“Food, Inc.”
Magnolia Pictures/ Participant Media
At the State

4.5 out of 5 stars

“Food, Inc.” may very well be the scariest film of the year. This is because the movie, like all good documentaries, not only succeeds in catapulting an urgent issue to the national stage, but also manages to convey its importance directly to the audience. It exposes the American supermarket as a cold labyrinth of secrets and deception and will frighten the bejeezus out of anyone who has ever shopped at one.

Featuring interviews with the stars of the food-muckraking world, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals author Michael Pollan and Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal author Eric Schlosser (who also co-produces), “Food, Inc.” is an angry manifesto against the homogenization and corporatizing of the American food industry.

The film rattles off the problems with this industry at an overwhelming yet thorough pace: A small handful of companies supply over 80 percent of the country’s beef, pork and chicken; slaughterhouses are giant, industrial monstrosities, rife with disease and mistreated workers; and corn is so cheap that it’s being put into almost everything, including diapers and batteries (yes, really).

This is a lot to take in from one movie, and indeed there are times when “Food, Inc.” seems hopelessly daunted by its subject. But director Robert Kenner (TV’s “The American Experience”) knows his audience, and finds the perfect entry point for all this information: fast food. Thanks to Fast Food Nation and “Super Size Me,” Americans today are much more knowledgeable about the horror story that is a McDonald’s kitchen, from the burger patties made up of thousands of different cows to the dismal treatment of workers paid to do the same thing over and over again.

“Food, Inc.” touches on these issues, but quickly emphasizes that this very same fast food business model has expanded in recent years to include the whole of American crop growing and farm raising. This harrowing realization is what lies at the core of the film. We can no longer escape low-quality food with troubled origins by simply avoiding the drive-thru window.

The film contains interviews with farmers who were willing to break the shroud of secrecy mandated by the very companies paying them to grow and harvest. They are confused and outraged by the goings-on of the industry, but they’re caught in a system they must navigate to make a living. One farmer reflects on how scientists have engineered a corn feed for cows to eat, but no one’s asking why cows are eating corn instead of (healthier) grass in the first place.

“We’re into the how of it,” he says. “But nobody’s asking the why.”

There are many more horror stories in “Food, Inc.” that position the film as this generation’s version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Take the mother of a child killed by an E. Coli virus from a tainted burger, who has lobbied unsuccessfully for stricter food regulation laws (it doesn’t help that the FDA board is made up of former head honchos from the food world); or the Mexican immigrants who are bussed across the border by the meat companies to work at their slaughterhouses, then arrested by the government. In fact, it’s amazing there are any points the movie doesn’t get to, but there are some. The questionable worlds of kosher meat packing and fish farming are left unexposed.

But the film’s key moment is a small one that comes early on, when Schlosser orders a burger from a diner. He confesses that burgers remain his favorite food, as they are for many others. The problem facing America’s food system lies in making sure that people can still eat the foods they want and need, without having to sink to the deplorable levels portrayed here. Until that happens, quite simply, we’re all clucked.

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