“It’s not a tomato, it’s the idea of a tomato.”
On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, when fast food was just starting out, CBS News broadcast Harvest of Shame, a crushing exposé on the treatment of migrant fruit and vegetables pickers. In it, Edward R. Murrow explicitly compared the social injustices such workers suffered to apartheid and chattel slavery, and fingers them as an unnecessary side effect of Americans being the “best fed people on earth.”
On July 25, 2007, CNBC aired a special called Big Mac: Inside the McDonald’s Empire, wherein Carl Quintanilla — the reporter who, without a trace of irony, asked the yet unprosecuted Bernie Madoff if it was “fun being a billionaire” — discussed how McDonald’s is one of America’s most amazing success stories, an emblem of our culture the world over that is deeply misunderstood and unfairly disparaged. At one point, he even lamented the refusal of American consumers to appreciate just how hard McDonald’s is working to provide healthful meal options at its restaurants.
“It’s not a tomato — it’s the idea of a tomato,” says Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, during the opening credits of Robert Kenner’s documentary Food, Inc., referring to the declining quality of supermarket tomatoes. Harvested green and chemically colored through exposure to ethylene gas, such tomatoes are aesthetically appealing to the consumer but completely lacking in the rich flavor and dense nutritional value of a true vine-ripened tomato. The real kind are still available through organic markets and local growers, but they simply can’t compete with the fruit and vegetable corporations that provide a year-round supply of cheap, uniformly bland tomatoes — most of which are eaten with corn syrup in the form of ketchup or pizza sauce, or with American cheese and ground beef on a hamburger. Of course, “organic food” is really just “food” from half a century ago, but the industrialization of food production has turned something as simple as a vine-ripened tomato into a fringe product.
Independent journalists and filmmakers can’t compete with 24-hour news networks and international media conglomerates, either, even if what they’re offering is often far superior. CNBC’s puff piece about McDonald’s is the journalistic equivalent of a late-night Big Mac: it might seem like food, and it’s certainly being sold as food, but it can hardly be considered food if it has no nutritional value beyond fat and sugar. Food, Inc. is a less startling documentary today than Harvest of Shame was in 1960 — it’s been beaten to the punch by numerous other works — but it’s being marketed as an “indie” film, available only in limited theatrical release, while Murrow’s special was broadcast as the evening news at a time when there were only three television stations.
Kyle Smith of The New York Post called the miniature movement to which Food, Inc. belongs the “Your Hamburger Will Kill You subgenre.” The two most important (and popular) books of this kind are Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and with Schlosser producing the film and both of them featured in its two longest extended interviews, Food, Inc. is something of an unofficial supplement to them. The film highlights the destructive impact corn subsidies and genetic patenting have on farmers, but these subjects are more thoroughly explored in Aaron Woolf’s King Corn and Deborah Koons’s The Future of Food, respectively. At a lean 94 minutes, Food, Inc. barely has time to cover the basics of its prime points of focus — the production of commercial beef and poultry — yet Kenner wastes precious runtime trying to touch on every tentacle of the agribusiness octopus. A documentary aiming to cover the whole of the situation would have to rival Ken Burns’s The Civil War in length and scope, and that may be exactly what we need.
Food, Inc. is more aesthetically advertising-savvy than something so socially progressive should be, but it’s difficult to blame Kenner for stylizing it for the mainstream market. The most popular movie of this type — the only one to receive Oscar attention — is Morgan Spurlock’s gimmicky Super Size Me. Typical of a post-Roger & Me documentary aiming for the mainstream, Super Size Me is drenched in pop culture and shock jock humor — a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, or, more accurately, a spoonful of high fructose corn syrup. If the CEO of Stonyfield Farms, an organic yogurt maker, really did “sell out” to Wal-Mart to reach a wider market as he embarrassingly admits in Food, Inc., then Kenner made the same compromise out of a genuine desire to have his voice heard, rather than narcissistic attention-seeking (compare Kenner’s background with National Geographic and PBS to Spurlock’s producing gross-out comedy web videos for MTV).
The trouble is, audiences don’t like being treated like candy-addicted children who need to be tricked into consuming something good for them. Food, Inc. is political pornography for environmentalists, vegans, socialists, and others already predisposed to agreeing with its argument and following its advice, while others are likely to interpret it as patronizing propaganda and get mad at the filmmakers instead of the corporations that are ruining the food supply. The film’s production company, Participant Media, has made a name for itself by selling what it calls “socially relevant” cinema to those who need it the least: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, to name a few. These films are usually either ignored or disdained by middle America and offer little more than a pat on the back with a happy ending to the already educated, opinionated, and left-leaning audiences who praise them. Kenner may have had good intentions when he wrapped his film in colorful graphics and slick editing, but it just further confuses the difference between journalism and light entertainment.
