I recently sat down with Food, Inc. director, Robert Kenner, to talk about his new film. After seeing the film, my view of food had completely changed. This film discusses the issue of food in an intelligent manner; it does not use the shock tactics like PETA, and it is not as outlandish and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. Obviously, I had many questions for him. Far more than I could fit into a short conversation, but I tried my best.
It became quite clear to me why the film was so interesting, the director had a clear vision of what he was trying to convey. He was not a crazy hippie that was trying to get everyone to give up meat and go vegan, he was the complete opposite. He is simply trying to peek inside the underbelly of our nations food industry, and educate us, the consumers.
Here is what Robert Kenner had to say about his new film, Food, Inc.
Why did you decide to make Food, Inc.?
RK: We eat these three meals each day. Where does this food come from? We spend less of our paycheck on food than any other time in the history of the world. That’s pretty amazing, but this low cost food comes to us at high cost. I thought it would be interesting to do an investigation and talk to the producers from organic farmers, like Joel Salatin, to agribusiness producers to find out more about the system, and where it is going. At a certain point, I became less interested in doing a film on fast food. People thought Morgan Spurlock’s film, Super Size Me, was a documentary on Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation. That was really about how fast food is bad for you, where I was much more interested in the transformation of the entire system.
How did you and Eric Schlosser team up to make Food, Inc.?
RK: Eric claims he called me after seeing my movie, and I claim I called him after reading his book, so we have different opinions [laughs]. About 3 or 4 years ago, I was funded by Participant Media, who had done An Inconvenient Truth. I was a fan of Fast Food Nation. I was interested in the industrialization of our food system, and I thought his book did a great job talking about that. He and I had talked about doing a film together for a number of years.
This film seems as though it was pretty challenging, what was the most surprising challenge you encountered?
RK: The most surprising thing for me was how much these corporations don’t want you to know where this food is grown and what’s in it. In the making of it, these agribusiness producers didn’t want to talk to us. It was kind of shocking to me how much power they have, how so few companies control our food system. I went with Eric Schlosser to the California legislature to talk about whether we should talk about cloned animals, and whether we should have it on the label. The response from the industry was “We think it will be confusing for the consumer to label it.” That’s what we are eating. It isn’t fair to the consumer to not give them that information. I think that was very typical, in a number of situations, that the industry will try their best to deny you that information. They don’t want you to know what you are eating, and what became even more terrifying is they don’t even want you to talk about it.
There are “veggie libel laws”, which I had never even heard of. They give power to food products. A hamburger has more power than you do as a citizen; you can’t disparage a food product. I was reminded by the Oprah case, during the Mad Cow situation, when she said she didn’t want to eat a burger, and she was sued by the beef industry. She spent six years in court and millions of dollars. She eventually won, but who could face that type of a challenge? If they will pick on Oprah, they are going to pick on everyone. It is very frightening.
How did the “veggie libel laws” affect the process of the film?
RK: I spent more money on legal fees, making this film, than on all my other films combined times three. I spent a fortune. It was very scary. I found myself censoring things in the film that I totally believe are true, and we had to take out. I’ve made many films for National Geographic and American Experience, for PBS, and we have great fact checking. For this film, we had to work with lawyers on every single sentence and had to show numerous sources. We would err by taking truthful statements out of the film. I think that is terrible. It is not American. The same way we are not supposed to know what is in our food. We are not supposed to talk about it. I think there is something that has gone askew in the system.
Did you have to eliminate any of the information from the film because of the laws?
RK: We really wanted these companies to be apart of this film. We wanted Monsanto, Smithfield, and Tyson to all be part of it. Carol Morison, a woman who raises chickens for Perdue, said they [Perdue] used arsenic in the chicken feed. When we talked to Perdue, to try and get them involved in the film, they wanted to know what Carol had said, and we would tell them. They said it wasn’t true, and they had stopped using arsenic just a few days before. So, we took it out. Carol certainly did not know that they had stopped using arsenic. They had defended the practice just months before and said it was not bad for us. They thought it was so good, beforehand, and then all of the sudden they stopped using it. So I thought, “You know what? We will take it out”. It felt wrong taking it out. Who wants to be eating arsenic? Perdue had defended that practice adamantly.
Well, at least people can trust the information in the film.
