Movie review: "Food, Inc."
From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 2 1/2 of 4 stars.
Watching the documentary “Food Inc.” is like noshing a giant serving of chicken livers and Shock Tarts at 3 in the morning.
The film overstuffs the viewer with rich food for thought but leaves you with the unsatisfied feeling that it missed the mark. And the liberal sprinkling of scare tactics quickly adds a sour taste.
“Food Inc.” is showing this weekend at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Filmmaker Robert Kenner asks an important question: “How much do we really know about the food we buy at our local supermarkets and serve to our families?” It’s a vital question because many Americans don’t know much about how our country now produces what’s for dinner.
From the outset, he rightly dispels the myth that much of our food comes from those idyllic family farms we see pictured on the side of butter containers and cheese wrappers. Nowadays, a few multinational corporations grow, raise, slaughter, process, package and ship from highly mechanized factory settings the vast majority of what we eat.
Efficiency is the bread and butter. And yes, it’s disturbing that making lots of money and lots of cheap food seems much more important than food safety standards, humane treatment of animals and workers, the livelihood of farmers and decent environmental practices.
Several of the corporations in question refused to be interviewed for the film. Kenner focuses most of the screen time on two writers, Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation.” He occasionally features a farmer, crop council representative or corporate suit. His most effective interviews are with a grieving mother whose son died of E. coli, making her an advocate for tougher meat processing safety laws, and an independent farmer using organic methods.
The film tours overcrowded chicken coops, various slaughterhouses and supermarket aisles. Often, a somber unidentified narrator, urgent music and lingering shots of doomed cows and pigs are used to ramp up the shock value. Kenner’s apparent determination to scare Americans onto a starvation diet often overshadows the good information he wants to convey.
But not all of the film’s information is good, or at least it’s one-sided. As the daughter of one of the few independent, traditional, commercial family farmers still in business in this country, I can tell a bull from a steer. And I’m not going to be so grossed out by slaughterhouse scenes that I don’t notice the bull.
The film states as fact that feeding corn to cattle has produced powerful strains of E. coli bacteria; this is at best a theory. My father feeds the cattle he raises for our home use alfalfa and straight corn (not corn blended with other grains like the feed lots the film shows), and we haven’t contracted E coli. And while one E. coli outbreak, recall or death is truly too many, considering the amount of beef produced in these mega-processing plants, it seems that if corn were the culprit, we’d see more E. coli episodes.
It’s easy and fashionable these days to vilify corn, which my dad wants Kenner to know is not as easy or profitable to raise as the film would have you think, because it’s in so many products, including several unhealthy ones.
And it’s easy to laugh or scoff at the “veggie libel” laws that allowed beef producers to sue Oprah Winfrey after her episode on mad cow disease. But the film doesn’t show a farmer like my father who lost thousands of dollars that day because of a celebrity’s half-baked, dramatized-for-TV statements.
But for all the information – good and bad – Kenner stuffs into the film, he manages to only allude to the essential point. In one scene, the organic farmer, Joel Salatin, mentions that some customers complain about paying $3 a dozen for his eggs while swilling 75-cent cans of soda.
The truth that “Food Inc.” doesn’t push too hard is that corporations aren’t really the culprits. We are. As consumers, we demand that our three squares a day come dirt cheap, so we have more cash for $4 lattes and $1.25 pops. The corporations just cater to our huge appetites for junky, cheap food – and do whatever it takes to keep it as cheap as we demand it.
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