A Biting Look At Industrial Farming In U.s.

Documentary Probes Conditions That Make Us Sick **** (4 Stars)

July 03, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

A scary movie that's also funny, touching and good for you - that's Robert Kenner's documentary about the American food industry, Food, Inc. In a decade when fiction filmmakers everywhere have been struggling to revamp conspiracy thrillers from the 1960s and 1970s (most recently German director Tom Tykwer in the Clive Owen-Naomi Watts vehicle The International), Kenner, best known for his work on PBS' American Experience, pulls it off with humor and humanity.

Right from the brilliant opening credits, he treats the contemporary supermarket as a carnival fun house - brightly painted, cunningly designed, full of false signals and outright traps. Then he takes off on an investigation of American industrial farming and how it sells chemicals and addictive substances like salt, sugar and fat to a population getting sick from them.

Like tobacco giants before they crumpled under the weight of public outcry, American food giants have blocked scrutiny of controversial practices and withheld information from packaging.

In this movie, their obstinacy and secrecy backfire: Big Agra becomes a villain almost as hissable as Big Pharma became in The Constant Gardener (the best recent fictional conspiracy thriller). For good reason, critics have compared Food, Inc. to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The movie unblinkingly depicts hideous conditions for animals and cheap immigrant labor alike, whether in industrialized ranches or slaughterhouses. But the film is also like Frank Norris' The Octopus and The Pit. It diagrams networks of manufacturing, finance and transportation that have run the old-fashioned American independent farm into the ground.

What Food, Inc. calls for is the creation of new organic methods, habits and traditions. Yet the movie isn't doctrinaire: It applauds Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm when he sells organic yogurt to Wal-Mart, an act that radicals decry as collusion with the enemy. In the funniest aside, one Stonyfield supplier proudly tells visiting Wal-Mart honchos that she has never set foot in their store.

This movie transcends propaganda because of its wit and skill as filmmaking and because of the array of fighters, writers, people of conscience and full, flawed human beings Kenner assembles to bring home his points. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, are the film's expert witnesses. Happily, there's nothing slavish or reverent about its treatment of them.

The Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, a focal point of Pollan's book, speaks with earthy pride for healthful, locally grown food. He gazes at livestock grazing on his land and marvels at the grass that feeds them and the manure that fertilizes it. He and this movie ask: How much more efficient can you get than nature itself? Richard Pearce's vibrant cinematography also asks: How much more beautiful can you get? And doesn't that beauty mean anything?

Kenner follows Barbara Kowalcyk, whose son, Kevin, perished from eating tainted hamburger, as she hikes through the offices of Capitol Hill. She is pushing for the adoption of "Kevin's Law." It would enable the Food and Drug Administration to shut down processing plants that are sources of contaminated meat.

Adamant, eloquent and free of sentimental showboating, Kowalcyk exudes a wary nobility. So does Carole Morison, a Maryland chicken farmer who loses her contract with Perdue because she can no longer abide factory methods of animal growth that reduce natural creatures to malformed beastlings. We admire her principles and independence when she rejects Perdue's demand that she "upgrade" to chicken barns that totally shut out air and sun and rely on wasteful, artificial "tunnel ventilation."

Still, we understand a chicken farmer for Tyson who goes along with the latest methods; he would open up his chicken house for the cameras if the corporation would let him. He wants to be honest about what he does to make a living.

Most poignant of all is a working-class Latino family, the Orozcos, who can afford only the same fast foods and junk foods that have weakened the truck-driver father, a diabetic, and have set one of his two daughters on the road to obesity.

Whatever they save at the drive-through gets eaten up in medical bills. They suffer with dignity - and inspire outrage. They're one reason the sane, large-spirited Food, Inc. carries a healthy sting.

'Food, Inc.'

(Magnolia) A documentary about the American food industry by Robert Kenner, with appearances from Michael Pollan

and Eric Schlosser. Rated PG for some thematic material and disturbing images. Time 94 minutes.

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