Look before you eat

Filmmaker Robert Kenner is no stranger to controversial subjects. He won an Emmy for his 2005 “Two Days in October,” an episode in PBS’ long-running American Experience, which examined the domestic response to the Vietnam War during the turbulent fall of 1967. Kenner runs into an equally volatile subject with his new documentary, Food, Inc., an investigation of American agribusinesses and its meat and poultry industry. We spoke to Kenner by phone about labeling cloned meats, trying to interview agribusiness representatives, and why people should know what’s in the food they eat.

When did you first start to learn about and understand how much we do and don’t know about our corporate food industry?

I read Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation, and at some point I was thinking of doing a film about that, but when Super Size Me `came out`, you know, everybody thought that was the documentary. But I became interested in doing a film on where does our food come from? What’s in it? How does it get to our table? It’s kind of a miracle. On one level we spend less for our food than at any time in history, but at the same time this low-cost food is coming to us at a very high cost that you don’t see when you go to the checkout counter, and I thought that would become an interesting conversation.

Did you start with activists/experts such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser? Did you try to get big agribusiness to talk? Where do you begin with something this enormous and sprawling?

Eric was one of the people when I started out, but I wanted to make a different film. I wanted to hear about it from the people who make our food. So I called up all those corporations — far more than you see in the film, probably another 40 or 50, that declined. I called up dozens and dozens of chicken farmers and hog farmers, but people who work in this business turned out to be scared to talk to me. Food turned out to be a rather subversive subject and, certainly, a rather litigious subject, which I didn’t realize when we started. To me, the big shock in the making of this film was when I go to that cloning hearing about whether to label cloned meat and, ultimately, I was really surprised when that representative from the meat industry said, “I think it’s too confusing to give the consumers that kind of information.” And I thought, this happens time and again.

The film ends on a fairly positive note, that consumer power can change corporate practices: Do you really think so?

I think cigarette tobacco is a great model. There are a few corporations with incredible amounts of money, well-connected to government, who put out tons of misinformation about the safety of their product; they probably paid for studies that said cigarettes weren’t bad for you — but when we started to find out how bad they were, we put through a law that said you have to label what’s in the cigarettes. I’m thinking one day we’ll have to label what’s in our food. And I think as people realize that we don’t know what this is doing to us and that there are all these other great options, we’re going to those other options. You know, we like our cheap food, but when we realize how much it’s really costing us, it’s going to be easier to go spend more. And, hopefully, we’ll be able to change the subsidies so that good food doesn’t cost more. The fact that we’re paying tax dollars to support what’s making us sick feels wrong to me.

How can — or how would you like to see — the information in your movie reach an audience that is already intimately involved in the industry that the movie covers?

That group in Baldwin Park `California` who are being totally affected by this — this is the lower-income family — we had a screening down there and people were so upset that this is happening to them. And a reporter from the LA Times — I wasn’t there — wrote me and said, “It felt like the beginning of a movement.” I think if we can start to change the National School Lunch Program, if we can start to change subsidies, if we start to give the government the power of recall of food that makes us sick, it’s all going to start to change. And if we can let people know that the amount of sugar, salt, and fat that’s in this processed food, it’s just not good for us, and ultimately this cheap food is costing us too much money.

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