Ammonia-washed ground beef, ethylene gas-ripened tomatoes, soybean seeds patented and fiercely protected by a multinational biotech company, chickens with unnaturally engineered breasts so big that they can barely walk by the time they’re slaughtered, unhealthy food containing high-fructose corn syrup priced cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables, leaders of governmental watchdog agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration coming from the corporate, legal team and the lobbying ranks of big agribusiness — the frightening reality depicted in director Robert Kenner’s documentary Food, Inc. isn’t some cautionary what-if scenario but the well-concealed facts of America’s industrial food supply right now. Taking cues from such investigative work as Michael Pollan’s 2006 The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s 2001 Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal — both authors are on-camera sources here — Kenner’s movie simply and convincingly argues for what sounds like a fundamental right: All Americans should be able to know what’s in their food, where it comes from, and how it’s produced.
Finding that out proves difficult, however. Food, Inc. shows how the assembly-line-like manufacturing of McDonald’s hamburgers in the 1950s enticed the American beef industry to drive costs down and increase production, leading to beef — and pork and poultry — production in America being centralized in a few corporate giants overseeing fewer and fewer larger and larger slaughterhouses. It’s a big agribusiness model that also took over the production of American corn — turned into dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, Maltodextrins, Dextrins, Sorbogem, Xylogem, corn starches, oils, Polyols, anhydrous dextrose, etc., that are used in everything from baked goods to dairy products to canned and processed foods to skin-care products and pharmaceuticals.
Corn is produced in such abundance and at such a low cost that it is also fed to cattle — a grain the ruminant’s digestive tract is not evolutionarily designed to handle well — because it fattens them quicker. The downside is that corn-fed beef permits strains of E. coli, a bacteria toxic to humans, to survive in its digestive tract.
And so on and so on: Food, Inc. tries to show how food gets from the high-tech farm to the table and illustrates how the industrialization of that process is not always cost-efficient or nutritionally optimal, but it encounters business stonewalling en route — companies such as Purdue, Tyson, and Monsanto declined to be interviewed, farmers were reluctant to speak openly, and workers were unwilling to speak at all. Food, Inc. wants to end on a positive note, though, advocating how consumers can change the industry through purchasing power and offering the introduction of organic products onto Wal-Mart’s shelves as proof of such potential. Kenner is so alarmingly effective in portraying big agribusiness as a corporate Leviathan, though, that it looms over his activist rallying cry.