SPOILED APPETITE: ROBERT KEENER’S FOOD, INC. |
By Jason Guerrasio
Leading up to the Oscars on March 7, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Jason Guerrasio interviewed Food, Inc. director Robert Keener for our Spring 2009 issue. Food, Inc. is nominated for Best Documentary.
As the grill sizzles in the background a waitress rattles off the specials of the day when a voice interrupts her. “I think I’ll have a hamburger,” says the man looking up from his menu. Sitting at a diner counter in Anywhere, USA, the order comes from the most unlikely of people, Eric Schlosser. Author of Fast Food Nation, the preeminent exposé on what really goes on in the fast food industry, you’d think he’d be the last guy to eat a burger at a greasy spoon. But this scene from documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. illustrates one of the great ironies concerning our eating habits as a nation: No matter how hard we fight the craving, we cannot escape industrial food. With the help of Schlosser (a co-producer on the film) and fellow author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals), who are our culinary consciences through the film, Kenner pulls the veil off the entire food industry to reveal that fast food isn’t the only unhealthy thing we’re eating. With salmonella found in everything from spinach to peanut butter and our beef industry shipping contaminated meat at an alarming rate, Kenner exposes a serious problem that few are trying to correct and fewer know about.
Using investigative skills he’s crafted through numerous docs for National Geographic and PBS’ American Experience, one of which won him an Emmy (Two Days in October), Kenner demolishes the food industry’s portrayal of their products as coming from fresh fields and red barns surrounded by welcoming white picket fences. He exposes a business that is producing more food for less money than ever before but at a dire health and ethical cost. The meat we consume comes from cows that stand in their own feces all day long and eat corn-based feed, which their bodies are not designed to consume and that cause diseases like E. coli and Mad Cow. Chickens have grown to gigantic and abnormal sizes in the last decade due to a lack of exercise and the drugs they’re fed. And government subsidies support the production of meat and dairy products that contribute to the country’s staggering rate of obesity and chronic disease. Kenner spent over six years engrossed in these issues, interviewing people who have been affected by contaminated food, farmers who work for the food industry (as well as those who still do things the way nature intended), and the few food corporation reps who agreed to go on camera. He also cleverly breaks down this wealth of information through animated visual guides and in chapters, similar to the style of Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s The Corporation.
But Kenner then goes a step further by examining the unbelievable political power these food corporations have obtained. In Colorado it’s a felony if you’re convicted under a “veggie libel” law, which is speaking disparagingly about food. Variations of “veggie libel” laws have been enacted in 12 other states. There’s also the issue of who’s protecting us from contaminated food, as many of the decisionmakers in Washington, D.C. — like the former head of the FDA, former chief of staff at the USDA, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — at one time worked for the food industry. And one of the most chilling segments describes how Monsanto, which at one time manufactured Agent Orange and DDT, has monopolized the soybean seed industry. Ninety percent of soybeans contain the company’s patented gene, and the film shows how the company will threaten to sue farmers who save and reuse the seed instead of buying new Monsanto seed each season.
An alarming look at how the food industry has duped the American people about what they’ve been eating for decades, Food, Inc. is described best by Variety, which in its review of the film at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival wrote, it “does for the supermarket what Jaws did for the beach.”
Magnolia Pictures releases the film in June.
Filmmaker: Why did you decide to investigate where our food comes from?
Keener: It really started when I read Fast Food Nation and simultaneously Eric had seen a film I had done, Two Days in October. We decided we wanted to do a movie together. That was in 2001, 2002. We had a number of near misses but ultimately we sold it to Participant in 2006. We were going to make something based on Fast Food Nation, but then we realized we had to change the story after we were funded.
Keener: As I moved into it I felt we needed to update the subject. Even though Fast Food Nation really wasn’t just about hamburgers and fast food, I think people had been under the impression that they had already seen it. There was Super Size Me, there was the theatrical version of Fast Food Nation about to come out, and it just felt like we had to encompass more of how all food has become fast food.
Filmmaker: Coming from a television background, did you have to change your style or the way you make films to address a theatrical audience?
