By Aaron Mesh
It has been eight years since Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation and three years since Michael Pollan released The Omnivore's Dilemma. That's 4.4 billion Big Macs and 2.1 billion Whoppers, respectively. By now, Schlosser and Pollan must feel like voices crying in the wilderness that, hey, there are some delicious vegetables growing in this wilderness—while on the other side of the Jordan, the villagers laugh through mouthfuls of KFC Famous Bowls. Who will save America from its morbid snacking?
Filmmakers! Morgan Spurlock regurgitated his all-beef patties and special sauce in Super Size Me and Richard Linklater cast Kris Kristofferson as a wise rancher in the dramatic adaptation of Fast Food Nation—and McDonald's added some apple slices to its Happy Meals. The industrial food system did not crumble, but an example was set.
Undaunted, Schlosser and Pollan have advised the production of another reformist doc, Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. Their stomach-turning confection strikes me as far more successful than most of the previous courses.
Much of its efficacy stems from Kenner's use of scope. You may scoff that the problem eating of this prosperous country doesn't amount to a hill of beans—but wait until you see the actual hill of beans, the mountain ranges of shucked corn, the cattle mired in offal inside "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations."
And Jesus, those chickens, with their genetically modified breasts so hypertrophied that the birds can't walk; eventually they collapse into their own shit, where they die. The practices used by Tyson and Perdue are so horrifying that when Pollan's organic buddy Joel Salatin shows up later in the movie to slit a few hens' throats, the human touch feels like a breath of fresh air.
None of the movie's shocks have as much impact as the story of Barbara Kowalcyk, who has been trying to increase the FDA's reach ever since her 2-year-old son died from a contaminated hamburger. As she lobbies to shut down meat processors that repeatedly plop E coli in the patties, she can't even say what companies' products she stopped purchasing after her bereavement—that would violate the "veggie libel laws," statutes that allow agribusinesses to sue for defamation of their products.
Enraging as Food, Inc. may be, however, it remains an example of the very divide in American eating it seeks to bridge. The movie tends to open in cities (Austin, Texas, Portland, Ore. and Santa Fe, to name a few) where the locavore's dilemma is whether it is more righteous to shop at a smaller organic grocery than a larger one. This is not the movie's fault, but it does make the final appeals to shop at farmers markets ring a touch hollow. Kenner only glancingly addresses whether mass-produced food can ever be altered from the inside (is a Gardenburger by a corporately owned name still a Gardenburger?), and even if his film somehow manages to reach the masses, I suspect it would leave most feeling fat and defeated.
Directed by Robert Kenner
With Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser
94 min., PG