How much do we really know about the food we buy at our local supermarkets and serve to our families? That's the question that filmmaker Robert Kenner sought to answer in Food, Inc.
The result is a stunning, mind-expanding movie that lifts the veil on our nation's food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that's been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government's regulatory agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As Kenner shows, our nation's food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers, and our natural environment.
As a result of this truly revolutionary reshaping of the national food supply—caused by business and political trends of just the last forty years—we now have bigger-breasted chickens, the "perfect" pork chop, insecticide-resistant soybean seeds, and even tomatoes that won't go bad during a long trip from the fields to the supermarket shelf. But we also have new, resistant strains of E. coli, the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans annually.
We suffer from widespread obesity, particularly among children, and epidemic levels of diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. We have a vast and growing population of farm workers and food processing employees who are underpaid, lack health insurance, and in some cases labor in virtual slavery. We have ugly, foul-smelling factory farms that pollute the air and water while producing foods of dubious safety and nutritional value. We have secretive corporations that increasingly control not just our food supply but the very genetic makeup of the plants that sustain life on Earth. And we have a worldwide economic system that impoverishes farmers in the developing world even as it drives up food prices for the poorest of the poor.
Featuring interviews with such experts as Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), along with forward-thinking entrepreneurs like Stonyfield's Gary Hirshberg and Polyface Farm's Joel Salatin, Food, Inc. reveals surprising and often shocking truths—about what we eat and how it's produced, but also about who we have become as a nation and where we are going from here.
Because Food, Inc. deals with a topic of such importance, complexity, and inherent interest, it's a perfect opportunity to launch the series of film-to-page companion books whose first offspring you now hold in your hand. The American food production system and its impact on our health, our economy, our natural environment, and even our freedoms as a people is a theme with vast ramifications. Understanding it requires drawing a host of connections that no single movie could hope to trace. Hence this book, which is designed to help you take your knowledge about today's food crisis—and your ability to help find solutions—to the next level.
In his chapter on the making of Food, Inc., director Robby Kenner describes the personal journey of discovery he experienced in researching and creating the film. For me, bringing together the contents of this book has been an equally eye-opening journey.
One extraordinary stage in that journey took place over Labor Day weekend in 2008, when my wife Mary-Jo and I attended the Slow Food Nation conference in San Francisco—the first national gathering of Slow Food USA, the American branch of an international organization founded by the Italian cultural critic Carlo Petrini.
Slow Food's original intention was, as the name implies, to combat the spread of American-style fast food and to defend more traditional forms of agriculture and food preparation. It has spread to the United States (as well as around the world) and has now become a popular movement that strives to address and link an array of economic, cultural, and political issues related to the production, sale, and use of food.
After spending four days joining some 85,000 participants in sampling many of the activities offered—including food tastings and sales, panel discussions, film screenings, educational exhibits, and (of course) some amazing dinners—I came away convinced I'd witnessed one stage in the emergence of a new social, political, and economic movement.
The people and organizations who attended the conference came from many varied backgrounds and brought a wide range of interests and values to the table. Some were food lovers for whom the pleasure of fresh, local, well-prepared farm products is the chief motivating factor. Others were economists focused on issues like global hunger and the exploitation of farm workers. And still others were scientists and activists concerned with nutrition, food safety, pollution, and global climate change. Several of the distinguished experts and brilliant writers who would ultimately contribute to this book, from Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan to Marion Nestle, were in attendance.
The San Francisco gathering convinced me that something big is happening in America today, represented not just by the tens of thousands of people who attended the conference but also by millions of other people around the country who are engaged in similar activities: shopping at organic food stores, at local farmers' markets, or through community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs); ordering fair-trade coffee when they get their morning caffeine fix; asking their kids' schools to get junk food out of the cafeterias; planting community gardens; and writing their representatives to call for changes in farm subsidies, better regulation of meat production, and clearer food labeling standards.
Thanks to concerned Americans such as these, food-related issues—hunger, childhood obesity, rising food prices, water shortages, soil depletion, and many others—are finally achieving a critical mass of attention from the media and the general public. And President Barack Obama has indicated his sympathy for many of the goals of the movement—although, of course, translating that sympathy into concrete reforms against the wishes of a deeply entrenched power base that supports and profits from the current system of industrialized food production will be enormously challenging.
Events such as the release of Food, Inc. can play an important catalytic role by bringing together thousands of people and getting them to draw the lines connecting seemingly unrelated economic, political, and social issues. We're hoping the book in your hand will also play a significant supporting role in that consciousness-raising process.
