Early in Robert Kenner's Food, Inc., viewers are reminded that there are no longer any seasons in the average American supermarket. Fresh fruits and vegetables are always available, and if those aren't your thing, there are around 47,000 other, cheaper items, from ketchup to Coca-Cola to Motrin, pre-soaked in high-fructose corn syrup and ready for conspicuous, thoughtless consumption. The film gathers plenty of informative, infuriating, and nauseating evidence as it clearly and convincingly explains why the perennial harvest bounty at the grocery store is probably a sign of the agricultural apocalypse.
The most significant inspiration for Kenner's righteous, muckraking documentary is not the politically engaged essay-films of Michael Moore but the magnificent, underrated 2003 Canadian documentary The Corporation, a thorough, damning three-hour expose of corporate culture's global role in increasing land privatization, fostering disastrous waste management practices, limiting journalistic freedom, and causing water shortages, food riots, and the Seattle WTO protests.
The impressive scope and sophistication of Food, Inc. owes plenty to The Corporation, especially when Kenner explores the areas of genetic engineering and crop seed patenting. The legal scare tactics the Monsanto Corporation uses to destroy small farmers who won't use their super-soybeans are echoed in the incredible world of "veggie-libel" laws, which offer glimpses of a nouveau Beef Trust so powerful that they think nothing of suing anyone at any level who criticizes their product, up to and including Oprah Winfrey (who, after racking up $1 million in legal fees during a 1990s court battle, was one of the rare targets who emerged victorious).
Food, Inc. wages a visual as well as ideological battle. The slow tracking shots through spotless, overlit supermarket aisles are eerie when contrasted with the film's parade of stunning, sometimes disturbing scenes covering the pre-packaging phase, from mountain ranges of corn kernels to vast metal circulatory systems moving apples and potatoes from the orchard and the fields to the produce aisle and the deep-fat fryer to baby chicks sliding down metal chutes to their doom.
This visual strategy is part of Kenner's plan to lift the veil on food production and confront the customers with the ways large companies have met their needs, reminding everyone that "notional" tomatoes and ammonized "meat filler" are now inextricable from cheap, standardized eats.
Authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) guide viewers through the shots of gridlocked livestock with sober, serious commentary taken piecemeal from their bestselling books. Their facts are straight, but they're about as charismatic as two blocks of government cheese.
A far more entertaining and convincing defense of limited agriculture comes from Joel Salatin, a garrulous Shenandoah Valley farmer with a heart who raises free-range chickens, pigs, and "salad-bar beef." Salatin's thoughtful, enthusiastic commitment to locally grown, humanely raised meat and poultry is a fine, thriving example of success within limits — a sharp rebuke to the gluttonous market domination of the major food companies.
What's equally interesting about Salatin's scenes in Food, Inc. is that the animal slaughter essential to his business is not glossed-over; the buckets stained with blood the color of a barn and the squawked "ows" of chickens before their throats are slit actually balance the long take where Salatin sings the praises of open-air chicken-gutting visually and aurally.
After such a provocative examination of the social, economic, medical, and environmental crimes perpetrated by the current food biz, the vague and "inspirational" PowerPoint presentation that closes the film is disappointing. But if history (and the anti-tobacco movement, which Schlosser sees as a valid strategic blueprint) has taught anything, it's that stomachs must be turned before hearts and minds are stirred to action.