Robert Kenner’s “Food, Inc.” really, really wants to be the wake up call for the food industry that “An Inconvenient Truth” was for global warming. And God bless his little heart, Kenner certainly tries. Shocking images of meat-packing factory conditions are intersected with tragic tales of deaths caused by tainted meat and farmers run out of business by giant agro-businesses. But “Food, Inc.” lacks the visceral impact that separates the truly heart-wrenching documentaries from the rest of the pack.
If you’ve read Eric Schlosser’s excellent book “Fast Food Nation” or seen the much more inflammatory documentary “The Corporation,” there will not be a lot that surprises you in “Food, Inc.” If you haven’t, or are simply in the dark about food issues, “Food, Inc.” is a pretty good place to start. It covers the wide spectrum of issues surrounding food production in the Western world, starting from the growers right up to the sellers and laborers. One of the more harrowing stories in the documentary is about Barbara Kowalcyk, who lost her son when he ate a hamburger tainted with E. coli. Now a food safety regulations lobbyist, she is shown as a David against the Goliath of the U.S. government and agro-business.
The film’s strong point is that it shows you how deeply these problems are rooted in North American culture. This isn’t just about a few greedy corporations, or individuals who don’t like following the rules. It’s corporate interests working hand in hand with the U.S. government to control an oligopoly over the food industry. Scenes in the film show how government laws have blocked better food safety regulations and allow meatpacking plants to ship workers in from Mexico and beyond.
But “Food, Inc.” fails to show what the alternatives are. The film’s main points boil down to: A) eat organic and B) pressure your Congressmen or women to change the laws. In the film, a CEO of a major organics company claims, “Selling organic at Wal-Mart can change the world!” That may be true, but it doesn’t inspire the kind of outrage that will get people out of their seats and actually trying to effect change. The film basically advocates for so-called armchair activism; activism that is little more than signing an online petition or buying a different product. “Food, Inc.” does not ask a lot of its viewers which, given the subject matter, is a mistake.
“Food, Inc.” ends with “An Inconvenient Truth” style scrolling messages with things you can do to change the system. And while I’m all for growing my own garden and eating organic meat, those messages are not enough to cause the action and thought that a really impactful documentary can. Earlier this year, I also had the opportunity to view “The Cove,” Louie Psihoyos’s absolutely shocking and haunting documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan. Psihoyos’s film works because in addition to informing the viewer, the documentary connects with the viewer. Its laser tight focus on the issue at hand invests the viewer in the subject and makes you really care.
“Food, Inc.” suffers, perhaps, from over-breadth of topic. But if the documentary had been more willing to condemn the corporations and government bodies that allow tainted meat to be produced, or had shown more concrete alternatives then buying organic froyo from Target, it may have had the impact that Kenner intended.
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