The documentary that’s going to open a lot of eyes and make a lot of people upset this year is called Food Inc., which is an expose on the deplorable conditions and unscrupulous business practices that dominate our food production industries and the mega-corporations that run them. I recently spoke to Robert Kenner, the director of Food Inc., about his film and the impact we need to make to change what’s wrong with the factory food system in our nation.
Q: How’s the film’s push going so far?
Robert Kenner: It’s been unbelievable. I just heard Regis Philbin talked about it for 10 minutes and Howard Stern talked about it for 15 minutes. “You’ve gotta see the movie, it’s gonna change the food system.” It’s interesting that it’s those guys – a different market.
Q: My biggest response to this film was just to wonder how can you see this film and not really want to become a vegetarian?
RK: Well, I’m not a vegetarian.
Q: How do you reconcile that?
RK: I have a real hard time eating industrial meat anymore. That’s what it is. I also have a hard time eating industrial tomatoes and industrial strawberries. It’s really the industrial system that scares me. I think there are plenty of reasons to not eat meat – for environmental reasons. We just eat way too much meat. I don’t want to start defending meat, but I think that you can go eat some pastured meats from animals that are not abused and workers that are not abused. The animal abuse stuff is not new or shocking news, and I didn’t want to dwell on it. It’s more about a system that’s gone off than “look at the animals that are being abused.”
Q: There’s a lot made about how secretive and deceptive these big food industry companies are – enough so that most of them declined to participate in the film. Have you had any roadblocks on getting this film made and released?
RK: What’s interesting now is that the same corporations that I desperately tried to get – I really worked hard to try to get to them. I’m not surprised that we didn’t get into slaughterhouses, but I am really surprised that they didn’t want their point of view represented in the film. The National Chicken Council – the man who says “we produce more chickens on less land for fewer dollars, what’s wrong with that?” – they came out with an attack website the other day. But I saw him at a screening and he came up and was very pleasant and said “hello.” I said “listen, you guys might not like the film, but you’ve got to be happy that your opinion is represented and I took your best statement.” He said “yeah, I was really happy with that statement.” Why don’t other industries want to come get their point of view spoken? I just don’t understand it. Ultimately, even though they might be attacking us, I think he was thrilled to be in it. He invited me to lunch. For chicken. I’m not sure I want to eat it, but…
Q: What about Monsanto? You really went after these guys for their bullying business and legal tactics in patenting a soybean gene, landing it in 90% of the nations’s soybeen seeds and then forcing farmers to buy new seeds from them each season instead of saving and reusing them under penalty of incredibly expensive lawsuits.
RK: Those are the guys we spent the most time trying to get in the film. We have four months of correspondence with them in email form. Most of the correspondence was done over the telephone, but there are a minimum of 12 back and forth emails. These guys followed me on a radio show and said they actually never declined to participate. Well, four months of asks from us – they had numerous questions, we answered those questions. They wanted to know who was in the film and we told them all the people who were in the film, with their permission. Everyone but Moe Parr said yes. We told them who we were talking with – at that point we hadn’t signed up Wal-Mart, but I said we were talking with them. They wanted the numbers to speak to people, and we gave them numbers. We then wrote them at one point and said ‘listen, you have to respond to us by a certain date because we have to conclude filming, and failure to respond will be taken as a ‘no.’” And all I can say is thank goodness that my lawyer had me say that.
Then they go on the air and say they never declined. They never sent us a letter declining, so you could say they’re technically correct, but I would have to say – and I’m saying in this in legalese – I think that’s misleading. They did that on a number of issues on their website. They say that you’ve been able to patent things for many years. The information they give is technically true, but what we say in the film is also true. Farmers could save seeds up until the date we talked about in the film, which I think is the mid-90s. The fact is that’s 100% correct. So they try to confuse the situation.
Q: A big theme is that the government regulatory agencies don’t have teeth anymore, thanks to former industry lobbyists becoming government regulators in the last two presidential administrations. What’s to stop factory farmers from just labeling their products organic and not living up to the label?
