You put food in your mouth every day. But do you know exactly what you’re consuming when you pick up chicken breasts at the grocery store or drive though a fast-food restaurant for a cheeseburger? Or do you even bother to care?
Probably not, director Robert Kenner says in his documentary “Food, Inc.” — and you should.
Kenner presents an even-tempered but nonetheless horrifying dissection of the U.S. food industry, where corporate-owned, mass-produced and chemically enhanced edibles can be unhealthy at best and deadly at worst. One look inside a cramped, dusty chicken house — where the birds are so puffed up with steroids, they collapse under the weight of their breasts and die before they can be slaughtered — will make you think twice about how you spend your money at the supermarket.
Similar to Al Gore’s warnings about climate change in the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” Kenner’s findings — with significant contributions from authors Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) and Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) — produce a cumulative effect that’s depressing. Baby chicks have their fuzzy heads slammed against equipment as they scoot along a conveyor belt. Cows can catch and transmit E. coli from eating corn — the cheap mainstay of their diet, rather than the grass that’s more natural for their systems — and standing around in manure.
(Representatives from food industry behemoths like Tyson and Perdue wouldn’t speak to Kenner for his film.)
Stomach-turning as those images are, the individual stories of struggle are just as moving in their own way. One low-income family of four would like to eat well but they’re often too busy to cook and vegetables are too expensive to include in their meals regularly, so they order off the dollar menu of some burger chain instead — and it shows in their waistlines and the way they feel. But the hardest story to watch is that of Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2½-year-old son died of E. coli from a burger he ate during vacation. Kowalcyk is now an advocate for food safety, pushing to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meat.
Kenner loses a bit of momentum when he focuses on farmers who’ve been sued for patent violation for cleaning their seeds for reuse. Seeds are, of course, the core of all the products we’re talking about, so it’s germane to “Food, Inc.,” but this is such a complicated topic, it almost feels like it belongs in its own movie or TV special.
But Kenner also presents his information in a way that’s clever and fluid without being too slick. Eerie music accompanies comforting old-fashioned images of farms on packages of eggs and breakfast sausages, for example. And Schlosser surprisingly admits that a cheeseburger and fries is still his favorite meal.
Kenner also balances a sense of helplessness with evidence that organic foods are becoming more prevalent — oddly, Wal-Mart comes off as one of the heroes of “Food, Inc.” for selling the Stonyfield Farm line of organic dairy products — and with suggestions of how each of us can affect change with every purchasing decision we make and every bite we take.
Once we get our appetite back, that is.