Documentary ‘Food, Inc.’ pulls back veil on food industry

The documentary “Food, Inc.” begins, appropriately enough, in a grocery store, its brightly lit and vaguely antiseptic aisles stocked with name-brand cereals, soups and salad dressings. The expanse of labels boasts illustrations of inviting red barns, rolling hills of green grass, smiling farmers.

It’s a familiar and comforting image, but one that the filmmakers suggest is part of a carefully constructed pastoral fantasy. “The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating,” says an unidentified voice-over, “because if you knew, you might not want to eat it.”

That’s an understatement. “Food Inc.,” which screens Thursday through Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, flings back the curtain on the food industry and shines a floodlight on an arena that the filmmakers contend endangers our health, environment, economy and moral fabric. Director Robert Kenner makes a convincing case. Relying on interviews with two talking heads who know their stuff ” Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” and Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” ” the documentary is a blistering overview of some deeply troubling practices.

Its revelations about the world of meatpacking are particularly bleak. “Food, Inc.” examines how the assembly line mechanics of fast food transformed how we produce and receive what we eat. Chickens are raised and slaughtered in half the time they were 50 years ago, and they’re now twice as big. They have larger breasts to accommodate appetites for white meat. Packed into overcrowded, windowless chicken houses, most of the birds are too fat even to walk.

More alarming, the film suggests that ever-increasing outbreaks of E. coli bacteria can be traced back to how beef packers ” four of which are responsible for more than 80 percent of the market ” now raise cattle. Instead of grass, the feed of choice is corn, which fattens the animals quicker, but is not easily digested. The result is a particularly nefarious strain of E. coli.

In one of the doc’s more heart-wrenching moments, we see home movies of Kevin Kowalcyk, a 2-year-old Pennsylvania boy who died 12 days after eating a burger contaminated with E. coli. His mother now lobbies for legislation to let the U.S. Department of Agriculture shut down plants that repeatedly churn out bad meat. But the measure has gone nowhere, and “Food, Inc.” notes that many food regulators in the Clinton and Bush administrations came from the very industry they were supposed to oversee.

There is much more. From the cynical use of illegal immigrant labor to Monsanto’s jaw-dropping enforcement of its soybean patent, “Food, Inc.” crams in enough material for a handful of documentaries.

Kenner’s viewpoint is never in doubt, but the film doesn’t suffer the shrillness or sanctimony that dogs the advocacy documentaries of Michael Moore and his imitators. Moreover, it should be noted that “Food, Inc.” finds reason for optimism, as in the rising popularity of organic farming.

It makes for disturbing, but indispensable viewing. Some images ” scores of chicks tumbling down an assembly line, undercover footage of the “kill floor” of a beef-packing plant ” are bound to stay with the viewer long afterward. Whether any of it proves to be enough food for thought remains to be seen. “Phil Bacharach

Phil Bacharach

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