After watching Food Inc., one of two things will most likely happen: You’ll seriously rethink your food choices and make a radical change to exclusively buying locally grown, organic food. (Or growing your own.) Or you’ll stick with your current eating habits. But you’ll never look at a Chicken McNugget the same way again. Or a tomato. Or an ear of corn. Or that soy chai latte at Starbucks …
“If you knew,” a narrator intones at the start of the film, “you might not want to eat it.”
Call Food Inc. the Inconvenient Truth of the food movement. This is powerfully persuasive filmmaking, dissecting what it sees as the horrors of the corporate food industry in vividly specific details: Chickens bred to grow so fast and so fat that their legs cannot sustain their weight; a farmer nonchalantly reaching a gloved hand into a hole that’s been cut into the side of a cow; tens of thousands of pigs sent to their deaths via conveyor belt.
It opens with a menacing trip through the supermarket, as a narrator pronounces that there is a veil hiding the truth about what happens to our food before it lands on the dinner plate. From there, the filmmakers methodically proceed to lift that veil, showing how a little family burger joint owned by the McDonald brothers discovered how to make meat cheap and plentiful, processing food assembly-line style and forever altering the course of industrialized food production. We are all impacted by this, the film says, and not for the better.
To illustrate this, the film relies on the reportage of journalists Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), the film’s co-producer; Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto); and input from “social entrepreneurs” like Stonyfield's Gary Hirshberg and Polyface Farms' Joel Salatin.
But the film is at its compelling best when it turns the camera on regular folks who’re just trying to get by. There is Carole Morrison, a weathered chicken farmer who had a contract with Perdue. Through her, you see the hidden side of a chicken farm, the dust, the feces, the diseased chickens. “This isn’t right,” Morrison says. “Something has to be said …. This isn’t farming, this is mass production.”
Through Morrison, the viewer also sees how farmers are held hostage by the food conglomerates. They go into massive debt and, to keep their contracts, they are required to raise the chickens in darkly crowded warehouses, to keep up with the demand to grow chickens bigger and faster. Lest you think that Morrison and other farmers are profiting from their contracts, the filmmakers let you know that the average farmer is about $500,000 in debt and makes about $18,000 a year. (Shortly after talking with the filmmakers, Morrison lost her contract with Perdue.)
The film has plenty of drama, to be sure. But endless footage of suffering animals could have easily turned into a screed. Food Inc. succeeds because it convincingly details how the corporate food industry harms not just chickens, pigs and cattle, but people, too; from farmers to meat-packing workers to the working-class family who can’t afford to buy broccoli to the mother whose 2-year-old died from eating a burger contaminated with E. coli. From the beginning, it carefully lays out its case—that virtually everything that we eat is controlled by a handful of multinational conglomerates—and pounds away at that premise with snazzy 3D-animation, troubling statistics and good old-fashioned documentary interviews with compelling subjects. (Cut to the farmer riding through his fields, sniffing the smell of chicken crap and crowing, “Smells like money!”)
From time to time, the film does falter a bit. It gets bogged down in the explanation of genetically modified crops and the massive corporate conglomerate Monsanto and its patent on insecticide-proof beans. And the scenes featuring Barbara Kowalcyk, the mother of the toddler killed by E. coli drag on for a bit too long. But for the most part, Food Inc. stays on point with oft-times poetic precision.
You will be disturbed by this. (It’ll be hard to eat that big tub of popcorn without thinking about how so many of what we consume, from soup to soda, is highly processed corn brought to you courtesy of the highly subsidized corn industry.) You should be disturbed by this. Eating is both a political and an economic act, and the filmmakers are making a strong moral argument: What we choose to eat has vast, global impact, from the state of our health to the way that undocumented workers are exploited. But they don’t see this as an either/or proposition. They don’t, for instance, make the argument that we should all be vegetarians. (In fact, it makes a point of this by showing Schlosser eating a hamburger at a diner.) But they also don’t let you, the viewer, off the hook.
“People have got to start demanding good, wholesome food from us,” one farmer says. “And we’ll deliver, I promise you.” As far as Food Inc. is concerned, you truly are what you eat.
Teresa Wiltz is the senior culture writer for The Root.