Troubled by what he had been reading about his dinner, documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner embarked on a 6-year, cross-country journey to expose the nation's agribusiness industry. "Food, Inc." (see the trailer above) features interviews with authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and quotes from some of the heads of Big Farming from Walmart to Tyson. Kenner examines recent salmonella scares, chats with organic farmers and calls his film -- which hits the big screen next month -- "entertaining and hard-hitting." We caught up by phone with Kenner in L.A. to chat mutant chicken nuggets, Oprah's legal issues and his quest to leave you "delightfully disturbed."
What made you want to make this film?
We spend less of our paycheck on food now than at any time in our history, which is great, but it also comes at a great cost to us ... I made a film that I hope will leave you delightfully disturbed.
What do you mean by "a great cost to us"?
One out of every three babies born after 2000 will develop early onset diabetes. A lot of that is attributed to corn and corn byproducts. We can't sustain that. There are environmental costs and ultimately it is a cost to the consumer. You might be paying less money, but you are paying additional [health] costs that are becoming very, very expensive.
Men in suits, their strawberries and Oprah after the jump.
What did you realize about the industry when making this film?
These large agribusiness companies don't want us to know where our food comes from. They want us to think that our food comes from a farm with a white picket fence, but it's far from that. It felt like we were making a horror film and it's far from what I set out to do. They are not looking after the consumer. They are looking after the bottom line.
Food has been so fundamentally transformed in the last 50 to 60 years, but we don't know that it is different. A tomato looks the same, but it's completely different. A chicken now is being made so it can fit into a machine so we can have Chicken McNuggets while we drive.
What are Veggie Libel Laws?
Laws that are there to protect food agribusinesses. There are a number of states that have laws [where they can sue you] for talking bad about food. It's another misnomer like "farm fresh." You go to the grocery store and you see "farm fresh." They are far from farm fresh. They are made by a few corporations. It's another misnomer like "veggie libel laws."
Can you give me an example?
Well Oprah had this mother on her show who was talking about her child getting sick from eating a hamburger. She said, "makes you think twice about eating a burger." [She actually said, "it has just stopped me cold from eating another burger." --Ed.] Under a law that says it is libel to make disparaging remarks about [perishable] food, she spent several years in court battling a lawsuit brought by [the Texas beef industry].
What's the most shocking thing you took away from your research?
The most shocking thing to me is that we are being denied the right to know, that the power is so great, and that it is really costing the consumer. I didn't realize that that could happen in America.
Knowing this, what do think the response will be like from Big Food?
I think big businesses are really concerned, and they don't want people thinking about where their food is coming from. I don't think that's in their interest. We made a real attempt to create a dialogue with these corporations. I think that a vast number of companies didn't want to be associated with this film and show us their kitchens, which says volumes about them.
Do you practice what you preach?
I wasn't a vegetarian before I began, and I am not vegetarian now. I try to eat less meat, I try to eat what's in season. I try to eat strawberries without chemicals on them; the people who are growing them have to wear chemical suits. I made the film and I still eat things that are not perfect, but if you can eat two or three meals that are healthier than they were before, we will get better food. The companies that make it are not going to change it unless we make them change it.
In that case, what is one suggestion that you give people?
I think if it's possible go to a farmer's market and when you go to the supermarket, look at the labels and don't buy things with [ingredients] you don't know.
Do you think the industry can be changed?
I feel optimistic ... we were able to change the tobacco industry and get real information, and there is a real growing consciousness that this food is making us sick and with this consciousness we can make change. You vote three times a day: Become conscious of what you are eating, and you can help change the system.
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