Robert Kenner gives the American public a twenty-first century Upton-Sinclair-look at the industrial food system in his latest film, Food, Inc., and not since The Jungle has the food in the U.S. seemed so unappetizing or so unsafe. Journalists and food experts, Eric Schlosser, and Michael Pollan weigh in with staggering statistics on today's unsustainable food system, increasing rates of obesity-related diseases, and rising rates of food safety scares. To connect the dots between government, large food corporations, food safety, obesity, and the environment, Kenner follows the individual stories of a fixed-income family financially torn between buying produce or diabetes medicine; the mother who advocates for increased FDA regulation after her son died from E. coli; the seed cleaner put out of business by the world's largest soy bean company; the union president struggling to protect illegal immigrants working in food processing facilities; and many more. I consider myself knowledgeable about the specifics of the conventional food system and stay abreast of food politics, yet I was aghast at several points during the film. Our nation's large-scale food system is on life support, our citizens are dying, and conditions won't improve unless we demand change. A week after I viewed the film, Kenner spoke with me about the challenges he faced trying to produce this film, what shocked him the most, and why he remains optimistic.
Louise McCready: What initially inspired you to produce this film?
Robert Kenner: I read Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, and the idea that there is a world there that we don't fully understand was really interesting to me and made me look at the world differently. Eric and I talked about doing a documentary on his book, but after Supersize Me came out, everyone thought they'd already seen the documentary on Fast Food Nation, so I began to think it might be more interesting to think about how does our food get to our table? Where does it come from? Who grows it?
LM: What were your goals in producing the film?
RK: We have the least expensive food at any time in the history of the world—less of our paycheck goes to food now than at any other time. At the same time, there is a very high cost of this food. I thought it would be very interesting to have a dialogue about food. As a filmmaker, I want to make an interesting filmic presentation of that conversation, and that's a gigantic challenge. Since agribusiness didn't want to talk to me, it became an even bigger challenge because how do you have a fair conversation when one point of view doesn't want to be represented and doesn't even want you thinking about it?
LM: It seems as though none of the large corporations were willing to speak to you because throughout the film phrases such as, "Perdue would not comment," or "Monsanto would not comment," would flash across the screen.
RK: Many more than you see on the screen, but I appreciate the two or three companies that were willing to have some form of transparency. Richard Lobb, from the National Chicken Council, came on, and said, "We produce more chickens on less land for fewer dollars." That is a valid point that many Americans like. Wal-Mart, Gary Hirshberg, and Eldon Roth, who opened his factory at the end of the film, should be applauded because so very, very few corporations would open their doors, or even open their mouths.
For me, the most scary thing in this film was when I went to that hearing about whether to label cloned meats, and the industry representative said, "I don't think it's in the consumer's interest to have this information."
LM: Oh yes. What'd she say next? "They'll be too scared?"
RK: "They'll be too confused." I got goosebumps. That's when I realized something is terribly wrong. This happens time and time again. Genetically modified organisms—[the food industry] says they're good for you, but they'll do everything possible to keep it off the label. RBST, the growth hormone for dairy cows—not only do they try to keep it off the label, they sue farmers who put on the label that their product doesn't contain it. I could spend our whole interview just listing the things [the food industry] doesn't want you to know. A free society and free market has to be based on information. We should have the right to know what we are eating and we should have the right to make choices. If we don't have access to that information, we can't make the choices we want. The fact that we don't is very surprising.
LM: You touched on the role of the government with regards to the current food industry, but what specific steps do you think this administration should take to improve the standards for both animals and people involved in the food industry and to improve food safety?
RK: With Obama, we have a president in the White House who will listen. I don't think you can be interested in health care without wanting to change the food system. One out of every three Americans will get early onset diabetes.
LM: That was one of the most astounding statistics from your film.
RK: Unbelievable. This system of low-cost food has become very expensive and it's going to become even more expensive. People ask me, "Is it a conspiracy between the pharmaceutical and the food companies?" I don't believe there are any conspiracies. It's just that you solve one problem but create a new one. We didn't have enough calories, and so government and industry created a new system that lowered the cost of our food.
