Reviewed by Rachel Stone
Flourish Magazine, Fall 2009
The old story goes that when Adam and Eve realized what they’d done, they hid from God, much as my four year-old hides when
he’s taking apart the computer keyboard, or when he’s discovered a hidden chocolate bar.
Some of the most intriguing parts of Food, Inc., the food-industry documentary by filmmaker Robert Kenner, are the silences, the absences, the gaps: the dark tunnel-ventilated Tyson poultry house we’re not allowed to enter, the interviews with Monsanto and Perdue that were declined, the kill floor in a meatpacking plant that we see only through the foggy lens of a hidden camera, executives having refused to allow photography. Sure, the film has its share of gut-twisting footage: a “downer” cow is shoved along by a forklift—it’s too ill to walk; chickens and cows stand (barely, because they’re so unwell) in deep piles of their own waste; a home video shows a two-and-a-half year-old boy playing with his father just weeks before he died from eating a contaminated fast-food hamburger.
But most chilling are the industry’s silent voices. They’re hiding: behind the elected legislators that protect their interests on many levels (not least financially, with outrageous subsidies of crops such as corn and soybeans), behind armies of lawyers who overwhelm any private citizen presenting any threat (real or imagined), and behind the factory walls that obscure from view the terrible suffering of the humans and animals that they treat little better than money-making machines.
Those who’ve read Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, will be surprised by few (if any) of the facts in this film. However, even if you hang on each of Michael Pollan’s well-chosen words, this movie is worth your time. It relies a bit heavily on documentary conventions such as talking heads and written text on screen, but the film is at its best when it shows, rather than tells, what the American food industry is like.
The visceral power of the film is the work it does on the imagination, to persuade our emotions to connect with reason. It does this not just through the outrage provoked by the aforementioned gut-twisters, but also by showing the beauty and harmony at Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm in the Shenandoah valley—at a farm with an open-air slaughterhouse, and with a farmer who casually slits chicken throats on film! Salatin is convinced that the virtues of accountability and integrity go along with visibility. His kill house has no walls because he’s got nothing to hide. Industrial agriculture giants seem to know this too, which is why they use pictures of pretty family farms on their butter and milk packages, but refuse interviews and prohibit filming within their plants. The picture on the package is not honest, and what this film does best is show the true story behind our meals. It’s not an easy story to swallow—it displays the unequivocally ugly truth that most of America’s food is produced in ways that are abusive and exploitative of the creation on every level: water, soil, plant life, animal life, and human life.
When watching a segment featuring low-income Latino family members that can afford fast food but not broccoli (thanks to the artificially low prices created by corn subsidies), and who wonder whether they should buy diabetes medications to stay healthy or vegetables to stay healthy (because they can’t afford both), I could not help but think of Isaiah 3:14-15:
“ ‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ declares the Lord God of hosts.”
Food isn’t just an environmental issue, an animal rights issue, a spiritual issue, a social justice issue, or a political issue—it’s all of these and more—though the film could have done more to make explicit this deep interconnectedness. And while the usual “vote with your fork” lines were rehearsed at the very end, many viewers might finish the film without a clear idea of the viable alternatives to eating what the industry dishes up.
Nonetheless, the powerful images, astonishing silences, and compellingly delivered facts provided by Food, Inc. could compel many viewers to begin finding ways to remake the story of American food; to discover ways to make the food industry stop hiding.