Food, Inc. reminds me of someone I knew in college. At the dining hall, just as I'd be cutting into a piece of poultry, she'd ask, "Do you want to learn how that chicken died?" I'd answer: Yes, but maybe not while I'm eating it.
Her point, of course, was that the moment of eating is exactly the right time to contemplate our food system's problems. That's also the point of Food, Inc., an exposé of the business practices and government policies that shape how our food is produced, distributed and marketed. The film makes the pretty compelling case that the system is wildly out of whack, and that everyone's health is threatened as a result. The planet's health, too.
It makes that case with sledgehammers, though. Food, Inc. is a polemical documentary in the vein of Michael Moore films like Fahrenheit 9/11. But Food, Inc. lacks Moore's precisely calibrated tone, his careful storytelling, his keen show instincts. Director Robert Kenner's film is more of a harangue than a documentary.
Food, Inc. is structured in chapters. One looks at revolting, factory-style practices in modern beef and poultry production, another at the bullying efforts of ag giant Monsanto to clamp down on farmers thought to be violating patents. Agricultural alternatives are shown in interludes on the bucolic farm of a guy who raises grass-fed cattle.
In style Food, Inc. borrows, unfruitfully, from tabloid television. Footage shot inside corporate food operations has the grainy, shaky quality we have been conditioned to associate with profound guilt, whether or not we can even make out what's happening. More troubling is the segment dealing with a food-safety advocate whose young son died from E. coli poisoning. The story is terribly sad, but it doesn't need to be punched up with dramatic music à la Dateline NBC and endless, gauzy slow-motion footage of the smiling child. Food, Inc.'s argument isn't served well by mawkishness.
The case against the food system is articulated by authors Eric Schlosser, of Fast Food Nation fame, and Michael Pollan, who wrote the compelling food meditation The Omnivore's Dilemma. Actually, anyone who's read The Omnivore's Dilemma will already be familiar with much of what's covered in Food, Inc., especially what it means for the food system that corn is farmed in abundance, perhaps overabundance.
But although Food, Inc. is vivid in documenting outrages, the film is shakier when it comes to offering solutions. At the end we're given commands in a series of preachy titles, including "Buy foods that are organic." But the organic food industry has its own problems, not least because large corporations are staking out more and more of the sector. Pollan covers the problems of Big Organic in The Omnivore's Dilemma, but they're largely skipped over here (despite Pollan's receiving a consultant credit).
Food, Inc. argues that large food producers hide their operations from us because they are keeping insidious secrets. But could it be that we don't know more about our food because we don't want to know? The film's scenes of slaughter inside industrial food operations are disgusting, but so is a segment in which the kindly producer of grass-fed cattle slaughters chickens by hand. Grass-fed or not, the meat we eat comes from lovely animals that are killed. If that makes us queasy, it's a bigger problem than organic versus conventional.