We have an abundance of calories today. The problem is they're now making people sick. We have to look at the system, and reevaluate and readjust, and we have to do it fast. We have a system that is not sustainable because it's based on gasoline. Gasoline is a diminishing product. When the price of oil spikes again, this food is going to become very expensive because all of the chemicals that go in to food are gasoline based, and gasoline is needed for the tractors and transportation. Twenty to twenty-five percent of our carbon footprint goes into growing and transporting the food. Our industrial food system is dependent on polluting the water and the land and robbing the earth of nutrients. We have to think how to replace it or transform it.
LM: Do you think some day in the future companies will be forced to put warning labels on food? Or compensate all these people who are suffering from obesity related diseases?
RK: Eric's analogy about tobacco was very important. Tobacco corporations were the most powerful and the wealthiest. They were connected to government. They created a product and put out false information about the safety of that product because it turned out to be addictive and very harmful for you. As Americans discovered how unsafe and dangerous that product was, they changed, they changed the law, and they cracked down on tobacco. As Americans start to understand the consequences of this food system, they'll begin to make changes.
RK: I just met him, and I'm reading his book. [Food companies] are consciously designing food to be addictive. The food industry has seen what happened with tobacco. They don't want that to happen again, so they have the veggie libel laws, which make it easy for these companies to sue you.
LM: That was the second most shocking thing I learned from your film.
RK: I asked Barbara Kowalcyk what I thought was a silly question, "How has this affected your eating?", and she gave me the startling answer, "I can't tell you". I was stunned. Then, she started talking about the Oprah story with the veggie libel laws—you can be sued for disparaging a food product if it affects their profits. I remembered the Oprah story, but I hadn't put it together that all these things are related. I try to connect dots between stories.
For me, the shocking thing about Barbara's case is the meat that killed her son stayed on the shelf for 16 days. The FDA knew where it came from but the government didn't have the power to recall that meat. The fact that this has gone on for eight years since his death, and many other deaths, was surprising.
Last week, there was an announcement about E. coli in chocolate chip cookies and a number of people have gotten sick from this E. coli. Remember E. coli O157 is a brand new bug that came with this industrial food system—it didn't exist 25 years ago. First it was in the meat, then we had the spinach scare, and now it's in chocolate chip cookies! It spreads throughout the system. There are new regulations before congress that will give the FDA the power to recall, so it looks like things are going to change.
LM: I'm originally from Kentucky, so I was especially interested when you showed an enthusiastic Tyson grower from McLean County, KY. However, after seeing what Carole Morrison, who raised chickens for Perdue, went through, it is clear these are not farmers in the traditional sense so much as sharecroppers irrevocably kept in debt to large food corporations. I understand why young people from rural areas don't want to farm, and illegal immigrants are the only ones left working with food.
RK: Joel Salatin said to me, "All the A and B students have left the farms to become lawyers or work at hedge funds. They don't make things. It's the D and F students, or really only illegal immigrants, who are growing and producing this food because the jobs have become so unpleasant, so low paying, and so dangerous nobody with rights would take these jobs." We now have a slave workforce that is growing our food, and you can tell a lot about a society by who grows the food. We had citizen farmers who fought the revolution. Now, we have indentured servants with no rights to speak out against the system. When I was in Iowa State at the Agriculture School, I asked, "What's the most important thing to learn about becoming a farmer?" Three of these blue-eyed, blond headed students said, "Spanish."
LM: Comparing the documentary Fresh and your film, what I liked about yours was that at the end your film gave concrete examples of how viewers could make a difference.
RK: We get to vote three times a day with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We have to start by buying local foods, going to farmers markets and supporting the smaller farmers, buying more organics (which is the fastest growing segment of the food world). When you go to the supermarket, buy less processed food. All that words that you can't pronounce are born in soy—that's what's making us so fat and that's what's causing the diabetes problem. This world turned out to be much more subversive than I ever imagined, but I also began to realize there is an incredible growing movement out there that's going to be led by mothers who want safe food for their children.
Consumers have a lot more power than we think. Troy Roush is an industrial farmer—he uses Monsanto products and has friends who run CAFOs. He says, "If you demand it, we'd be thrilled to grow it." I'm hopeful that people will see the movie, and realize that we can change the system. This world is changing and I'm optimistic.