Food, Inc. Exposes The Lies and
Secrets of the Modern Food Industry
Artificially-enhanced chicken breasts, patented soya beans
a new film exposes the secrets of the modern food industry.
As the afternoon sun settles over his Virginia farm, Joel Salatin
leans against a post and gestures at the cows in the green field
behind him. "They don't eat corn or dead cows or chicken manure,"
he says animatedly, his Stetson bobbing. "They actually eat
grass. They're herbivores."
He says it as if it ought to be a surprise: cows eat grass. Salatin
talks to his hogs as they scuttle in front of him to the food
store. He and his workers slaughter livestock in the open air.
He is one of the heroes of filmmaker Robert Kenner's documentary
Food, Inc., the sort of farmer whose picture you'd expect to see
on a sticker, standing between a traditional red barn and a picket
fence, slapped on the side of a supermarket pork chop.
But the picture on the sticker would be an illusion, and so too
would the pork chop. From the idyllic surroundings of Salatin's
farm, Kenner's film cuts straight to the Smithfield hog-processing
plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, six hours' drive south: it's
the largest slaughterhouse in the world, and it knocks off 32,000
hogs every day. This plant, or somewhere like it is, most likely,
where your pork chop comes from. "We have allowed ourselves
to become so disconnected and ignorant," Salatin laments,
"about something that is as intimate as the food that we
This idea is at the core of Food, Inc., which opens in the UK
this week and is already the favourite to win an Oscar for Best
Documentary. The film peels back the wrapping from the US system
of industrialised food production invented to service brand-new
burger joints and supermarkets in the years following the Second
World War to reveal how it has fallen into the hands of
a few major multinational corporations. It shows that these companies
play God with their food products, abuse their animals, exploit
their workers and then conceal these harsh truths from the public,
with the complicity of the governments that ought to be regulating
Among Kenner's cast are: a debt-addled chicken farmer who has
fed her brood so many chemicals that she herself is now immune
to antibiotics; illegal immigrant workers recruited from Mexico
and then shopped to the authorities by their own corporate employers;
consumers so accustomed to relying on cheap, unhealthy food that
not only are they obese, but many have also developed diabetes;
and a woman whose two-year-old son was killed by an E. coli infection
contracted from a contaminated hamburger. All of us, the film
suggests, have been eating tomatoes that are only "notional"
tomatoes, chickens with artificially enhanced breasts, beef fed
on genetically modified and patented grain.
"I came to the film not knowing much about the subject,"
the director admits. "I wanted to make a film for everyone,
about the idea that everything has become like fast food and you
can't avoid it.
"Even if you're a vegetarian eating from your garden, you're
still paying the price for this industrial system. Your water's
been poisoned, your land is ruined, you're surrounded by people
who are being exploited, and animals that are being tortured,
and poor people who are eating inexpensive food that's making
them sick. No one is free of the system." The lengths big
companies will go to in order to disguise that system, however,
Monsanto whose patented soybean gene, Roundup, now features
in 90 per cent of the soybeans produced in the US and is one of
the film's most terrifying bogeymen is just one of the
major food companies that appears to have a revolving-door relationship
with the US government. Kenner attended a Senate hearing at which
a representative of one corporation argued that cloned meat should
not be labelled as such because it would "confuse" the
In some US states, so-called "veggie libel laws" protect
those "notional" tomatoes (with all the taste and nutritional
value bred out of them) and other inanimate objects from criticism.
"When a vegetable has more rights than a person, we're in
trouble," says Kenner. Meanwhile, the same small cartel of
companies has a stranglehold over producers, too. "A rancher
in Colorado," Kenner recalls, "told me that when he
was growing up, he was always terrified of being like the Russians,
with a total lack of choice or freedom. He said, 'I now raise
beef that I can only sell to one or two [companies], and only
for a certain price. We've become the thing that we feared our
entire life.' Very few people control this marketplace. It's Soviet-style
lack of freedom."
