Archive for Friday, July 24, 2009

Not so happy meal: New documentary exposes America’s corporate hold on the food chain

The documentary “Food, Inc.” investigates the dangers posed by allowing the nation’s food supply to be controlled by a handful of corporations.

The documentary “Food, Inc.” investigates the dangers posed by allowing the nation’s food supply to be controlled by a handful of corporations.

July 24, 2009


When Americans think of the nation’s food industry, they usually conjure images of idyllic pastures filled with grazing cattle and staffed by hard-working farm folk.

It’s a mirage, according to a new documentary called “Food, Inc.,” which opens today in Lawrence.

Instead, director Robert Kenner’s film argues, there’s a “highly mechanized underbelly” that’s been concealed from the consumer. The reality is the industry has more in common with OPEC than “Green Acres.”

“I didn’t know before doing the film just how consolidated everything is,” says “Food, Inc.” producer Elise Pearlstein, calling from her home in Los Angeles.

“Even in the time we were making the film, it went from four companies that have 80 percent control over the beef market down to three.”

The trickle effect to consumers is even more alarming. “Food, Inc.” exposes how most fare that reaches the plate has been scientifically engineered, cultivated on an assembly line or physically brutalized. Often, it’s all three.

As the film’s poster boasts, “You’ll never look at dinner the same way again.”

Food, Inc. ****

Robert Kenner's revelatory documentary focuses on the industrialization of food production and how it has affected our health, environment and economy. It's a blistering indictment of giant food conglomerates such as Tyson and Monsanto, and a none-too-comforting look at how the FDA and USDA have been rendered powerless.

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Q: When you hear feedback about the film, what information do people find the most shocking?

A: People do tend to fixate on the meat stuff. The way chickens are raised and the conditions for beef. But like with Upton Sinclair, “He aimed for their hearts and hit their stomachs.” Also, people don’t really seem to know about veggie libel laws. They’ve seemed to have forgotten about the Oprah Winfrey case.

Q: Did you ever come close to getting one of the food corporations to talk on-camera?

A: We had exchanges back and forth for more than three months. I was persistent and hopeful we could get them to come in. We kept saying to them, “We don’t have a narrator in the film. You have a story to tell and arguments to make, and we can’t really make them. We need you to speak for yourselves.” I thought I could talk them into it. But it became clear they didn’t want to participate.

Q: Is it true that a large portion of the film’s budget went into legal fees to pre-emptively brace against lawsuits from the featured corporations?

A: I don’t know if I would say a large percent, but Robert Kenner has said that he spent more on legal fees for this film than his last 15 films combined. We didn’t know going in that we were going to encounter the resistance we did or end up doing some things in the film that we end up talking about. Barb Kowalcyk, the woman whose son died from eating a hamburger, when she said in an interview, “I can’t really tell you how my eating habits have changed because I’m afraid I might be sued,” that was completely shocking to us. We didn’t really realize how litigious these companies can be. We had to be really careful we were exercising our First Amendment rights within the bounds of the rights we have.

Q: Have the corporations done anything to try and silence your film?

A: Monsanto has a Web site that is devoted to saying what we say is wrong.

Q: Is there any truth to their claims?

A: No, actually. In some ways, it’s unfortunate because some of the things they say were things we hoped they’d say on camera. ... Some of what they say is just not true. They say the film is anti-farmer, which is just trying to cast it in a light that will make farmers angry. It’s not anti-farmer at all. Then also some of the meat and poultry associations came together and put up a Web site that tries to very narrowly cast the film as wanting to force everyone to spend more money and eat only organic, local food. We tried hard not to dictate what should and shouldn’t be the future of the food system.

Q: What have been some of the unusual strategies you’ve used to market the movie?

A: This was not something we knew when we were making the film, but Stonyfield Yogurt came in after it was completed and decided to put, “Go see ‘Food, Inc.’” on 10 million of their yogurt containers. That’s a great way to spread the word. Also, Whole Foods has done some support of it in their stores. And Chipotle came on board to do free screenings in 32 cities. They have free literature in their stores.



Q: Aren’t they owned by McDonald’s?

A: They’re not owned by them anymore. They used to be. You’re not the first person to point that out.

Q: How do you compare “Food, Inc,” to other recent food documentaries such as “Super Size Me”?

A: I think “Super Size Me” gets at a big problem through a personal story. I think it’s a really effective film. But I think we’re trying to tackle the big issue and do it through people who are directly impacted. It’s definitely a big overview of the food system. I think you can say we bit off a lot.

Q: How has making the film altered your eating habits?

