Movies make us hungry. They can also make us disgusted. They can bypass rational thinking and make us desperate to eat things we normally wouldn’t stomach. They can take the consumption of food and render it either into gastronomical pornography or body horror. Primo and Secondo whip up a spectacularly succulent feast in Big Night; the man in the white suit cracks eggs over his mistress’ naked flesh in Tampopo; Divine eats shit in Pink Flamingos; Harrison Ford works a glazed donut and sunglasses into hot sex with Lena Olin in Hollywood Homicide; Bob and Doug McKenzie drown in beer in Strange Brew; the little zombie girl feasts on her own mom in Night of the Living Dead. Make your own list, the point is that moving images of eating prompt responses in us that other media can’t, and that’s the primary reason why, despite lame graphics and excess compression, I feel compelled to recommend the straight-ahead activist Food Inc. so highly. There are other, more thorough methods of gaining this information, but few possess the promise of inciting such immediate action from such a potentially large audience.
Helmed by TV history doc veteran Robert Kenner, Food Inc. comes out swinging, with every well-calculated punch directed at the corporate takeover of American food—and, by extension, our food—and what all evidence points to as a rigorously enforced policy of closed doors and diversion tactics that usually manifest in a veneer of pastoral serenity. Images of sunrises, freshly painted barns and happy, healthy cows grazing across a lush expanse of grass are a beard for, among other things, Frankenstein factory farming, shamefully lax disease control measures, seed patents and, obviously, appalling cruelty to animals, not to mention humans, since labour exploitation—there are allegations of big food in cahoots with US Immigration—is key to industry mechanics. The fact that so much in Food Inc. seem shocking to audiences is slightly baffling to me, given that little of this is breaking news. (I actually heard someone in the theatre tell their friend, “I can’t finish this,” referring to what, if my nose was correct, must have been nachos and some substance dubiously advertised as cheese.) But Kenner and company do such a sturdy, if too concise, job or laying out and updating the essential arguments, an approach surprisingly low on scare-tactics and big on plainspoken testimony from those inside the industry and out, that I can only hope the shocked will feel empowered to make needed changes in their diets, votes, and consumer habits.
Significant groundwork for Food Inc. was done in recent books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Both authors feature prominently in Food Inc., with Schlosser introduced while ordering a burger and fries—his confessed favourite meal—from a diner. To be sure, the primary concerns of these authors aren’t centered on making us feel bad about wanting sugar, fat and salt. In fact, they make it plain that we’re hard-wired to crave the stuff. The question is about how those cravings are monitored and fulfilled, and what our most accessible and seemingly affordable options are doing to our bodies, the results running the gamut from obesity to an epidemic of diabetes to sudden death. Such was the fate that befell a two-year-old whose mother is now a tireless food safety activist and who also appears in Food Inc. to outline the infuriating difficulty in getting health standards enforced.
As the opening voice-over informs us, food production has changed more in the 40 years than in the previous 10,000. Supermarkets no longer have seasons. Chickens are forced to grow so quickly that their bones are too weak for them to walk. There are only 13 abattoirs in all of the US, meaning that an untold number of animals might be contained in a single patty, animals eating corn-based byproducts they’d never ate until recently, animals wading in their own shit, which follows them all the way to your plate, inviting an ongoing stream of E. coli outbreaks. Cheapness makes the products alluring, yet a Latino family interviewed explains that they have to spend a huge portion of their income on their father’s diabetes medicine rather than on basic vegetables, and indeed, a head of lettuce costs more than a cheeseburger. So yeah, something feels a little wrong here, and you have to give credit to Kenner for not only avoiding hysteria but for closing the film with some digestible advice. He also features interviews with old school holdout farmers—some real characters begging for a movie of their own—who prove that there is indeed another way to do this, though to (re-)institute it requires massive change. Are we hungry enough?