Food, Inc. is largely narrated by journalists Michael Pollan
and Eric Schlosser. Since Schlosser published his book Fast Food
Nation in 2001, it has been joined by Pollan's The Omnivore's
Dilemma, Morgan Spurlock has made the documentary Supersize Me,
Jamie Oliver has introduced British schoolchildren to greens,
and healthy eating has gone all the way to the White House to
be planted in Michelle Obama's vegetable garden. When Food, Inc.
was released in the US last year, the food movement propelled
its makers onto The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show and the
cover of Time magazine.
"Things have got a lot better," Schlosser agrees. "When
I started researching the book in about 1997 I was stunned by
the things I was learning, and amazed that it wasn't being discussed
in the mainstream media. Since then there's been a sea change
in attitudes to food, certainly among upper-middle-class and educated
"Have the problems been solved? Absolutely not," he
continues. "There's been a change in attitudes and, to a
lesser extent, behaviour, among the wealthy. But the worst victims
of this industrial food system are still being victimised by it:
the poor working families who are suffering the worst of the obesity
epidemic, who as workers are being exploited by the system, and
who don't have the discretionary extra money to pay for better
food. It took decades of abolitionist activism for slavery to
end. The same is true of women's rights and civil rights. Any
of these social movements for change take a while."
Kenner didn't set out to make a polemic film, but Food, Inc.
is indeed a call to action, and its web site offers the audience
petitions to sign and organic food associations to donate to.
Neither Kenner nor Schlosser professes to be a perfect model of
healthy or ethical eating. "It's impossible to live that
way in 2010," Schlosser says. But the film demonstrates,
he adds, that "There are choices to be made. Some people
will be vegan, and some people will still go to McDonald's ...
But those should be conscious choices based on understanding how
the system works, not just a response to the marketing because
you don't know any better."
The production of the film was beset by opposition from the companies
whose practices it exposes. It took three years to make and, thanks
in part to legal wranglings with those companies, cost more than
three times the budgets of Kenner's previous 15 documentaries
combined. The list of corporations that refused to take part is
lengthy. Wal-Mart was the only major company whose representatives
agreed to appear, after removing milk from their shelves from
cows fed on a growth hormone, rBST. "They had discontinued
it because their customers didn't want it," Kenner explains.
"And guess what? Monsanto ended up selling the company [that
made the hormone] after Wal-Mart dropped it.
"Not everything that every corporation does is evil
and I wanted to show that consumers do have the power to change
Food, Inc. may be concerned with the US food industry but, both
Kenner and Schlosser insist, the same problems affect the UK and
the rest of the world. Smithfield of the US has slaughterhouses
in Romania and Poland that serve the wider EU, and while genetically
modified organisms are still banned in the UK, much of the meat
we eat has been fed on GM crops. The major UK supermarkets exert
a disproportionate amount of influence over both producers and
consumers, just as their US counterparts do.
"And if you want to look at food safety and the ways government
is in bed with the industries it's supposed to be regulating,"
says Schlosser, "the BSE scandal is a textbook example. The
Government was aware for years that there might have been a dangerous
pathogen circulating among the British people, but it was far
more concerned with the potential impact on the export of British
beef than it was with the public's health."
The industrial food system we have ended up with is not inevitable,
as its creators would have us assume; nor is it necessarily sustainable.
Taxpayers fund the subsidies that allow food to be produced and
sold at deceptively low cost, then pay to alleviate the health
problems it engenders.
"One of the central themes of the film is that it's an illusion
that this food is cheap," Schlosser explains. "It's
cheap at the point of purchase, and it's profitable for the companies
because their external costs are being imposed on the rest of
"Chemical companies used to be able to dump waste chemicals
in rivers and force those downstream to pick up the tab. A lot
of the environmental movement was about re-imposing those external
costs on the people responsible for them. The food movement is
about making companies bear the real cost of their business practices."
Could every farm look like Joel Salatin's and still feed 6 billion
people? Probably not, but the filmmakers see it as something to
"It sure would be a lot more pleasant," says Kenner.
"We should at least be trying to farm industrially in a more
sustainable manner. It's a conversation that needs to be had.
It's a healthy conversation."
'Food, Inc.' will be released in cinemas tomorrow, with a day
of nationwide one-off screenings on 15 February.