Food, Inc. reveals hidden costs on the menu

The harrowing documentary serves up a kind of sampler's platter of the recent culinary expose trend

The harrowing documentary Food, Inc. serves up a kind of sampler’s platter of the recent culinary exposé trend. Like Super Size Me, it touches on the physiological effects of a fast food diet and further examines the assembly line approach to restaurant service. Recapping the themes of King Corn, Food, Inc. reveals how agricultural policies enable farming practices that put corn in seemingly every item at the grocery store, including cheese, batteries and diapers. It even goes to the source of Richard Linklater’s dramatization of Fast Food Nation to explore the industrial mistreatment of cattle and cattle workers alike.  

The tours of sprawling slaughterhouses and dark chicken houses can put you off your feed, but Food, Inc. leaves generous helpings of anger and despair on your plate as well. The documentary cites examples of massive, secretive corporations suing small competitors into oblivion and making indentured servants out of employees in once-prized professions. In its scope, effectiveness and unmistakable passion, it’s the must-see documentary of the bunch, if you can take the heat.

Two nonfiction authors — Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma — serve as principle guides to the enormous ways the food industry has changed over the past 50 years. Food, Inc. sounds a refrain about how the unintended consequences of an admirable goal — making certain foodstuffs cheap and plentiful for American consumers — led to consolidations that utterly transformed the process.

Director Robert Kenner contrasts agrarian iconography with contemporary realities: the humble family farmers vs. the multinational conglomerates, the amber waves of grain vs. the shit-colored expanses of concentrated animal feeding operations. When a major chicken corporation prohibits Food, Inc.’s cameras from filming inside a windowless chicken house, it echoes the food industry’s historic opposition to labeling ingredients. If it wants us to swallow its products, what does it have to hide?

The film turns achingly personal with the introduction of food safety advocate Barbara Kowalcyk, who describes the fate of her 2-and-a-half-year-old son Kevin after he ate an E. coli-tainted hamburger. Kowalcyk offers a wrenching account of the boy’s death: Vacation footage shows Kevin playing in a lake while his mother explains how the boy, on dialysis in his last days, begged for a drink of water. Adding insult to the worst possible injury, the U.S. Congress proves unable to pass Kevin’s Law, legislation written to set and enforce food safety and sanitation standards for meat and poultry.

Even Kowalcyk chooses her words carefully when she mentions the draconian food libel laws, and the film recalls the 1990s mad cow scare when the Texas beef industry sued Oprah. Oprah! (Considering the restrictions the laws seem to put on freedom of speech, this is one of Food, Inc.’s points that could use fleshing out.) The film harks back a century to Upton Sinclair’s muckracking novel The Jungle, which led to meat industry reforms. Given the contemporary meat industry’s safety record and reliance on undocumented immigrants, Food, Inc. suggests that it’s a jungle once more.

To prevent the material from becoming an overwhelming downer, Food, Inc. periodically cleanses the audience’s cinematic palate with optimistic examples. Author and “holistic farmer” Joel Salatin serves as a wry, voluble spokesman for basics of organic agriculture, at one point using the words “protoplasmic” and “critter” in same sentence. A section on Stonyfield Farm talks about how the organic yogurt company grew from a group of utopian hippies to a successful brand stocked by Wal-Mart. You wait for another shoe to drop when Kenner discusses the rise of organic brands, but it never does. It shows that powerful companies can be successfully challenged and that the American way of eating can be improved.

Of all the scary food documentaries, Food, Inc. proves the most powerful and the most neatly packaged. When it puts the opening credits on faux labels at a grocery store, it's almost too slick. Overall, Food, Inc. serves as a resounding call to action that holds out hope for the future. In the short-term, its perspective on food calls to mind an old quip by Rodney Dangerfield: “At my house, we pray after we eat.”