RK: Let me step back by saying that for me one of the most shocking things was when Barb Kowalcyk, whose son died from eating that hamburger, found out that that meat stayed on the shelf for three weeks, because the government didn’t have the power to recall that meat. I think food safety laws are going to change. We have a new administration, I’m optimistic. Things are going to improve. The parallels with the tobacco companies are really good ones. They are strong, powerful corporations, connected to government, and tobacco put out a lot of false information about the safety of their product. I think as we start to learn about the safety of food products, this system’s going to crack. Republicans and Democrats don’t want to eat tainted food. I do think there’s a wind blowing. Change is in the air. Food safety is going to be the first thing that’s going to change and it could change by the end of this year.
Q: So there has been some movement on legislation?
RK: There’s movement in Congress this week. Barb Kowalcyk is in Washington trying to get things changed. Our film has been screened in Washington – and I don’t mean to imply that it’s our film doing it, but I do think there’s an incredible movement and our film is becoming a part of that. It’s when the Regises and the Sterns start talking about it that helps. I didn’t make this film for the converted, I made it for a mass audience. I think it’s important to get out.
The other real shock for me was the power they have to keep us from getting information. The cloned meat hearing – I didn’t even know there was cloned meat, but that representative of the meat industry says “we think it’s too confusing for the consumer to have this kind of information.” That kind of statement is just indicative of this industry. Whether it’s RBST, the growth hormone for dairy cattle, whether it’s trans-fats, country of origin labeling – these guys will do everything to keep us from getting information. If we’re going to participate in the free market, the free market is based on information. If you don’t get the information, you’re not going to be able to make the right choices. We’re being denied that information. That’s what made me realize this film is about more than just food. The fact is this is stuff we have to eat, so it’s really important to us. It’s very personal.
Q: That was one of my reactions. I’ve had various qualms about eating processed food, but it’s never been enough to really make me want to break my comfort food habits. But seeing the sheer level of deceit and abuse of the legal system from the people making this food made me want to refuse to give them any more money out of spite.
RK: For me, I’m an impulsive eater. But what it is is a political act. We as a nation, we have to figure out how to go do these things. They’re not easy. I think we have empowering messages at the end. The consumer has more power than we think, and I wanted to leave people with the fact that we can change this and we’re going to change this system. It’s happening. We have more choices than we’ve ever had, and hopefully we can get more farmers growing good things again.
Q: One thing I was concerned about is that Joel Salatin, the organic farmer featured in the film, seemed to be extremely uncertain about whether or not he could meet the demand for his food if it increased. Isn’t that a concern – if everyone became an organic farmer, wouldn’t we be unable to meet the worldwide demand?
RK: Let’s start with this. We’re not meeting the worldwide demand for food now. People are starving throughout the world, so the Monsanto argument ‘we can feed the world’ – it’s not true. Then they say their product yields more. Well, the Union of Concerned Scientists says it doesn’t yield more. More importantly, the system is not sustainable. The parallels with the financial world are really strong. You had a Ponzi scheme with mortgages and credit. We have a food Ponzi scheme that’s based on gasoline, which is unsustainable, and it’s based on polluting the earth and destroying our topsoil. The system we have now is going to collapse. The question is when, and what are we going to do about it? It’s not “can organic support us,” it’s “how are we going to we make it support us?” because this system’s not going to work in the same way that you can’t keep lending money to people that don’t have it.
Can they feed the world? I don’t consider myself a total expert in this. I talk to people. I hear different reactions. Joel says we can. Eric Schlosser [co-producer of the film, writer of Fast Food Nation] is very optimistic that we can. Hopefully we don’t find out too soon, and we can figure out ways of improving it and increasing it and getting better farmers. We’ve got to figure out how to make it work.
Q: So, lastly, what are your recommendations when going food shopping now?
RK: Go to farmer’s markets whenever you can. On so many levels, it’s supporting the people that are growing stuff. Sometimes they have organic stuff that’s not labeled organic. Try to find out. Ask questions. Read labels. Encourage your supermarkets to buy better foods. Ask at restaurants. If we all start asking, it’s gonna change. Some organic foods are really essential that you eat. There’s a website, I think it’s the Dirty Dozen. There are certain things like strawberries – you just don’t want to eat a non-organic strawberry. Certain vegetables and fruits are really bad. And don’t drink sodas. We take too many calories.