At the height of our outdoor barbecue season—next weekend, more than 56 percent of Americans will make hot dogs and hamburgers for the Fourth of July—comes a film that may make those pleasures seem rather unpalatable. Robert Kenner's documentary "Food Inc." has been described as muckraking journalism, in the vein of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," for giving Americans a glimpse of what really goes on their plate—whether it's ammonia-washed hamburger filler, or chickens with genetically-modified breasts so large that the birds cannot walk.
It is especially relevant in an era in which diabetes rates continue to climb—and it's no wonder, when a fast-food cheeseburger is cheaper than fresh produce. In the past few months, we've seen peanut butter, pistachios, and now Nestle cookie dough recalled for containing pathogens. Kenner couldn't have timed the release of this film better if he had tried.
One of the most heartbreaking vignettes in the movie that is of Barbara Kowalcyk, whose son passed away after eating tainted hamburger meat. Kowalcyk now lobbies Congress for better food regulations, but she has to watch what she says: The influence of food lobbyists is vast, and she cites food libel laws—the same ones that got Oprah in trouble with the Texas cattlemen years ago—for keeping her from speaking out too strongly. Other people interviewed in the film fear the influence of food corporations, as well—many farmers would not let Kenner into their CAFOs, and a small-town seed cleaner was put out of business by Monsanto.
Though "Food, Inc." may be memorable for its stomach-turning scenes of slaughterhouses, there's plenty to be hopeful about here. Joel Salatin, the hero farmer of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (and also a supplier to Chipotle, who recently told me about their local foods program), is a presence throughout the film as an alternative to our industrialized system. At the end of the film, Kenner reminds us that we can vote three times a day for food that is better—and better for us—at each meal.
Louise McCready of the Huffington Post recently spoke to Kenner about the film. Here are a few excerpts:
LM: You touched on the role of the government with regards to the current food industry, but what specific steps do you think this administration should take to improve the standards for both animals and people involved in the food industry and to improve food safety?
RK: With Obama, we have a president in the White House who will listen. I don't think you can be interested in health care without wanting to change the food system. One out of every three Americans will get early onset diabetes.
LM: That was one of the most astounding statistics from your film.
RK: Unbelievable. This system of low-cost food has become very expensive and it's going to become even more expensive. People ask me, "Is it a conspiracy between the pharmaceutical and the food companies?" I don't believe there are any conspiracies. It's just that you solve one problem but create a new one. We didn't have enough calories, and so government and industry created a new system that lowered the cost of our food.
We have an abundance of calories today. The problem is they're now making people sick. We have to look at the system, and reevaluate and readjust, and we have to do it fast. We have a system that is not sustainable because it's based on gasoline. Gasoline is a diminishing product. When the price of oil spikes again, this food is going to become very expensive because all of the chemicals that go in to food are gasoline based, and gasoline is needed for the tractors and transportation. Twenty to twenty-five percent of our carbon footprint goes into growing and transporting the food. Our industrial food system is dependent on polluting the water and the land and robbing the earth of nutrients. We have to think how to replace it or transform it.