A: I can’t tell you that (laughs). It’s just that eye-opening thing that once you start to know about this stuff, you can’t turn it off. I have two little kids, and I’m really aware of what I feed them because young children are more vulnerable to foodborne illness. I do simple things, like if I’m going to give them ground beef, I have a butcher grind one piece. There are butchers out there. I definitely shop at farmers’ markets as much as I can. I buy as much organic as I can — I’m not interested in giving them milk that’s been treated with hormones. I don’t want to eat pesticides. I do everything I can. But also, I’m a working mom, and I’m sympathetic to all of the demands that most families have today about finding time to cook and work on a budget.

Q: I’m guessing you’d appreciate living in Lawrence because it’s compatible with a lot of those concerns.

A: I love to hear that because one thing I hear a lot is, “Easy for you to say in California that we should be eating at farmers’ markets,” since we can grow here year-round. I’m hearing more and more from people all over the country about eating food that’s local and seasonal. It doesn’t mean you’re just going to be eating turnips in the winter — nothing against turnips or the turnip lobby.

Q: When it comes to the food system, are things getting better or worse?

A: I think things are getting better in the sense that we as consumers are going to increasingly have more options for food that’s grown outside of the industrial system. Organic is the fastest-growing sector of the food economy. There are more and more farmers’ markets and things like that. But at the same time, I just read today that Monsanto and Dow have partnered on a new form of genetically modified corn. We really have to ensure we have safeguards against these massive food safety problems. There’s a lot of work to be done.


Finn12 8 years, 9 months ago

Films For Action would do well to show this in Lawrence!! I'm reading a book called "Ultraprevention" which makes many good points about how we should be preventing and treating disease sources, not just treating symptoms. There are many who feel they can't afford organic foods; the prices are somewhat higher (depending on what you buy) but I had a friend once tell me: you can pay the doctor, or you can pay the grocer.

canyon_wren 8 years, 9 months ago

What a useful article! I recommend Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." It has lots of good advice related to raising your own food when possible or eating what's produced locally, and not buying produce out of season (since it usually comes from foreign countries without "handling" standards, etc.) plus a lot of other good ideas.

seriouscat 8 years, 9 months ago

It's good that this message is being reiterated over and over again and that the proverbial 'choir' is growing larger and larger. My family jokingly named me the 'food nazi' years ago when I drastically changed my buying and cooking habits as an experiment to see if those changes would help my son with his behavior problems. It was hard work but it did help my son and change the minds of observant friends and family.

Monsanto once stated that their goal as a company was to gain control over the entire food supply chain from seed to table. Sounds like some caricature from a bad sci-fi film but it's the reality of industry today. We need to cut them off at the knees and my hope is that films like this one will help make that happen.

Bravo to those responsible for Food Inc and other films like it. Keep up the good fight!

Music_Girl 8 years, 9 months ago

This type of film makes me glad I was raised on and live on a farm. Knowing what your animals eat from birth to your table in a proverbial weight off your shoulders. The two things we struggle with the most are milk and bread. Other than that we raise most of our own meat and raise gardens every summer. We have always been really healthy kids too.

modernfarmer 8 years, 9 months ago

This movie is a joke, and so is the myth that growing food without fertilizer and technology is the 'green way.' Wake-up America! You can't feed a global population approaching 7billion people, with the farm methods used in 1850, that fed a global population of only 1.3billion.

Low input - low yield farming is the opposite of 'green & environmentally sustainable,' agriculture. My grandpa farmed with horse's in the 30's. My Dad farms the same amount of ground today as my Grandfather, and produces about twice as much food per acre of farmland.

That's the reality and beauty of modern agriculture. Without it - you can wipe away a few billion people from this planet!

Music_Girl 8 years, 9 months ago

modernfarmer, there is a difference between modern farmers with modern agriculture and industrialized farming. Fertilizer is one thing, excessive pesticides is quite another.

lounger 8 years, 9 months ago

This looks really good and informative!!! Well over do and Im excited to see it....

modernfarmer 8 years, 9 months ago

music_girl Organic farming prohibits use of anhydrous fertilizer. Prior to development of this fertilizer - primary source of nutrients for plants was bird&bat poop - mined from caves along the coastline of South America. You can appreciate that situation was not very 'sustainable.'

Regarding overuse of pesticides - modern agriculture and genetic engineering can create plants that are resistant to insects - fungus - drought etc..

Organic farm standards allow for extensive use and overapplication of early generation insecticides like pyrethrin and nicotine derivatives and metal derivatives. Because these compounds are marginally effective and have very short residual activity - they must be applied frequently - and in high levels, creating likely runoff and contamination of soil and water.

cthulhu_4_president 8 years, 9 months ago

modernfarmer is right on.

The coldest, hardest, fact that I'm sure the director of the film does not mention is that 'organic' farming techinques cost more, yield less per acre and are less likely to work in harsh environments than GM crops in developing nations. That doesn't mean much to us here in utopian america, but for developing countries, increasing the price and decreasing the output will kill people. The environmentally induced ban on DDT was reponsible for tens of millions of deaths. At a UN summit in the mid nineties greepeace conviced the governments of African nations to turn down tons of donated GM crops because they convinced them that they were poison. The result: famine and death.