Keener: There was a challenge to the filmmaking. How do you get the information across? I wanted to make as much of it as vérité as possible but I couldn’t connect all the dots to my investigative reporting just using vérité [filmmaking]. So, in effect, Eric and Michael became my on-screen guides. It is these characters who are affected by what this industry is doing to us, and that [depiction] is the most riveting because it goes beyond information. The real challenge to make this into a film, and one of the big differences for me, was working with animators and trying to figure out how to add humor and theatrical values to the film. With the animation we went a step farther than I’d ever gone before. It was just an exciting process of making information fun to watch.
Filmmaker: And breaking everything down into chapters is another way to not overwhelm the audience with information.
Keener: Yeah. We’re following a number of people and it’s a complicated story. In the first half of the film we’re synthesizing Eric and Michael’s work, but then we break free when we talk to Barbara Kowalcyk, whose son died from E. coli and who has now become a food safety advocate. One of the most revelatory moments [occurred when I] was talking to Barb. I asked her how she has changed her eating habits and when she told me she couldn’t tell me for fear of being sued I realized that this is a film about more than just food. She was under the impression that she could get sued if she told me what she didn’t eat any longer. So it then became a film about the power of these corporations and their relationship with government.
Filmmaker: Are you scared you will be sued?
Keener: It’s certainly a concern. We spent an incredible amount of time with First Amendment lawyers. We censored ourselves in ways that I’ve never censored myself before. I mean National Geographic and American Experience are great fact checkers but we went way beyond the normal fact checking. So I have to say if I had known what I knew by the end of the film I might not have wanted to make this film.
Filmmaker: Can you give examples of this kind of self-censorship?
Keener: To be truthful I prefer to not even talk about it. It makes me nervous. What I can say is we wanted as many sources as possible. There are things that our characters said that they swear are true, and we went back and found one or two sources but our lawyers felt that maybe we’d be better off not using [this material]. One example [concerns] Monsanto. They said in print that they have a team of 75 lawyers to go against farmers who reuse their seed, but they later denied it. When they wanted to scare farmers they talked about how many lawyers they had but all of a sudden they didn’t like that so said, “No we don’t.” The original source was Monsanto and I thought, “Wait a second, they’ve said it so why can’t we use it?” We ended up compromising with our lawyer and putting up the source, Center for Food Safety, on the screen. It is clunky and it fills up the screen but our lawyer insisted.
Filmmaker: What kind of off-camera conversations did you have with the companies you highlight in the film? And why did most of them not want to comment on camera?
Keener: Everyone wanted to know who we were filming. We were not keeping secrets. We were talking about what we were doing. But ultimately [I think] a number of the companies that are in the film never really were ever thinking of talking to us.
Filmmaker: Though you do get into a slaughterhouse and the management was happy, in fact, proud, to show you how they lace all of their equipment with ammonia to keep the meat from getting contaminated.
Keener: It was pretty amazing to see this place but at the same time it’s part of these industrial fixes that just keeps leading us further and further into this Frankenstein kind of food. It was scary. And most of that food is going to the national school lunch program. There’s so many things we didn’t go into [in the film], and that was one of them. All of this food that you’d never want to go near, where is it ending up? It’s going to the schools.
Filmmaker: With all of these no comments from the companies, did you feel you were making an incomplete film?
Keener: I was totally concerned because the last thing I wanted to do was just to tell a film from one side. I felt it would be so one-sided and without a narration, how do you express what’s happening? How do you get a sense of the rejection and the power of these companies to silence people from talking? But at the same time how do you appear fair? How can you be fair when you’re only talking to people who don’t like [what’s happening]? So it created an incredible challenge: How do you tell a fair story and yet only be telling half of it?
Filmmaker: But doesn’t that just confirm the companies’ guilt that they won’t come on camera and defend their products?
