What's in your hamburger? Having beaten out Michael Jackson's: This is It in DVD sales on Amazon.com, the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. garnered national attention for its filleting of the country's food system. Filmmaker Robert Kenner spoke with Fabio Periera about his own eating habits and his goals in making Food, Inc..
Fabio Periera: What was the most important thing you learned about your own eating habits while making Food, Inc.?
Robert Kenner: Basically, industrial food does not taste as good to me anymore.
FP: Do you eat industrial food?
RK: I'm not a perfect eater. I travel, there are times I'm starving, but I don't like to. I think sometimes people are scared and think they'll have to totally change the way they eat. I just think what we tried to do is make people conscious about the cost of this food system.
FP: You just came back from an urban farming conference at the University of Michigan--Dearborn. Tell me about that experience.
RK: I just came back from Detroit where they don't have a supermarket in the entire city. It's called a food desert and it's happening in cities all over the country. There's not a high (enough) profit margin for supermarket (companies), so these places don't have them. What's interesting about Detroit, is that 8% of food sold is grown in abandoned lots and people are learning to feed themselves. They have to figure out what kinds of soil they have. (So, at the conference) they asked very practical question being asked about growing.
FP: If industrialized food is a problem, why did you choose to include Walmart in your film?
RK: For us, it was hard to figure out how to place Walmart in our film. We went to one corporation after another and we were almost done when Walmart said they'd be part of the film. I was so stunned. They are probably as responsible for the industrialization of the American food system as McDonalds. There are many things we can say that are not positive. But when they made the announcement about (not selling milk containing) RBST, saying their customers didn't want it, they changed the dairy system.
FP: Who was Kevin Kowalcyk?
RK: Kevin Kowalcyk (was a little boy who) ate a hamburger that contained e-coli, and after two miserable weeks, died from eating that hamburger. The meat that contained that pathogen sat on the shelves of American supermarkets. They knew where it came from, but the government didn't have the power to recall the product. Barb Kowalcyk, his mother, has become a food activist and is trying to get (Kevin's Law) passed (which would give the government the ability to recall tainted food products).
FP: What's the status of Kevin's Law?
RK: What's happening now is that FDA is discussing the ability to recall food. They're in the midst of it right now.
FP: For you, what is Food, Inc. ultimately about?
RK: Ultimately, it's not about food, it's about power. It's about how very few companies have control of the system. We've entered a world where it's against the law to endanger the profits of a food corporation. This is as much a film about our free speech as it about food.
FP: Have you been sued?
RK: I've not been sued but there have been numbers of attack websites. There's been the threat of suit. I've found myself censoring myself. If I make a film and a reviewer doesn't like it, I don't sue them. But Oprah made one comment about thinking twice before eating a hamburger and was in court for six years.
FP: What about in poor areas where there aren't a lot of options except for industrialized food?
RK: Farmers markets are growing rapidly around country but I think we have to start to figure out how to encourage (better food systems) to exist. The food I thought was (the most) horrendous was the food going to the national school lunch program. If we start buying food (for the school lunch program) from local and regional food producers, we would start to encourage (better eating habits).
FP: How do you feel about the Obama administration's efforts to change the country's eating habits?
RK: (First Lady) Michelle (Obama) is working very hard on these issues. She became part of this issues, like it or not, because she developed an organic garden and got attacked for it.
What we tried to show in Food, Inc. is that cheap food has high costs and those real costs are going to become more visible. The fact is that one-third of all Americans will get early-onset diabetes and one half of all minority Americans will have early onset diabetes. That's one of the effects that this food creates. If you want to fix the healthcare system, you have to fix the food system.