The book is divided into three sections. Part I focuses on the film itself and includes director Robby Kenner's personal account of the making of Food, Inc. and an interview with co-producer Eric Schlosser, who puts the movie in the broader social context of today's burgeoning food-reform movement.
Part II takes a closer look at many of the issues raised by the movie, providing those who've seen the film (and those who haven't) with much more information about the scientific, economic, political, social, and personal conflicts underpinning the current battle for control of America's food supply. Some of the topics discussed in Part II—like the effort by companies such as Monsanto to take control of the genetic basis of our food supply, analyzed by veteran science journalist Peter Pringle, or the appalling conditions suffered by agricultural workers, described by United Farm Workers' (UFW) leader Arturo Rodriguez—will be familiar from Food, Inc. Others—like the impact of farming on global climate change, discussed by Anna Lappé, or the effects of the American food system on poor people around the world, dissected by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus—are touched on only briefly, or not at all, in the movie. Taken together, the chapters in this part of the book should deepen your appreciation for the importance of the issues treated in the film and the complexities of their interrelationships.
In Part III, we offer some solutions—real-world steps that you can take as a consumer and a citizen to promote improvements in the ways we produce, distribute, and eat food. The advice in this section ranges from the inspirational, as offered up by writer Michael Pollan and ecoagricultural firebrand Joel Salatin; to the intensely practical, including, for example, simple ways to separate food facts from food myths when planning your own family's diet, provided by nutrition expert Marion Nestle; and some ideas on how you can launch a campaign to improve the food served in your neighborhood schools from the citizen-activists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Interspersed throughout the book, among the twelve full-length chapters provided by our distinguished experts, we've included shorter excerpts under the heading of "Another Take." These offer different perspectives or useful ideas from some of the leading organizations working to improve our ways of producing and eating food, ranging from the Humane Society of the United States and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Sustainable Table and Food & Water Watch.
Finally, the book concludes with a list of many more resources you can turn to for more information, ideas, and inspiration. They include some of the best books in the field as well as contact information for organizations that are at the forefront of the change effort and URLs for websites that are filled with useful facts related to every major food issue.
One important note: although all of the distinguished individuals and organizations that contributed to this book share a concern about the problems with our industrialized food system and a desire to reform it, they don't always agree on specific details or policy prescriptions. So the appearance of a particular writer or group in these pages shouldn't be construed as an endorsement of every opinion presented elsewhere in the book. Among other things, this book reflects some of the lively ongoing debates among the "food community" about the best directions for the future—debates that, we believe, embody the best American traditions and the hope for a better tomorrow shaped by the contributions of all of us.
Filmmaker Robby Kenner, his colleagues at Participant Media, their publishing partners at PublicAffairs, and all the gifted writers and researchers who helped create the contents of this volume surely join me in hoping that this book, and the movie that inspired it, will become simply the beginning—not the end—of your engagement in the global initiative to create a healthier, more sustainable food supply system for all the peoples of the world.
Irvington, New York
FOOD, INC.: THE FILM
Participant Media & River Road Entertainment Present a Film by Robert Kenner
Director of Photography Richard Pearce
Coproducers Eric Schlosser
Music Mark Adler
Editor Kim Roberts
Executive Producers William Pohlad
Producers Robert Kenner
Director Robert Kenner
Consultant Michael Pollan
Writers Robert Kenner
Post Production Supervisor Melissa Robledo
Main Title & Graphics Bigstar
Associate Producers Sascha Goldhor
REFORMING FAST FOOD NATION A CONVERSATION WITH ERIC SCHLOSSER
Eric Schlosser is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, the Nation, and the New Yorker. His writing has focused mainly on groups at the margins of American society: illegal immigrants, migrant farm workers, prisoners, and the victims of crime. His first book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), was an international best seller, translated into twenty languages. His second book, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (2003), explored the underground economy of the United States. In Chew on This (2006), Schlosser and his coauthor Charles Wilson introduced young readers to many of the issues and problems arising from industrial food production. Two of Schlosser's plays, Americans (2003) and We the People (2007), have been produced in London. He served as a cowriter and executive producer of the film Fast Food Nation (2006). He also served as an executive producer of the film There Will Be Blood (2007). For many years, Schlosser has been researching a book about the American prison system.
Q. Your book Fast Food Nation was one of the landmarks in the development of today's movement to reform the American food production system. Can you talk about how you got involved as a journalist with issues surrounding food, and how Fast Food Nation came to be?
I was introduced to the world of modern food production in the mid- 1990s while researching an article about California's strawberry industry for the Atlantic Monthly. It was an investigative piece about illegal immigrants, the transformation of California agriculture, the exploitation of poor migrant workers. It opened my eyes to the difference between what you see in the supermarket and what you see in the fields—the reality of how our food is produced.
