Thursday, February 4, 2010

Food, Inc. (2008)

Of the many films that made their way to the theaters last year, there were only two that I was afraid I would be unable to handle. One was Antichrist, which earned that slot thanks to my strange aversion to violent genital mutilation. The other was Food, Inc. My trepidations going into this expository documentary about food production stemmed from my longstanding germophobia. In order for me to swallow food without panic, my hands and anyone else's around me cannot touch the food. It's an obsessive-compulsive trait that is as irrational as it is overwhelming, and the mental gymnastics required by my eating process involves a strict policy of “ignorance is bliss” regarding the food's journey to its package or my plate. A film documenting that process, especially one meant in large part to expose its unsafe practices, could result in my voluntary starvation, or more likely, a psychosomatic stomachache that lasts a couple days.

My only solace going into Food, Inc. was the expectation that its main targets would be red meat and chicken, two foods my germophobia has kept me away from for years. Sure enough, much of the film's most damning footage takes place in slaughterhouses and chicken farms. Director Robert Kenner doesn't shy away from presenting images of the slaughter, and while those moments are tough to watch, in some ways the footage of these animals in their living environment is more harrowing. The only industrial chicken farm the filmmakers were granted access to was a squalid mess of feathers and feces, and even if the birds had room to walk, they would be unable to, as years of genetic engineering has yielded chickens whose slow bone growth is unable to support their unnaturally massive body weight.

Though the sequence above and quite a few others could probably turn some people vegetarian, the film is hardly an animal rights film. The focus here is on people, with the farmers, factory workers and the consumer all depicted as victims of a gigantic industry that sacrifices well-being for profit and a regulation system too intertwined with the industry to achieve its stated goal. To illustrate that last argument, the film follows Barbara Kowalcyk, a food safety advocate who took up the cause after her two year old son died from E. Coli-tainted hamburgers. She notes that the burger recall came 16 days after her son's death and now fights for the passage of Kevin's Law. The law would give the USDA authority to shut down contaminated plants, an unpopular move for the food industry, which Kowalcyk remarks was more protected than her son.

Kowalcyk's story, especially when accompanied by home video footage of her son, is heart-wrenching, but her interview and the other talking heads never get bogged down with a sense of emotional manipulation. Instead, Kenner seeks out interview subjects that are able to elucidate the complexities of the food industry, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser and The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan among them, and the film succeeds in that regard. Trying to cover one of the nation's largest industries in just over 90 minutes is a tough job, so the scope of issues it tackles and the conciseness and clarity of the information is admirable, venturing into issues of illegal immigration, intellectual property, and libel laws.

As to be expected of a social issue documentary such as this, it is very clearly one-sided. A recurring caption noting that a food company refused to be interviewed for the film is often included to paint the company in a bad light. Because of this strategy, Wal-Mart manages to come across as the good guys simply by virtue of granting an interview, and one segment of the film makes a great advertisement for the organic dairy products of Stonyfield Farms. While the interview covers how Stonyfield handled getting in bed with large corporations, the film does come short in expanding that issue to look at other companies. The question of whether or not organic food businesses are able to keep their soul once they get bought by a larger corporation is asked, but never clearly answered.

Despite some lingering questions, Food, Inc. packs a lot of facts and figures into its runtime. This is not the sort of movie to seek out for entertainment, though it tries pretty hard to spruce things up with jaunty graphics and a sometimes-overwrought score. It is, however, very well-constructed and delivers reasonably argued information that will likely change the way you think about food. For a topic so important to our daily lives, that's worth the stomachache.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of five)

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