Strangely enough, though, Food, Inc. is not an especially political film: aside from its preachy closing sequence that assures us that we can “change the world with every bite” and the folksy activism it represents (and maybe the socialistic corn subsidies it condemns), Kenner is more interested in the nuts and bolts of big agribusiness. More than anything, he wants transparency, and it’s more than a little sad that our mainstream news media is so inefficient at getting basic facts to us about something as fundamental and intimate as the food we eat that this film even needs to exist in the first place. Kenner’s desire to simply show people where their food comes from is at its harshest when he shows a chicken having its throat slit — the only act of animal slaughter shown in the film — at an organic farm that is otherwise painted as a utopia of self-sustainable agriculture. Even organic meat necessitates an act of killing.
It’s a bit disappointing that Kenner doesn’t take this to the logical extreme by showing more butchery beyond a single chicken. It seems rather sadistic to want to see animals dying in a film, but it’s no coincidence that meat consumption has increased as people no longer have to kill their own animals. The sanitized, plastic-wrapped slabs of supermarket meat that Kenner frames like aerial shots of a Vietnam battlefield distance people from the fact that a living, breathing animal had to die in order for them to eat it. Some of the suffering leading up to the slaughter is shown, however: beef cattle standing ankle-deep in manure with no grass or room to exercise, chickens that live in total darkness for only six weeks and grow so fast they can’t walk. It’s only hinted at that these animals live the shortest, most unhealthy lives — and are killed faster and in larger numbers — than any other livestock in history.
Perhaps Kenner wasn’t interested in making a horror film, with blood and gore and all that nasty business, but the disturbing truth is that a nonfiction work about modern meat production can only be described as a horror story. Georges Franju’s 1948 documentary about French slaughterhouses, Le Sang des bêtes, was shot in black and white largely because full color images of animals being commercially slaughtered would be too revolting for normal people to handle. Black and white, often touted as the realm of cinéma vérité, turns a sequence where a horse is bled to death into a surreal nightmare, something frightening only to the intellect — not the stomach. Kenner takes the simpler path of simply omitting the most gut-wrenching practices of the corporations he otherwise tries to expose: veal calves that are tied to the ground and denied dietary iron to keep their flesh supple and pale; egg-laying chickens who are kept in even worse conditions than meat chickens and almost invariably die of infectious disease; migrant fruit and vegetable pickers who are treated more or less the same as they were in the days of Murrow and César Chávez. It’s tempting to say that covering such monstrous activities in depth would rouse a public more than Kenner’s digitized graphs in the shape of a cow, but they may have also just made the film a harder sell, alienated even more viewers, and turned it to a vegan’s Hostel.
One horror story Food, Inc. rather boastfully compares itself to is Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, citing how the meatpacking industry has slumped in terms of both food safety and treatment of workers, and then implying that its own audiences should react today the way Sinclair’s readers did a century ago. Aside from The Jungle, a fictional narrative, actually having more in common with Richard Linklater’s dramatic (and cowardly) film adaptation of Fast Food Nation, the reality is that there is nothing in Food, Inc. as shocking to Americans in 2009 as the severed thumbs in The Jungle were to Americans in 1906. Back then, it was generally assumed that food was safe and healthful. Now, it is common knowledge that much of the food we eat is very unhealthy, and monthly recalls of tainted foods are accepted and somewhat ignored. Even Food, Inc.’s human interest tale of a toddler’s fatal encounter with E. coli isn’t particularly jarring. If Schlosser’s far richer book — one of the most impressive pieces of American investigative reporting ever written — couldn’t wake people up in 2001, what chance does an hour-and-a-half, limited release documentary have eight years later?
If nothing else, audiences ought to take notice of Food, Inc. for articulating what other documentaries on the same subject often only subliminally suggest: the horrifying implications of a system that treats living organisms as a means to produce harvestable material. Invoking Soylent Green would be a bit hysterical, but once you accept that a conscious being, capable of pain and emotion, can be treated as a commercial commodity worth only as much as its profit and yield, the difference between a chicken and a human is only one of degree. Both are temporary, replaceable, and expendable. Any suffering they endure before death is negligible because unhealthy diets and short life spans are more cost effective. They pump the animals full of nutritionless grain corn to fatten them up, then pump us full of cheap meat and corn syrup to fatten their profit margins. It’s the greenest harvest in America.
The most unsettling issue addressed in Food, Inc. isn’t the squalor of an industrial meat farm — it’s the possibility that, because of the infiltration of these corporations into Congress and the FDA, it may, in the near future, be illegal to even photograph an industrial meat farm. It would actually be against the law for filmmakers like Kenner to show people where their daily food supply is produced. If Food, Inc. occasionally feels rushed and incomplete, perhaps Kenner was simply trying to complete it while he was still allowed to. Fifty years ago, I doubt Edward R. Murrow would have foreseen such an infringement on the American public’s rights. We are no longer the best fed people on earth, either at our dinner tables or in our news media.