So my interest in the whole subject began from the workers' perspective. At the time, the governor of California, Pete Wilson, was arguing that illegal immigrants were welfare cheats. He claimed they were coming to California to live off taxpayers. Instinctively, that didn't sound right to me. During my visits to California, I noticed there were a lot of poor Latinos working very hard at jobs that nobody else seemed willing to do.
The discrepancy between the governor's rhetoric and what I saw with my own eyes made me curious about the actual economic effect of all these illegal immigrants in California. So I began to investigate the subject. And I found that during the same years in which illegal immigration to California had increased, the number of farm workers there had grown too. In fact, California was becoming increasingly dependent on poor farm workers to pick its fruits and vegetables by hand. And lo and behold, some of Pete Wilson's largest campaign supporters were California growers who were profiting enormously from the exploitation of illegal immigrants.
Q. Purely a coincidence, I'm sure.
Now, I didn't really want to write a political piece about Pete Wilson and why he was such a hypocrite. I've tried hard to avoid writing about politics and politicians. But I wanted to show people that, far from being parasites, these illegal immigrants were propping up California's agricultural industry—which to this day is the most important sector of the state's economy. I had no idea that agriculture was still so important there. When you think of the California economy, you think of high-tech industries like Silicon Valley, you think of Hollywood. You don't think of poor, desperate migrants picking fruits and vegetables with their bare hands. But at the heart of the state's economy is this hard, ugly reality. That was true back in the 1990s, and it's still true today.
So in my article for the Atlantic, I wanted to write about farm labor economics, the history of illegal immigration, and the role of illegals in the California economy. But I wanted to do all this by telling the story of something very simple and concrete that we all like to eat: strawberries.
You know, I love strawberries. But when most people see a display of strawberries in their local supermarket, they don't realize that every one of those strawberries has to be very carefully picked by hand. Strawberries are very fragile and easily bruised. So if you want to produce a lot of strawberries in California, you need a lot of hands to pick them. And during the past thirty years—which is the period when, surprisingly enough, the California strawberry became enormous—those hands have belonged to people who are likely to be in the state illegally, who are willing to work for substandard wages in terrible conditions.
Instead of writing a political rant about immigration policy or Pete Wilson, I just wrote something that said, "Look, here's where your strawberries come from—and here's what the consequences are."
That article about migrants in the Atlantic Monthly was read by the editors at Rolling Stone—Jann Wenner, Bob Love, and Will Dana. They called me into their office and said, "We loved your article, and we'd like you to do for fast food what you did for the strawberry. We want you to write an investigative piece about the fast-food industry. And we want you to call it 'Fast Food Nation.'"
In retrospect, that was a damn good idea. But at the time, I wasn't so sure about it. The editors at Rolling Stone didn't know much about the fast-food industry, and neither did I. It wasn't at all clear what the scope or the focus of the article would be. And I didn't want to write something that was snobby and elitist, you know, a put-down of Americans and of their plastic fast-food culture. I still ate at McDonald's then, especially when I was on the road. I really like hamburgers and French fries, and I don't consider myself some kind of gourmand. So I knew what I didn't want the article to be, but I wasn't really sure what it should or could be. There was a basic question that needed to be answered: what's the story here?
Jann and Will were really curious about the industry and thought it was worth exploring. So I told them, "Let me think about it."
Q. By the way, do fast-food companies advertise in Rolling Stone?
Yeah, the magazine's main readers—young males—are a major demographic for the fast-food chains. Jann Wenner was willing to go after some of his own advertisers, which I give him a lot of credit for.
At first, I wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to accept the assignment. It ran the risk of becoming something terribly kitschy and ironic. So I did what I always do when I want to learn more about a subject: I went to the New York Public Library. Almost everything I write begins at a library—and that is still true today, even with the incredible amount of information available on the Internet. I started reading books about industrial food production and the fast-food industry. Some of the most interesting were memoirs written by the founders of the industry, people like Ray Kroc of McDonald's, Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Tom Monaghan of Domino's Pizza.
I was pretty amazed by what I learned. I was amazed by the size and power of the fast-food industry, by the speed at which it had grown. There was so much that I'd never thought about, like the impact of McDonald's on American agriculture, the role of fast-food marketing in changing the American diet, the obesity epidemic among American children, the huge political and economic influence of the big agribusiness firms.
I was intrigued. So I went back to Will and Jann, and I said, "Yeah, I'll take the assignment. But let's be clear about the scope of this story. I think it's going to lead in all sorts of directions, into all kinds of tangents. This industry has had an impact on many aspects of American society. And I should try to follow the story wherever it leads." And they said, "Great, go for it." So I did.