Eat what you want, that is your right, but we are a utopian people compared to these countries, and we have absolutely no right to tell a person who is starving themselves to try to feed their family what they can or cannot put in their mouths.

Fact: we cannot sustain 7 billion people or more without the full use of technology, genetic modification, effective pesticides to feed these people.

For your approval, I present Dr. Norman Borlaug: he is the greatest human being I have ever heard about. He spent his life bringing food technology and Gm crops to starving nations. When he was given the nobel peace prize it was estimated that he had directly saved over 1 Billion lives.

More thatn 1/3 of the world goes to bed hungry each night. Unless you can find 2 billion volunteers to die, organic, slow, and expensive agriculture is not the answer.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 9 months ago

Hey, let's go back to 1890s agriculture! We can shed the excess population somehow.

mary_jane 8 years, 9 months ago

I read an article in the National Geographic last month about the impact of GM foods in India. Unfortunately I can't find the article online. A lot of the the points made in the comments above were made there as was mention of Dr. Norman Borlaug and his nobel prize for his work on GM crops. The article then showed the current conditions in which the people lived. The effects of growing the crops were salinization of the soil and ever increasing demand for fertilizer. Now the community that was documented in the article lives with dramaticly high rates of cancers and birth defects because the ground water has turned into poison.

It's one thing to feed the masses but does it make sense to then poison them to death in the end? I think it's interesting how some people so blindly trust Monsanto and Dow to do the right thing.

puddleglum 8 years, 9 months ago

snap, maybe shedding the excess population isnt such a bad idea. I think the main point here is that corporate control (monopoly) over our food chain is beyond just greedy and gross.... it is dangerous. very dangerous.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 9 months ago

Industrialized agriculture is not efficient. It's an overly complex system that would make Rube Goldberg proud, and it's only possible in a world in which energy is cheap and pollution and environmental degradation are allowed to go unchecked.

The notion that only fossil-fuel powered agriculture can benefit from new and improved technologies and techniques flies in the face of the history of the development of the human race. The current industrialized system is just plain unsustainable. Pretending otherwise only delays the development of new techniques and technologies that are sustainable.

modernfarmer 8 years, 9 months ago


Whatever 'bus' your on - its not for me. From caveman time to 1800 (around 100,000 years) - the planet had less than one billion people.

In just the last three hundred years - world population has reached 6.7billion. Even an idiot understands this could not have happened without innovation and adoption of technology to dramatically improve the productivity of growing food.

According to USDA statistics - there are over 2 million family farms in the United States that make the food we eat. I come from a family farm. Typically the land and resources have been in the same family farm for several generations.

Do you think we could grow the food we do by destroying our environment? Family farmers are one of the greatest environmental groups in our nation - if not the greatest. Let's quit beating up the farmer - while our bellies are full of the most abundant - safest - lowest cost food on the planet. That's just being a hypocrite!

William Pike 8 years, 9 months ago

funny thing about this movie... Sponsored by Chipolte whom owes their success to Mc Donalds

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 9 months ago

You've got the talking points down, farmer, but industrial agriculture is wholly unfriendly to family farming. Why else do you think all the small towns of Kansas and other agricultural states are dying?

While the "green" revolution certainly can crank out lots of commodities full of largely empty calories, the sad fact is that it's been a complete disaster for those in the developing world. Millions who were once subsistence farmers have been run off their farms by the dumping of factory-farm commodities on the markets that used to buy their produce. So instead of these countries now feeding themselves, they are dependent on food aid for the millions who have been forced off their farms and into the shantytowns mega-cities like Mexico City.

And despite your victim mentality, I'm all for your staying on your farm, but not if it requires wars for oil and the destruction of the environment to keep you there under the factory-farming status quo. There are better ways of doing things, and if you can't figure that out, perhaps you should find a different line of work.

cthulhu_4_president 8 years, 9 months ago

Mary-Jane, if you can find the article, I would be happy to read it.

I can't find it, either.

GD4TREY 8 years, 9 months ago

Yeah Bozo, farmer is one of those new fangled farmers that believe every new scientific article that comes out. He probably believes it is okay to take the solids left over from human waste and whatever else is dumped down the sewer an use if as fertilizer on his crops. Oh, but science says it is safe to use. Yes, they do use that as fertilizer! Can't help but wonder if that is where some of the ecoli outbreaks have come from. But isn't that finding coming from a government agency that is trying to figure ways of disposing of solid waste?

Cait McKnelly 8 years, 9 months ago

Just out of curiosity, why is the old Farmland Industries Production site on K-10 (that the city recently annexed) an EPA Supersite? Food was produced there. FOOD. How did it become a sinkhole of pollution? This is in our own back yard and it seems no one sees it.

