Robert Kenner's quietly incendiary documentary Food, Inc. probably can't be summed up any better than Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser does in the film's opening narration: "The industry doesn't want you to know the truth about what you're eating, because if you knew you might not want to eat it." The industry in question, of course, is the cabal of conglomerates that have turned the fuel of human life into ever-expanding profits. And the truth? Well, the truth, as ever, is as complicated as it is depressing.
Yet Kenner is undeterred in his efforts to uncover it, and the result is an effective, surprisingly watchable slice of activist cinema. Food, Inc. is not, as you might expect, a paean to alternative diets or a simple anti-factory-farming screed. Kenner recognizes these issues and others as symptoms, and posits an intimidating common source: the relationship between capitalism and our food supply rendered toxic (both literally and figuratively) by insufficient regulation and ethical standards. Consumers want cheap food, and companies profit by providing it. But what about the costs that don't show up on the receipt?
The current model for the mass production of food, co-producer Schlosser explains, can most easily be traced back to the advent of fast food in the late 1940s. As chains like McDonald's grew, so did the operations of their meat suppliers, reversing decades of progress in the industry's working conditions. The suppliers developed a relationship with animal farmers that borders on indentured servitude, requiring continual investment and loyalty to maintain their contract. (One of the farmers Kenner speaks to rescinds an invitation to film inside his chicken coop after discussing the film with his patrons at Tyson, who join most of their competitors in refusing to take part in the film.)
The animals, of course, have it even worse, from chickens engineered to grow twice their normal size in half the time to cows force-fed corn instead of grass, contributing directly to deadly E. Coli outbreaks. All it takes, Schlosser reminds us, is one infected cow, and thanks to factory farming there's meat from at least a thousand of them in your hamburger patty.
The issue of health concerns leads Food, Inc. into one of its most effective segments, beginning with food-safety advocate Barbara Kowalcyk's efforts to pass "Kevin's Law," a bill aimed at counteracting a meat industry court victory that stripped the USDA of its authority to close down processing facilities that fail multiple health inspections. Thanks to the appointment of agribusiness lobbyists and consultants to key government positions (including the FDA, EPA, and the Supreme Court) the food industry enjoys lax regulation while taking advantage of laws that protect it, including the comically harsh "veggie libel" laws that cost Oprah Winfrey $1 million in court fees after she freaked out over mad cow disease and a patent on soybean genes that allows the Monsanto corporation to control 90 percent of the country's soybean crop.
All of this barely scratches the surface of Kenner's film, which manages to make a hundred important points in 94 minutes while remaining focused and entertaining. Much of the ground has been covered elsewhere, but looking at simpatico flicks like Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot's unwieldy The Corporation only reinforces how effectively Food, Inc. distills and integrates its ideas.
This ideological clarity—as well as the participation of high-profile issue stalwarts like Schlosser and The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan—lends the film a sense of definitiveness, even though it may lack in opposing viewpoints. What few we do hear, however, are self-refuting in thoroughly fair context, particularly as a meat-processing safety official brags about "combining science and technology" to defeat E. Coli—by repeatedly washing beef in ammonia.
One is reminded of Michael Moore's underseen Sicko in this regard: Though stray details can and will be spun either way, the whole of the film engages us honestly and effectively on a moral and humanistic level, independent of arbitrary politics. (Aside from the requisite green talk and the postscript's preachy tone, there's little here to offend the conservative minded.) The alternately clueless and disingenuous websites companies like Tyson and Monsanto have set up to refute the film serve only to reinforce its ultimately hopeful message—that the companies that control our food are blinded by our money, but it's still our money, and we vote with it three times a day.