Researching and writing the article wound up taking me about a year, a lot longer than I thought it would. In the fall of 1998, Rolling Stone ran it in two parts. And looking back, although we called the article "Fast Food Nation," it was really never about fast food. It was about this country—about what our food system reveals about our society.
Q. Are you saying that your work was driven by a political agenda?
No, I'm much more interested in history and culture and economics than in politics. I don't write with a specific "political agenda" in mind. I try to write things that are complex, that are open to different interpretations, that respect the reader's intelligence. I try to avoid simplistic explanations or ten-point manifestos. The writers whom I've admired most, the ones who have inspired me most, threw themselves into the big issues of their day. They didn't play it safe, hold back, or write for the sake of writing. Writers like Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, George Orwell, Arthur Miller, Hunter S. Thompson—they were willing to take risks and go against the grain. My writing deals with many subjects that politicians also deal with. But that doesn't mean I'm interested in writing political tracts. For me, the crucial questions have always been: Is this subject important? Is it relevant? Is it meaningful? Is there something new to be said about it? When the answers are yes, I get to work.
Coming of age in the Reagan-Bush era had a big impact on me. For the past thirty years, so much of American society has been driven by selfishness and greed and a lack of compassion for people at the bottom. I've tried hard in my work to question those motives and offer an opposing view. I've tried to expose hypocrisy and corruption. But what I've tried to do, most of all, is simply to understand the times we live in: What is really going on? What are the driving forces behind the changes we're experiencing? How did things get to be this way?
Q. So how did the two-part article for Rolling Stone become the basis for a book?
After the article came out, it felt like there was still a lot more to say about the subject. There were a number of issues that I wanted to explore in greater depth. So expanding it into a book seemed the natural next step.
I found the process of reporting the article to be deeply moving. I spent a great deal of time in meatpacking communities, which are sad, desperate places. Seeing the abuse of these meatpacking workers really affected me. Meatpacking used to be one of the best-paid jobs in the country. Until the late 1970s, meatpacking workers were like auto workers. They had well-paid union jobs. They earned good wages, before the fast-food companies came along. It upset me to find that the wages of meatpacking workers had recently been slashed, that they were now suffering all kinds of job-related injuries without being properly compensated.
One of the more remarkable moments of my research occurred while I was visiting a home in the Midwest where a group of impoverished meatpacking workers lived. They were all illegal immigrants. And while I was talking with them, I learned that some of them had worked at a strawberry farm I'd visited for the Atlantic Monthly piece. That's when I realized that this was a really important story, one that deserved a lot more of my time and attention. California has been exploiting migrant workers from Mexico for a hundred years. But that form of exploitation had, until recently, been limited to California and a handful of South-western states. Now it seemed to be spreading throughout the United States. Finding that illegal immigrants were being exploited in the heart-land of America, in a little town that on the surface looked straight out of a Norman Rockwell postcard—well, to me, this was something new, a disturbing and important new trend.
Q. How much resistance did you encounter in researching and reporting the book?
A lot. None of the major meatpacking companies allowed me to visit their facilities. McDonald's was not at all helpful. The industry, on the whole, didn't roll out a welcome mat. But many of the workers at fast-food restaurants and meatpacking plants were eager to talk with me. They felt that their stories had not yet been told, and they wanted the world to know what was happening. Their help made Fast Food Nation possible.
Robby Kenner, the director of Food, Inc., has said that his film is not just about food. It's also about threats to the First Amendment and the desire of some powerful corporations to suppress the truth. I would agree with that description of his film, and it also applies to my book. Both of us, while investigating America's industrial food system, were struck by the corrupting influence of centralized power. Whenever power is concentrated and unaccountable—whether it's corporate power, governmental power, or religious power—it inevitably leads to abuses. Human beings are imperfect, and you need a system of checks and balances to keep them in line, to encourage good behavior. You need competing centers of power. That's not a new idea. That's an old-fashioned American idea. You can thank James Madison and the other founding fathers for coming up with it.
And of course this matters a great deal when you're talking about the food industry. I think the food industry is, by far, the most important industry in every society. Without it, you can't have any other industry. All the others depend on people being able to eat. It's one thing if competition is eliminated in the baseball card business. That wouldn't be good, but it wouldn't be the end of the world, either, unless you're a baseball card fanatic. When you talk about the food industry, however, you're talking about something fundamental. You're talking about an industry whose business practices help determine the health of the customers who eat its products, the health of the workers who make its products, the health of the environment, animal welfare, and so much more. The nation's system of food production—and who controls it—has a profound impact on society.
Here's an example. One of the major themes of Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc.