You know, back when I was in high school, I had a horticulture teacher who also served as the guy who slaughtered the chickens for the lunch ladies to fry up and serve to students. I know this because, during our class (which was really considered a free period among my classmates), he would be in the back slaughtering them.
While this was a peculiar sight -- witnessing the extermination of poultry I'd probably be munching on later in the day -- I had no idea I would be looking back on those bloody memories with fondness. For a brief period, I actually knew where the food I'd be eating came from.
In the new documentary "Food, Inc.," the filmmakers want everyone to be appalled that they don't have the same luxury every time they have a meal. Director Robert Kenner goes on a meticulous mission to deconstruct and expose our industrial food system. And, just as you expected, it starts at McDonald's.
Thanks to those lovely trailblazers over at the Golden Arches who introduced factory-style production to their restaurant chain so many decades ago, we now live in a culture where animals are being mass-produced to be slaughtered. Cows are practically udder-to-udder at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), while chicken houses have chemically enhanced chickens stumbling over one another in the dark.
Chickens are being grown twice their usual size in half the time, while cows are getting fat, walking around in their own waste and coming down with a dangerous strain of E. coli. According to the movie, the root cause is corn, a cheap grain that not only is a main feed ingredient for these animals, but also can be found in things such as fast food, orange juice and batteries.
The slobs we are
It's the "faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper" way of processing and manufacturing food, as one organic farmer says. Ready-to-serve meat probably containing the diseased, feces-caked bodies of cows (that is, when they're not disinfected with ammonia). High-fructose corn syrup and refined carbohydrates practically making up our daily food intake and turning us into out-of-shape, morbidly obese slobs. Cheap calories lining up the shelves. Heck, even the tomatoes are plumped up with gas. All of this can be found in your local supermarket, under the guise of being "farm fresh."
We can spot the villains of this doc a mile away: the handful of huge, multinational corporations (needless to say, many of them declined to be interviewed for this movie) that control the market, keeping farmers who work for them in debt while bringing the hammer down on those who won't play ball. Even the Smithfield processing plant in North Carolina isn't let off the hook, as the film shows the company treating the mostly illegal, minority workers and soon-to-be-slaughtered pigs basically the same way.
To make sure "Food" is fully stocked with the facts, Kenner gives most of the talking-head screen time to crusading authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Both men practically tag-team in hipping the viewer on the various, occasionally scary, and usually nauseating ways big business is making food as fast, cheap and out-of-control as it possibly can. (Schlosser, who also serves as a co-producer, almost looks as though he wishes he worked just on this movie instead of letting Richard Linklater make that bloated, all-star version of his book, "Fast-Food Nation.")
Kenner slings out information so furiously, it's almost as though he expects the audience to take notes. (You just might have to in order to get everything.) But it isn't all about fact-dispensing. He manages to throw in some sympathetic human faces, such as Barbara Kowalcyk, a woman who turned food-safety advocate after her 2 1/2 year-old son died after eating an E. coli-laced burger, or a Latino family who stocks up on the dollar menu at Burger King because it's cheaper than buying vegetables.
For the most part, Kenner wants "Food" to be "An Inconvenient Truth" for the McRib-eating generation. (Both movies come from the same production company.) Just as Al Gore dropped science on people about global warming, Kenner is challenging audiences to take action, be responsible and, of course, watch what you eat.
However, in an age when even the most talented, handsome, gainfully employed newspaper journalist can't afford to shop at spots like Whole Foods, I can't help but feel that it will require more than a 94-minute movie to help people see the light. (Maybe Kenner could start a campaign telling guys if they eat responsibly and shop for more organic food products, hot women will, in fact, talk to them. I dunno -- just throwing it out there.)
"Food, Inc." plants a compelling seed, but it's going to take a lot of work before everyone can finally see how their two-piece combo meal is made.