. necessarily simplifies the message. But for anyone who’s an eater, it’s a movie worth seeing.