After making documentaries about war, disease, endangered species and the blues, Robert Kenner has turned his lens to the corporatization and control of what America eats. His new film, “Food, Inc.,” which opens Friday, largely builds on Eric Schlosser’s 2001 bestseller, “Fast Food Nation,” and Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary, “Super Size Me.” It shows that mechanization rules, corn is king, mass production jeopardizes our health — and one cow can really get around.
What attracted you to a film about what we eat?
I was intrigued about how food gets to the table, where it comes from. It was my sense that the industrial system had reached way beyond fast-food restaurants, but the average eater didn’t know that much about it.
The film shows that just a handful of large companies control almost everything American farmers produce. Yet we hear almost nothing from these industry sources. Why not?
The companies wouldn’t go on camera. They wanted to know what we were doing, who we were talking to, what was our point of view. I wanted to make a fair film, showing all sides. But they wouldn’t go along. They don’t want you thinking about where your food comes from. They prefer the myth of the farmer with a white picket fence and a red barn.
Well, what’s so wrong with big agricompanies in control? That keeps prices down, right?
Yes, but cheap food comes at an incredibly high price. We’re subsidizing food that’s killing us. One third of Americans born after 2000 will suffer from early onset of diabetes. Twenty percent of the oil we consume is used in producing and transporting food instead of people buying locally. The huge industrial CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) produce sewage equal to three major cities combined. The meat from one cow ends up in thousands of hamburgers, which makes it so much easier to spread disease.
Is that why Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2-year-old son, Kevin, died in 2001 from E coli poisoning eating hamburger meat, becomes the emotional core of the film?
Here’s this really tough lady who doesn’t give in to emotion easily. We follow her for three days in Washington, and she’s not there as the mother of a dead child but as someone fighting for better food-safety laws. You realize, this is more than about food — it’s a horror story we’re all living, through consolidation of power in the industry that’s embedded with the government.
Does President Obama buy into your thesis, that the big companies are poisoning us?
He didn’t come into office to change food policy. He has enough major issues confronting him. That said, you can’t be for health-care reform and not change the food system. You can’t be for a better environment without changing the food system.
You challenge consumers to take responsibility.
You get to vote three times a day on what you eat. We have to start making better choices for ourselves. I also know that it’s an uneven playing field. It’s hard for consumers when the government is subsidizing food that is unhealthy.
How can they avoid it?
I love going to farmers’ markets. I find that people are not going to poison you if they have to look you in the face.
You say industry people wouldn’t talk to you. Michael Moore never took no for an answer.
I’m not Michael Moore, looking to prove a preconceived point. I don’t want to go out of my way to be provocative. You don’t see this, but we went to one Monsanto event and were told we needed press credentials. When we asked how to get them, they told us that only press that works for the industry was allowed in. We made a real effort to talk to them, but you don’t see me in the film with a door slammed in my face.
Now that the film has been screened in several festivals, have you heard from the companies?
Have Washington lawmakers seen the film?
People in government have seen it, but I’m not allowed to tell you who they are.
That seems odd, doesn’t it?
People are very interested in watching it but they don’t want to advertise that they’ve seen it.
So, have your eating habits changed as a result of this project?
Well, I sure don’t want to eat industrialized food. I avoid it whenever I can. But I’m not a purist. I still eat meat.