Food For Thought

In His New Documentary, Director Robert Kenner Explores The High Cost Of Cheap Eats

July 03, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

He often pays the bills doing commercials. So Robert Kenner, director of Food, Inc., knew how to use snappy advertising graphics - the kind usually employed by giant food companies - to pull audiences into his scathingly enjoyable expose of Big Agra. Kenner placed the movie's opening credits on supermarket shelves, where typical logos present images from America's pastoral past to hawk products made on assembly lines. It's a sprightly, clever way for Kenner to announce, as he puts it, "It's OK to laugh: I want you to be entertained."

Kenner prides himself on being an open-minded documentary maker. On the phone from his Los Angeles office, he confesses, "I always learn more from people whose opinions I don't share." He didn't get that opportunity on Food, Inc. None of the food and chemical behemoths he contacted during filming responded to requests for interviews. But if business holds strong for this scrappy yet elegant documentary, David might again defeat Goliath.

Kenner knew he was entering an "Orwellian world" when he heard lawmakers and lobbyists agree that labeling cloned meat "cloned" would be "too confusing" for consumers. "The lack of transparency is the most frightening thing about this world," says Kenner. "We spend less of our paycheck on food than at any time in history. Unfortunately, a lot of this inexpensive food comes at a very high unseen cost. You don't see what you're really paying for at the checkout counter." His film lays out the actual costs in medical bills, pollution, energy consumption, and human and animal exploitation.

The author of Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, one of Food, Inc.'s producers, shares his wisdom on camera. So does Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Kenner says they both wrote "great books," but this showman-like director never mistook their readership for his potential audience. "I wanted to make a film for the unconverted." To do so required characters who could put flesh and blood on the movie's issues.

That's where Carole Morison came in. Long before Food, Inc. she had been investigating the use of arsenic and antibiotics in chicken feed and its effect on workers and the community at large. For two decades, she and her husband had been contract growers for Perdue Farms at a modest spread in Pocomoke City. She stepped up to Kenner's challenge when no other chicken farmers would open their barns to his camera. Morison said Monday that she didn't hesitate for a second. "It was time."

Morison had been holding down a second job as executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance. Kenner's desire to lift the company-ordered blackout on chicken barns delighted her. So did the film's attempt to shed light on contemporary agriculture as a whole. Morison says, "A lot of things [in this industry] are hurting people, and it's about time it got straightened out. Antibiotics, for example, have been overused in poultry. They're not just given to chickens when they get sick. Chickens live a very short life - from a newly hatched chick, you get a 5 1/2-pound chicken in seven weeks. They don't even live long enough to utilize antibiotics, so constant feeding is ridiculous, and the overuse has caused problems in human treatment." Morison herself has become allergic to antibiotics.

Food, Inc. potently depicts man's inhumanity to man - and to animals. By the time Kenner came calling on her, Morison had had her fill of agricultural brutality. "A farmer shouldn't kill animals just because they don't look right," she says, or because they'd don't conform to the others in the flock. What a farmer should do, says Kenner, "is put down an animal if it is suffering."

But to deliver tens of thousands of chickens that fit the heavy-breasted 5 1/2-pound profile, chicken growers must "cull out the unthrifty ones, according to this industrial process ... it's mass production, not farming."

The chickens that fit the required form still spend a brief, wretched time on the farm. "They live their short lives miserably, in less than a square foot of living space per chicken, on top of their own droppings. To me that's kind of yuck." Even if they did have room to move, they couldn't: Their bones and internal organs haven't kept pace with the growth of their industrially bred meat.

When Morison refused to "upgrade" her screened chicken barns into completely blackened enclosures that required "tunnel ventilation," Perdue canceled her contract. She says the company also charged her with breaching biosecurity regulations when she allowed Kenner and his crew on her farm without signing them into a company-issued logbook. Morison considers this practice ridiculously insulting to Perdue's farmer partners, who "know how to prevent disease and how to tell where it comes from." She also notes that bringing her grandson to see her baby chicks didn't raise a peep from her employer.

Morison is now working with farmers throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project. This nonprofit enterprise aims to create methods of raising, distributing and marketing food that will be locally based, organic, compassionate and efficient. "Raising food the way it used to be raised, but with some innovations," Carole says.

Raising food, Kenner adds, "that actually fits the pictures on the packages."

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