The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Big Picture goes on a hunger strike

September 9, 2008 | 10:47 am

FROM THE TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL:

I have to admit that after coming out of a packed screening Monday afternoon of "Food Inc,." I was suddenly convinced that all my vegetarian pals were a lot smarter than I'd ever imagined. Directed by Robert Kenner, this timely documentary offers a depressingly persuasive portrait of the evils of big American agribusiness and the often horrific journey that our food makes from corporate cornfields and cattle pens to the local supermarket. Illustrated with bracing interviews with "Fast Food Nation's" Eric Schlosser and "The Omnivore's Dilemma's" Michael Pollan, two leading investigative food reporters and essayists, "Food Inc." is more than just a documentary--it's a riveting cautionary tale.

Even though the subject matter could've been tedious and earnest, Kenner manages to keep our attention by using lots of anecdotal detail and ravishing visuals--cinematographer Richard Pearce seems to have shot the entire film (except for some scary hidden-camera footage) at either sunrise or sunset, bathing everything in a subversively autumnal glow. Its central point is that if we knew where the vast majority of our food actually came from, we'd never dream of eating it. After seeing a typical Perdue chicken house, you'd never buy a basket of fried chicken again. If you saw the inside of the world's largest hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C. (where a lot of the hidden camera footage was shot by actual workers there), you'd never order any more bacon with your eggs. And if you saw America's biggest cattle yards, where cows stand ankle deep in their own manure, you'd take a pass on that nice juicy steak they serve at your favorite restaurant.

The best thing about the documentary is that it does what good reporting does--it connects the dots. Ever since the McDonald brothers discovered you could make hamburgers in assembly-line fashion, farms have become factories as Corporate Agriculture geared its production toward total uniformity. Americans end up spending less money on food than ever, but we pay a huge cost--starting with the fact that one out of every three kids born after 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes--because it's cheaper to buy a cheeseburger or a giant bottle of diet soda than a head of broccoli. That's one key reason why income level is the biggest predictive indicator when it comes to obesity.

"Food Inc." offers plenty of other revelations, starting with the relationship between the weakening of USDA oversight and the revolving door of Corporate Agriculture lobbyists and executives who ended up serving in key Bush administration posts. But what makes the film really hit home is that it talks about our food in such a personal way. You realize that consuming food is really a series of choices. Once you've seen the way cows are raised in Corporate Agriculture, jammed so tightly together that they can barely move, and how they're raised on an indie farmer's open field, grazing on grass instead of pellets of corn, you suddenly want to be a lot more vigilant about where your favorite burger joint's beef comes from. This is one movie that truly provides food for thought.      

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