Keener: Since Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me there is a concern that they don’t want you looking inside their kitchen. I think these companies benefit from you not thinking about where your food really comes from, so at a certain point they decided they didn’t want to talk about it. Any publicity is bad publicity. However I did highlight Wal-Mart, and I’ve been attacked for being too easy on them. On some levels they are as responsible for the industrialization of food as McDonald’s. They are easy to go after, but they are also doing things that are helping to improve the food system [such as selling organic products like Stonyfield Farm], and I just decided to concentrate on some of the positives while certainly also trying to express with every story both sides if possible. But I went out of my way to play up the good things that Wal-Mart is doing because I didn’t want to say every corporation in America is doing bad things/ I think you want to encourage the good things that are being done.
Filmmaker: How long did it take for Wal-Mart to agree to go on camera?
Keener: I would say it was a year and a half of steady contact and when they actually showed up on the farm in Vermont [where we shot them] I think they were under the impression that they had final cut even though it was clear that they didn’t. And then they thought Gary Hirshberg [the Stonyfield Farm CEO] had final cut and he said no.
Filmmaker: Was this after you interviewed them or before?
Keener: This was before and they still went along. I mean they had flown up to Vermont so they were already there. [laughs] And Gary definitely encouraged them to come along. I don’t think it would have happened without Gary. We got Wal-Mart, I think, because at the time they were getting attacked on labor issues and they were scared they were going to get attacked on environmental issues also. At some point they started to figure out how to build a firewall against the environmental issue, but in the process of building that firewall I think they got really serious about it and realized it is important and they really started to care. They also realized the good publicity they could get with it. But I feel the other companies didn’t feel there was any benefit to discuss with me what they were doing.
Filmmaker: One of the most thought-provoking moments in the film is when you show a family who finds it more affordable to go to Burger King than go to the grocery store. Have we become a nation that’s been brainwashed to think the value meal is a reasonable solution when we’re looking to save money?
Keener: Well the reality is the food is really cheap. It does come really quickly. I think it appeals to people’s taste buds on some levels. When you start eating sugar and salt and fat you grow to crave it and I think our lifestyle has gotten faster and faster. There’s one thing that we didn’t talk about in the film and that is areas called “food deserts.” That area in Baldwin Park, Calif., where we filmed the family doesn’t really have a supermarket. There’s a study that came out where there’s a relationship between obesity and diabetes and fast food restaurants outnumbering stores where you can buy fresh produce. When [this ratio] reaches a certain proportion the population is going to become obese, and when they become obese they get diabetes. Food deserts are found especially in inner cities because it’s much easier to sell fast food in some areas than it is to have supermarkets.
Filmmaker: Some action at the federal level is needed to improve our feed supply, but as you show many of the government watchdogs that are supposed to keep the food industry honest have at one time worked for the food corporations. So how can political change occur with respect to this issue?
Keener: I think we have to work on a number of levels. As consumers we get to vote three times a day — breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every time we go to the supermarket we get to vote, but, at the same time, things are unfairly priced. We’re subsidizing the unhealthy food so we really have to work with government to change this. I don’t know if Obama was serious about changing food when he came into office but I do think he was serious about health care and the environment and workers’ rights, and I don’t think you can be serious about those things and not change food. Tom Vilsack, his secretary of agriculture, who was the governor of Iowa, which is a big corn state, is now interested in looking at the film, and I believe we will be screening it for him. But it will take voters to convince their representatives that we want a change because those representatives are hearing from the food industry why it should stay the way it is. We all want to know what we’re eating and people don’t really realize how much they’re being denied that right.
Filmmaker: With the current economy shopping at a farmer’s market or buying organic food is difficult for most families; do you think this film can still be effective in this bad economic climate?
Keener: If this film can create an even playing field people will be able to change their eating habits. Organic food is more expensive, but unfortunately some of our food in the supermarket is less expensive because we’re subsidizing it. So we have to change these laws to be able to deliver good food into the national school lunch program. If food stamps could go to healthy food like farmer’s markets, that would make a world of difference. And I think that people who go into the supermarket have to start looking at those labels. When you see words [and] you don’t know what they mean, they’re not good for you. So I think with some work from the consumer and some work from the government we can change how this food system works. I mean, it was not easy to change the smoking laws and we did change those. I think the more we can create transparency the more we will create change. It’s interesting because the same thing that created bad food created the financial crisis: A lack of government oversight and the idea that these companies can police themselves.