In case you are among the Northern Californians who have avoided thinking about where your dinner comes from, "Food, Inc.," a documentary by Robert Kenner that opens on Friday in San Francisco, will send you to the refrigerator to inspect the information on your food labels.
With the film, which is based largely on the best-selling books "An Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan and "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser, the makers of "Food, Inc." hope to transform Americans' views on industrial food production, much the way "An Inconvenient Truth" helped turn global warming into a top national worry.
Among the points that galvanized the filmmakers:
-- In 1972, the Food and Drug Administration conducted 50,000 food safety inspections; in 2006, the FDA conducted 9,164.
-- During the George W. Bush administration, the head of the FDA was the former executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association, and the chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was the former chief lobbyist for the beef industry in Washington.
-- Cattle are given feed that their bodies are not designed to digest, resulting in new strains of the E. coli virus that sicken tens of thousands of Americans annually.
-- One in 3 Americans born after 2000 will contract early-onset diabetes; among minorities, the rate will be 1 in 2.
Kenner, a Los Angeles documentarian, says he did not set out to make an activist horror film. In fact, his original goal was to tell the story from the points of view of both organic and industrial food growers. But representatives of the 50 industrial food companies he contacted, including Monsanto, Perdue, Tyson and Smithfield, would not talk and, more important, would not allow their production practices to be filmed.
"The fact is they don't want us to see how the food is made," said Kenner during a recent visit to San Francisco. "They don't want us to know what's in it. And, ultimately, they don't want us talking about it."
Kenner said he spent six years trying to make a film that would not appear one-sided or biased but admits he ended up with a "connect-the-dots" portrait of the American food system that is "Orwellian."
Among the film's subjects is Carole Morison, a Maryland chicken farmer, who risks her livelihood to show the repulsive conditions under which her chickens are fed and housed, per Perdue's requirements. Morison is seen wading through a barn so stuffed with chickens covered in their own feces that there is no view of the floor. She sets about her daily chore: grabbing the birds that have died from trampling because they grew too fat to walk.
"I understand why farmers don't want to talk, because these companies can do whatever they want to do as far as pay goes," says Morison in the film. Equally maddening is Kenner's portrait of a working-class Los Angeles family, who talk about why they eat fast food most nights: It's cheaper than a home-cooked meal - because, as Pollan points out, it is largely made from processed corn, wheat and soybean, crops that are often genetically modified and heavily subsidized by the government.
Kenner is adamant that food is not an elitist issue. Rather, "it is a health issue, an environmental issue, a human rights issue. This industrialized food, whether you're eating it or not, is going to cost us all."
But what can be done? Although the film's Web site, foodincmovie.com, advocates such tips as "protect family farms; and stop drinking sodas and other sweetened beverages," transforming a monopolized food system that has government backing is a seriously uphill battle.
Kenner said it is unrealistic to believe we can convert U.S. agribusiness into a network of organic farms, but he sees glimmers of hope. Since he started researching "Food, Inc.," he said, "there's much more of a movement. When we screen this, people stand up and cry. There's a built-in anger there. It's Republicans. It's Democrats."
The film's social outreach is being handled by Participant Media, which helped turn "An Inconvenient Truth" into a catalyst for global warming awareness. John Schreiber, Participants' executive vice president for social action and advocacy, has been working with more than two dozen food-oriented nongovernmental agencies to develop what he calls "actionable issues" around the film. They include the Enhanced Child Nutrition Act, which will come up for a vote in Congress in the fall.
When Kenner began the film, times were flush. Now that the country is in the worst economic times since the Great Depression, can food reform really happen?
Kenner thinks so. The global economic crisis, which has highlighted the consequences of corporate consolidation and spotty government oversight, might be good for the food reform movement, he said.
"What's unclear is how big is the movement going to be," he said. "If it continues to grow, I think there's now an atmosphere in Washington and Sacramento that is ready to follow."San Francisco Chronicle