Food, Inc. (2009)

Whatever horrors Harry Potter might be facing this week, it's nothing compared to the horrors beneath (and in) the food on your plate. Voldemort's got nothing on a pack of Monsanto lawyers. That's the message (well, sort of) of Food, Inc., a disturbing, distressing, and frequently horrifying activist documentary about the big business of food in America.

Directed by Robert Kenner, produced by journalist and author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), and starring, among others, locavore and real food advocate Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), Food, Inc. looks at the big business of food, and traces how a small handful of multinational corporations came to control the American diet. That control extends from the massive, monocultural fields filled with genetically modified plants, to the industrial food factories where it's all ground up, injected with chemicals, and vacuum-sealed for your convenience. Along the way, Food, Inc. looks at the horrors of meat production, from down on the factory farm to the killing floors of slaughterhouses filled with sick, mistreated animals and exploited, mistreated workers. It reveals how soybean farmers are bullied and terrorized by agrochemical monolith Monsanto, and how the American public is fed and fattened and fairly often subjected to deadly E. coli by a food system subsidized by the US government to guarantee that a bag of potato chips costs less than a bag of actual, unprocessed potatoes. That bright, cheery supermarket? The last link in a chain of food (or what counts as food) production that seems designed to make you sick.

The film is divided into chapters that focus on specific links in the commercial food chain. This results in a film that is wide ranging and ambitious, but perhaps not as in-depth as it ought to be. Since it tackles so many subjects, Food, Inc. is a fine overview of what turns out to be a monstrously huge and systemic problem, a movie about connecting the dots and tracing the problem to its roots in consumer desire, poverty, NAFTA, human evolution, and most of all, corporate greed. Each of the chapters might have been (and should be) a film unto itself, so Food, Inc., in looking at the big picture, must sacrifice a lot of the details. It is a catalogue of horrors (and there are genuine horrors here) more than an in-depth study of them. Still, it is an essential, eye-opening film, and if it's just the first salvo in a food war to come, it's an effective and heartrending one. And the filmmakers definitely intend for Food, Inc. to be a call to arms, comparing the food industry to the tobacco industry.

It's an apt analogy. Food has become an industrial product, and the focus of Food, Inc. is on how consumers are sickened and harmed by all the processed, packaged, cheap and abundant foodstuffs that fill supermarkets and pour through the windows of drive-thrus. It also considers the way that food science has been perverted from the study of nutrition to the development of newer, better ways to turn humans into consumers addicted to cheap crap (literally) on a bun. The movie argues, fairly persuasively, that the corporations that control food production in America abuse and exploit their customers as much as they abuse the poor animals they slaughter by the billions.

Food, Inc., unlike, say, Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me, is not intended to entertain, but only to edify, to make you consider the stuff (whatever it is) you're putting in your mouth. This is pretty evident when the film's cheeriest subject (and one of its heroes) is farmer Joel Salatin, who likes to extoll the virtues of local, whole food while eviscerating a chicken. At least he's nice to his chickens while they're alive, I guess. Like whole grains and fresh vegetables, Food, Inc. is good for you. But the movie might just make you sick. It might even make you put down that bucket of popcorn (especially if it's dowsed in multiplex "butter") and that beverage full of high fructose corn syrup. On the other hand, if you've been eating the Standard American Diet (yes, it's S.A.D.) you can probably stomach just about anything, and you definitely should see Food, Inc.