"The industry doesn't want you to know about the food you're eating," we're told at the beginning of Food, Inc., "because if you knew, you might not wanna eat it." That's the general thesis of Robert Kenner's sobering documentary, which explores the various manners in which the advertising fantasies of pastoral farming and agriculture cover for a food industry that has become unethical, over-engineered, and, in many cases, dangerous and deadly.
One of the earliest images of the film is one of its most subtly comic: Eric Schlosser, author of the vaunted-exposé -turned-mediocre-film Fast Food Nation, ordering a cheeseburger. He gives the viewer a terse but effective history of fast food in the United States, and how the demand for low-priced mass quantities of fast food fodder led to radical changes in how the business of providing food for Americans.
Some of it is genuinely shocking. Much time is spent on so-called chicken "growers"--the emphasis is on the final product and not the animal, since, as we're told, "it's not a chicken, it's food." We get a glimpse at the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which slam as many animals as possible into poorly-ventilated, pitch-dark facilities, where they can be fattened faster and more effectively by corn engineered for that express purpose. We see how farm subsidies have allowed massive utilization of corn as food for cows, and the unexpected consequences (such as e-coli outbreaks). And we hear the heartbreaking story of an activist whose son was killed by an e-coli-tainted hamburger.
Kenner's muckracking doc takes viewers into several other dark and unfortunate corners of the industry. Hidden cameras go inside the largest slaughterhouse in the world, the Smithfield Hog Processing Plant (where 32,000 hogs are slaughtered per day), complete with chilling footage from the "killing floor." Causes are examined for the flood of illegal immigrant workers into meat-packing plants, and the not-unreasonable question is asked: why is it that those workers continue to be arrested, but not the company management that actively recruits and hires them? The failure of food regulatory agencies is investigated, with a not-unpredictable outcome (guess what? They're controlled by lobbyists and food-industry company men). The complex but shockingly unfair regulation of "seed sharing" is examined, as is the conundrum of poor families trying to eat on a budget, which leads them to McDonald's dollar meals and other economically priced but toxic foodstuffs ("The biggest predictor of obesity is income level").
The picture is well-organized into several individually titled chapters; the canvass is broad, but the segments are tight and the film never rambles. It's focused, with scores of information imparted in a straight-forward, plain-spoken fashion (with the help of some inventive graphics). Some of it is pretty hard to watch (like the veterinary examination of a cow, or even the comparatively humane chicken slaughter), but it's not a total downer--the move towards (and demand for) organic food is seen as a something of a cautiously optimistic ray of hope.
In a movie that seldom steps wrong, Food, Inc. does go irritatingly strident in its closing text, which offers a series of instructions for better, safer food living, somewhat in the manner of the closing credits of An Inconvenient Truth. But here it's too much, too pushy; particularly in the sympathetic audiences that Food, Inc. is most likely to play to, we can figure this stuff out on our own, thank you very much. Until then, though, this is a compelling, intelligent documentary, full of alarming information and genuine passion.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The VC-1-encoded 1.78:1 image is somewhat hit and miss. The sketchy quality of some of the archival materials and hidden camera video is understandable, and most of the new, high-def video footage looks very good--the bright colors of a supermarket that is used (effectively) as a B-roll source, the lush leaves and ground in the exterior interviews with a "grass-fed" farmer. But the interior interviews are frequently soft, with some heavier-than-average grain and noise, and details and contrast are adequate but not terribly arresting overall. It looks pretty good, for a documentary, but not much better than that.
A 5.1 DTS Master Audio mix seems like a case of overkill for what is basically a talking-heads documentary, and to be sure, the majority of the track is pretty much a front-and-center job. Music cues occasionally bring the side channels to life, though the mix gets a little muddy in a couple of those spots; the music is slightly over-modulated, making audibility of the interview audio problematic. That's only an occasional issue, though; the track gets the job done, though it doesn't impress much.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also offered.
Magnolia Entertainment provides a somewhat sparse platter of bonus features. The film itself isn't a minute too short at 91 minutes, but the plump helping of eight Deleted Scenes (37:44) are still a worthwhile addition (most, it should be noted, are more extended than deleted scenes) and the disc's best extra. Next are seven skippable "Celebrity PSAs" (7:14), promoting the film itself and it's "take part" website. More interesting is "You Are What You Eat: Food With Integrity" (7:21), a profile of Chipotle founder Steve Ellis and his mission to use better ingredients for a better product; it's interesting, though the Chipotle buffers on either side make it feel less like a news item and more like a promo puff piece. Next is "The Amazing Food Detective and the Snacktown Smackdown" (3:05), a dull cartoon aimed at kids. On-screen text interfaces push the film's web Resources and "Food, Inc.: The Book." We also get some additional Magnolia Trailers, including The Answer Man, Is Anybody There?, and The Great Buck Howard.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled, though an attempt to access those features only got this reviewer a "Check back for updates" message.
Clear-eyed, well-assembled, and frequently shocking, Food, Inc. is a valuable and fascinating documentary. The closing directives are a little obnoxious, but that minor complaint aside, this is an important and intelligent picture that deserves the attention of a wide (and alert) audience.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.