The Fruits of our Labor: Food Inc. Review

Directed by: Robert Kenner
Length: 1 hour 34 minutes
Development to Distribution: 6 years
Shot on: Panasonic HDX900 & HDX200

The most prevalent metaphor employed throughout the film is that of a veil: one fashioned by the food industry giants to be drawn between the consumer and the source of their food. But as Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) points out, at least once a month a news story emerges that allows a peek behind the veil. Food Inc. is an attempt to tear the veil down altogether, through a collection of poignant stories and factual insights into the dangers of our modern efficiency-driven food production machine. This is not to imply that the film simply contains a redundant collection of such news stories. Kenner and Co. have done their own investigating and applied a fresh analysis to both well-known and obscure phenomenon. In fact, he includes such a wide array of information damaging to the food mega-corporations that he must have had a whole squad of First Amendment attorneys peeking over his editor’s shoulder. The film’s second food conscience Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) bluntly notes that these companies have “legions” of lawyers and aren’t afraid to sue even when they know they can’t win, just to make an example out of you.

For those of you who’ve been living under a rock the past 40 years: cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals are already genetically mangled creatures at birth before they are subjected to various intensities of torture throughout their brief lives, only to be unceremoniously killed for the grocery and fast food joint alike. But the real value of Food Inc. lies in its more subtle points. Given the methods of standardization in breeding and processing cattle, the burger you eat can paradoxically contain the flesh of thousands of cows and yet still lack any meaningful diversity. In a wide high-angle shot of a supermarket, the same points is made about an astounding array of products. Do the tens of thousands of items contained in a single supermarket represent variety if so many rely on chemically re-constituted corn starches as a key ingredient? So while advertising depicts rolling fields and idle farm animals, the reality is increasingly a matter of new ideas envisioned in a lab then realized in filthy, crowded, mechanically controlled conditions. It’s too bad the film is almost bereft of representatives of the corporations driving food production in this direction, since one can sense Kenner doing his damndest to be as fair as possible. Then again, their intentional silence is the best evidence for his thesis of the “veil”.

The closest the film gets to representing the positives of corporate farming is summarized by one character: we can make a ton of food very cheaply and on very little land–what’s so bad about that? In addition to the gross abuse of animals, the agonizing stories of a mother who lost her only son to E-coli in his fast food burger helps answer the question. In another scene, a taped court deposition in a frivolous lawsuit shows a man beaten and broken by the invasive abuses of a corporate powerhouse. As he answers the plaintiff lawyer’s questions, the look of defeat on his face foreshadows his fate: he folds and ends up being put out of business. All of these human moments in the film feel very authentic and compete tightly for sympathy with the depicted animal suffering.

This gets at the richest insight of the film: business and economics drives everything. Capitalism is not going away, at least not quickly enough to affect the kind of change that desperately needs to happen now. The idea proffered by Food Inc. that every purchase is a vote for a candidate product is a powerful one, and will probably be the key to changing how food is produced in America. In one section a family is shown making a big order off the dollar menu at Burger King, then later shown at a supermarket lamenting their inability to afford any of the produce. I find this scene frustrating, because it’s true but not the whole truth. Sure, in a food to dollars ratio, cheap burgers may beat apples and oranges every time. But that doesn’t mean that fast food is your best option for eating cheap, even if you’re simply looking to maximize your calories. The implication of the scene leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

A doc that tries to tackle the problems with our food industry has arguably bitten off more than it can chew. Thankfully, Food Inc. chooses to gloss over or ignore many still important issues (“food deserts”, NAFTA, imported produce, etc.) so it can pay enough attention to those topics it decides to stick with. I wish the film was longer to offer more analysis, but still I think Kenner made the right decisions on what to focus on with one exception: the exact use of the term “organic” and its manipulation for marketing and advertising purposes. Although the film is awash with plenty of examples of the opposite of “organic”, it never tries to directly define what “organic” means. All the subtleties of the term’s meaning are left vague and obscure, and never is it mentioned that not all organics are created equal. Nor is it revealed that industrial machinery, some fertilizers, and even a few pesticides (albeit a very limited few) are still allowed on organically labeled foods. Finally, nothing is mentioned of how similar terms or logos that hint at organics (“free range”, “sustainably harvested”, the big “O” found on some Safeway brands, etc.) are not submitted to the same regulations and can easily be used to confuse and trick consumers. Considering the explicit attention given to individual consumers voting with their dollar, uncovering the specifics of the now ever-present term seems pretty crucial. Ultimately this essential gap in coverage is not enough to seriously compromise the message of the film though.

I’ve avoided discussing the craftsmanship of the film up to now because it seems so translucent. It’s simplicity is such that you are easily sucked in and soon forget that you’re staring at a screen. Aside from some inventive visuals at the beginning, most of the footage is straight verité. The modest use of motion graphics may not be too creative, but they do effectively express ideas and facts in visual terms. Although the film is explicitly broken up into topically labeled chapters, it still feels like it organically unfolds as one whole. It never struck me as awkward that certain characters are in every chapter while some are briefly in one. And despite the ubiquity of such key characters, the ideas about new ways of growing, consuming, and living are the stars here. And yet the film is rarely judgmental and never preachy, a rare trait for a film that attempts such a topic.