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Review: 'Food Inc.' presents unappetizing look at how America makes food

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 26, 2009 - What's for dinner? The documentary "Food Inc.," opening today at the Tivoli and Plaza Frontenac, boldly sets out to expose "the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government's regulatory agencies, USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration)."

Whether the business of Big Food been conspiratorially "hidden" from the America consumer is debatable. With internet access and a few hours, one can easily dig up countless articles and reports covering agricultural subsidies, factory farms and other hot-button issues. More certain is that sifting through the competing and often contradictory political and ideological messages that make up the Big Food debates could be a full-time job -- and not one the average American consumer can afford to take on. 

Which is where filmmaker Robert Kenner's "Food Inc." comes in. What "Food Inc." contributes to national -- and, potentially, family dinner -- conversations is a broad, visually driven introduction to some of the major issues surrounding our country's complicated way of doing food. Even if Old McDonald with his cows and his goats and his E-I-E-I-Os hardly exists in the present food system, "Food Inc." succeeds in getting viewers to at least ask why and in an easily digestible 93 minutes, to boot.

For many following the food wars, much of the information will be a recap. Yes, there are the painful -- if familiar -- images of factory farm cows literally wallowing in puddles of their own excretions. Yes, there are the expected digs at St. Louis-based Monsanto for lawsuits against farmers who reuse the company's patented Roundup Ready soybeans. And, yes, there are the accusatory statements against governmental regulatory agencies that, at least by the gauge of "Food Inc.," do precious little regulating at all.

For those already well informed, however, there's sure to be some shocking revelations. Did you know, for example, that the animal parts used in hamburger filler are doused in ammonia before being ground up? Or that the organic fruit juice company Naked Juice is now owned by PepsiCo?

The film does an excellent job of putting personality and voices to these frequently faceless issues. Judging from audience reactions at the film's press screening, Joel Salatin, an organic farmer from Virginia, ends up the hero du jour. Filmed at points while slaughtering his chickens by hand, Salatin waxes poetic on the virtues of organic farming and the paradoxes of modern farming technologies. "I'm always struck by how successful we've been in hitting the bull's-eye on the wrong target," he says. Also a hit is the female organic farmer who coolly tells Wal-Mart reps that her family has boycotted their stores for years.

Clever and occasionally humorous graphics aid viewer comprehension, while a montage of consumer-action steps reinforces the film's message before closing credits. And, for those who wish to take their education a step further, the "Food Inc." website offers numerous sources that back up the facts and stats presented in the film.

Monsanto talks back

Robert Kenner's documentary "Food Inc." targets large food and biotechnology companies and has prompted public responses from companies across the nation. Monsanto's public relations director Brad Mitchell talks about the company's reaction to the film. Monsanto has a website that offers a detailed critique of the film.

"Food Inc." interviews farmers who say they've been unfairly sued by Monsanto for reusing the company's patented seeds. From a legal perspective, how hard is it to prove that a farmer has intentionally reused seeds, thereby violating the contract?

Mitchell: We never go after people for the accidental presence. It's very clear when it's accidental. When it is accidental, Monsanto seed is usually far less than 1 percent of the crop. We do have private investigators who take pictures of people in the fields from public property. We will approach the farmer and ask for the farm records, such as seed sale records and the number of acres you have.

The film briefly touches on genetically engineered food. Is producing seeds using biotechnology necessary to feed the world's population?

Mitchell: We do feel biotechnology is an incredibly useful tool. It's not a silver bullet, but it's part of the process. Right now in the pipeline, for example, we found a way to produce omega 3 fatty acids from soybeans.

Why do we need to find a way to produce omega-3 fatty acids from soybeans when we can get them from fish and other naturally occurring dietary sources?

Michell: Fish stocks are going down worldwide. It's a source of a necessary nutrient that's diminishing. We're finding a way to provide this nutrient.

Monsanto put up a webpage countering the claims in "Food Inc." Why did the company feel it was necessary to take this step?

Mitchell: We had seen the film, its budget and who was involved in it. We certainly wanted our side of the story out there. From Monsanto's perspective, the film is a little superficial. It lays all the blame at the feet of Monsanto and big companies. We realized if we don't tell our side of the story, nobody else is going to.

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer in St. Louis.