GD4TREY 8 years, 9 months ago

Cait I do know that fertilizer was produced there for years. My uncle had a contract to paint there for several years. Not sure about food produced there. But, it is an eyesore, as well as an environmental nightmare. Will take several million to clean it up.

modernfarmer 8 years, 9 months ago

Okay GD4TREY - BOZO et. al..

Regarding solids from human waste etc.. - that's pretty much the source of fertilizer for organic agriculture. Stop into to your local gardening store and take a look at the ingredients and label language on the organic compost. You'll find out its basically raw manure - in fact you'll be cautioned to be careful handling the stuff in your sustainable little backyard 'farm' as you could catch any number of little bugs (including e coli.).

Which brings up another FACT that you are way more likely to be infected with a food borne pathogen from organically grown food compared with non organic.

And to the BOZO - I don't know what an empty food calorie is. Wheat - corn - vegetable - fruit - fish - goat - you name it --- all can all yield healthy calories. ...and in their absence, you eventually die.

Maybe all you Bozos should actually thumb a ride out to a real farm and see how food is made in this country.

Take technology out of agriculture - why stop there - who needs the cellphone - who needs the internet - who needs LJworld online? Let's all go back to horse and buggie - kerosene lamps - pony express mail courier - earthen wall homes - Now that's progress indeed!

beatrice 8 years, 9 months ago

This is why I don't eat packaged meat anymore, just Soylent Green.

GD4TREY 8 years, 9 months ago

Farmer, cow & horse manure are one thing but waste from humans should not be used as fertilizer period. Didn't someones modern idea bring mad cow disease to humans? Feeding cows meat?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 9 months ago

"Maybe all you Bozos should actually thumb a ride out to a real farm and see how food is made in this country."

That's exactly what the producers of this movie did. Only they didn't find the perfect fairy-tale world you and the industry giants want us to believe.

BigPrune 8 years, 9 months ago

As an impartial third party observing this debate, the winner is modernfarmer by a landslide.

jumpin_catfish 8 years, 9 months ago

bigprune is correct modernfarmer wins. Just another thought bozos if you take technology out of farming how people in this country and around the world would starve to death. How heartless of you organic lovers.

Scott Drummond 8 years, 9 months ago

"In just the last three hundred years - world population has reached 6.7billion. Even an idiot understands this could not have happened without innovation and adoption of technology to dramatically improve the productivity of growing food."

You say that like it's a good thing.

Practicality 8 years, 9 months ago

Farmland Industries on K-10 didn't produce food, it produced fertilizer, including UREA and Anhydrous Ammonia. Just another example of LJonline posters making up "facts" to support their idiotic ideas.

bigm 8 years, 9 months ago

"Q: Have the corporations done anything to try and silence your film? A: Monsanto has a Web site that is devoted to saying what we say is wrong."

It's interesting the article doesn't provide a link to Monsanto’s Food Inc. website.

Here it is

Read it, it is very informative.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 9 months ago

" if you take technology out of farming how people in this country and around the world would starve to death."

If you had actually read my posts, you would know that I'm not against science in agriculture. Far from it. I'm for the type of science that creates a sustainable agriculture (as in over decades and centuries,) not the kind of science that looks solely to improve quarterly earnings while destroying local economies and the world's ecosystems.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 9 months ago

"Farmland Industries on K-10 didn't produce food, it produced fertilizer, including UREA and Anhydrous Ammonia. "

These are the staples of industrial agriculture, and look what a mess they have left behind.

redneck 8 years, 9 months ago

I agree with Farmer, there is no way to feed all of us on this planet if we don't use some sort of industrial agriculture. And I agree that not all modern ideas work out, but at least we are trying to make things better. We do need to re-think using pestisides, because there are other alternatives. I believe pestisides are one of the biggest reasons that we have so many people dying of cancer. Ever notice how many people who farm or grew up on a farm get cancer? I'm from western Kansas, and I know lots of people who have had cancer. Things are better than they were 50 years ago, and they will continue to improve. Things are improving just because none of us think the same way, and it's good to have people who question how we do things. Keep the ideas comming!

blakus 8 years, 9 months ago

Monsanto is one of the scariest companies out there. They sue farmers who's fields have inadvertantly picked up Monsanto seeds (and grown without the knowledge of the farmer) from other fields that have Monsanto crops growing. They are anti-farmer in my eyes and a dangerous company.

Steve Jacob 8 years, 9 months ago

Sticking to the movie, while documentaries are getting better and better, they are more one sided then even before (on both sides). News seems to be the same way, maybe it's the sign of the times. Maybe the only way to get people to watch is to target an audience.

disgustedagain 8 years, 9 months ago

Excellent article. 80% controlled by 3-5 companies, just like the health insurance industry and all the other corporate strangleholds out there. Monopolies are bad news for the individual American any way you look at it.

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