RK: Yeah, right.
How are consumers unaware of the condition of our food system?
RK: We see all these names when we go to the supermarket, and it looks like there are so many producers, but in reality there are only a few producers. The products themselves, some 47,000 products in the supermarket, about 90% of them have corn and soy in them. There is less diversity than it appears. The system has fundamentally been transformed with us noticing it. The chickens have gotten bigger. Cows are eating corn, which they aren’t meant to. The tomatoes stay red much longer, they don’t bruise, but they don’t have much flavor. The food has less nutritional value. It got a little scary.
Why is the amount of producers in the beef industry an issue?
RK: Well, I think it is wrong to have so few producers controlling our food system. I met a cattle rancher in Colorado, he looked like the Marlboro Man. He said, “You know, when I was growing up we were always scared of the Soviet Union. If they took us over we would only have one or two companies that would make things. We wouldn’t have any choice. The scary thing is that is what has happened here.” This has happened without us even thinking about it. There are so many labels when you go to the supermarket, when in reality, they are all owned by a few corporations. It just seems like these corporations have an undue influence and power. I would like to have a choice, and I would like to have food from producers that are more local and have more accountability with the community they are living in.
You discuss the issue of genetically modified foods in the film, should people be concerned about them?
RK: I am not saying whether we should eat GMOs or cloned meat. I personally wouldn’t want to eat it, but I would want to know about it. The Europeans think genetically modified food is not healthy, and that it is dangerous. I can’t swear to you that it is or is not. I can’t speak as an expert, but why am I being denied the right to know that is what I am eating. Monsanto claims that we get greater yields from using that. Whether we are or aren’t, I don’t know. I have my opinion, but I am not a scientist. I should have the right as a consumer to choose what I am eating.
How responsible is the government for the state of the food industry?
RK: I think we need to attack it on another level because that happy meal is artificially cheap. We are subsidizing food that is making us sick. The corn that ultimately goes into the food is subsided by the government. We need to figure out, through legislation, how to get the broccoli to be playing on an even playing field as the happy meal. Right now, it is not fair and it is not balanced. We are paying on a few levels; we are paying on our tax dollars to subsidize food that is making us sick, and then we have to pay through health care costs. So even if you are not eating that food, you are paying for it.
How can individuals change the direction our food system is headed towards?
RK: I am optimistic. On one level, consumers get to vote three times per day. We get to vote at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We have to start trying to buy food that is good for us, and trying to encourage farmers to grow food that is better. People need to start reading labels, start buying local produce, try to buy organic produce, try to go to farmer’s markets. When you are in the supermarket, try to buy less processed food. I think it is going to take moms who want to feed their kids better food. I think it is going to take people who realize they are eating food that is making them sick, making the planet sick, that is costing us. We have to wake up and start to look at the system. I think there is an incredible group of people out there who don’t want it anymore, and they are frustrated by what is happening. I realize in the making of this film, that I could have had greater access to a nuclear power plant or an armaments plant than I did to food corporations. This world is being taken off limits to us. It has become very secretive. It is a shame. They don’t want us to think about this food at all. They want the illusion that it comes from a small farm. In reality, it comes from these mega factories. People are very busy, but if you start to open your eyes and start to think when you shop, we can change this system.
What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?
RK: I think the analogy with tobacco is really important. Tobacco industry was really powerful. They had great connections to government and they fed us tons of misinformation about their products. These food corporations are really powerful, really connected, and they are feeding us this misinformation. But we defeated tobacco, and I think we can defeat the food corporations and start to get healthier food that is better for us. Ultimately, this low cost food is coming to us at much to high of a cost.
I hope they open their eyes and begin to help farmers like Troy Roush grow food that is healthy for you and healthy for him; so he won’t have to use chemicals on his farm. Right now, he can make better money growing food he knows will make you sick and will make him sick. He would much prefer to grow better food, but we have to encourage farmers. We have to encourage mothers to get food that is good for their kids.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
RK: I have a bunch of projects that I am working on, but unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to get out there to develop them because this is keeping me pretty busy. I have a few things close, but I don’t know which one it will be.
Food, Inc. will be released in a limited amount of theaters on June 12. I would highly recommend this film to everyone, but it might change the way you look at your food.