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The Contender Q&A: 'Food, Inc.' director Robert Kenner

December 30, 2009 | 10:18 am

Robert Kenner Before you take a bite of that sandwich -- or apple, or spoonful of cereal, or any foodstuff, really -- consider the following: If you bought the item or its ingredients from an established, nonorganic company, chances are it contains more than its share of cheaply grown, genetically modified corn or soy.

That vegetable base is overseen by a small but vastly powerful group of corporations, which use it to feed freakishly larger but more poorly raised and maintained animals, whose preparation for your table is rife with chances to contract dangerous and even deadly bacteria.

The shocking lack of regard for one of the basic tenets of life -- good food -- is the subject of director Robert Kenner's new documentary, "Food, Inc." Kenner -- a Peabody and Emmy winner -- explores the stranglehold maintained on the agriculture and food industries by such corporate giants as Tyson, Monsanto and Smithfield and how their bottom-line policies have wreaked untold havoc on nearly every aspect of the American consumer's daily existence. The film's honest take on dishonest practices has won it considerable praise from viewers and critics alike, and it stands poised to land an Oscar nomination as one of the final 15 features in contention before the academy casts its votes for best documentary Feb. 2.

Kenner spoke with The Circuit from Los Angeles, where he discussed the film's growing impact on its audiences, on government decisions, and on his own diet.

(Please note: Possible spoilers are present throughout this interview.)

As a new parent, I have to say that "Food, Inc." added a whole new set of worries to my already established and growing list.

[Laughs] Yeah, but in a funny way, it's parents that are going to lead the food movement. I think that ultimately, it's people that become concerned by what they're feeding their children. They might not be political, but all of a sudden, but when you start to think about where your food comes from, it makes you concerned, and especially so when you have a little child.

What's interesting is that "Food, Inc." is really playing into this growing food movement. I was not aware of this when I was making the film. We have this food system that's relatively new, from the last 40-50 years, and on one level it's feeding a lot of us. It's creating a lot of food at very inexpensive prices, which is great. The problem is that there are unseen costs, and we're just becoming aware of them.

In the film, journalist Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") says that it seemed odd that he had to write a book that explains to people about where their food comes from, which should be something we all know. Did you have the same thought in regard to this film?

It was harder for me than for Eric [Schlosser, film producer and author of "Fast Food Nation) or Michael (to produce this work). It was easier in that I followed them but harder in the sense that I had a more difficult time getting access. What I was amazed by was how off-limits the system was. And I was not looking to make a film with a preconceived point of view when I started -- I really wanted to talk to all the makers of our food. Richard Lobb from the National Chicken Council was one of the very few people who would go on camera, and he said, "We produce more chickens on less land for fewer dollars." I could have taken many things to make him look bad, but I put his best argument forward.

Right before our film came out, a number of these companies (discussed in the film) put out attack websites, with Monsanto taking the lead, but also the beef and chicken industries. Ironically, on the day that the beef and chicken industries came out with their sites, I saw Richard Lobb, and he graciously came up to me after a screening. I said, "Richard, you might not like the film, but at least you should be happy that you appeared in it." And he told me he was thrilled -- and he went on "Nightline" and said that he thought his industry needs more transparency. 2

So are you now on a Monsanto black list?

No. What's been very interesting is that these same industries -- Monsanto, Tyson -- have appeared twice, with the last time being at a conference with about 40 or 50 people and the heads of every major company -- Cargill, Smithfield -- to sit and watch "Food, Inc." That was an intense experience. The fact is, they're feeling the need to enter the conversation. They don't perceive themselves as bad guys, and the film is upsetting to them on some levels, so they're beginning to feel the need to come to the table and talk.

If you had to view the film in black-and-white terms, these companies seem to be your "villains." But does the blame extend much higher than the corporate level?

Well, when you say higher, do you mean government? I would say it's opposite of that. In my mind, and this is the point of the film, it's become the power of the corporation trumps the power of the government, and frankly, that transcends food. In the conversations with the companies, they said, "If we were made to do certain things, we'd be happy to do them" -- pay higher wages, for example. But they don't want to pay them if their competitors aren't. I do believe that it's the corporations that are setting the tone, and that was an interesting conversation with Joel Salatin (of Polyface Farms and an interviewee in the film). He's a total libertarian who feels that government is the root of all evil. But I said to him, "The one thing you have to remember is that these corporations have so much more power than the government at this point." And Joel actually changed his argument.

4 The film shows the sheer weight of the opposition to basic, healthy food, but it also offers a number of practical ways in which consumers can gain some control over the quality of the food they eat. What are some of them?

Shopping at a farmers' market is a great thing, especially for us in California. You get wonderful, fresh food, it helps encourage local farming, and it's more nutritious. It might be more expensive, but it's good, and on so many levels. When you go to the supermarket, read the labels. The amount of salt and sugar in processed food is creating this obesity epidemic. Fight to get better food in the school system. Every piece of disgusting food I saw, like that box of meat (in the film, BPI's solution to the bacteria problem is to wash its meat product in ammonia; the result is a large, pale rectangle of raw flesh) -- where do you think it's going? The National School Lunch program. Ultimately, we need to stop these subsidies (to industries) -- what we cal the Farm Bill should be called the Food Bill.

How has the film affected the way that you eat?

I really make an effort every week to get to the farmers' market to buy as much food as possible. I still eat meat, but I want to know the source of the meat, and I don't want animals that are part of that industrial system. I don't want to eat Red Delicious apples -- they're just bred to look pretty, and they have no flavor. I don't eat all organic food -- I'm not a perfect eater. So many people have come up to me and said, "I want to be a perfect eater."

Does such a thing exist?

Let's put it this way -- I don't do it. And I can't do it. But I didn't intend to be a perfect eater. I find myself eating less meat, but I'm not setting out to be a vegetarian. I think it's better for the planet and better for us, and I certainly don't like eating industrial foods. I try to avoid it whenever possible.

What would the impact of an Oscar have on "Food, Inc." and in turn on its message?

We went to Washington and met with the secretary of agriculture to talk about food subsidies and a number of issues. And they said, "Listen, if there's a movement, we will follow." They can't lead that change, but they are certainly happy to follow that change. I'm surprised by the success of "Food, Inc." to a degree.

Why is that?

I didn't know if people wanted to see a film about where their food comes from. I wasn't sure if that was an issue that would make them plop down $10 and go to the theater. I obviously tried to make an entertaining film. Let me put it this way: I didn't want to make a film where people sat there with their eyes closed, but I did want to make a film that opened people's minds in an entertaining way. And a number of people were scared by it -- they said, "I hear it's a great film, but I hear there are a lot of gross scenes." I tried to avoid those -- in my mind, I thought I'd taken them all out.

So I think that (an Oscar) would help get more people to see it, and more people seeing it will help to affect change on a policy level. I think we have to attack this situation on two levels: with the food itself -- you know, they say you vote three times a day with breakfast, lunch and dinner -- but we also have to vote to change policy. And I think this could do it. Whenever there are food safety regulations like Kevin's Law (a bill that would allow the USDA to enforce restrictions on food processing plants in violation of health and safety laws, named after the son of food safety advocate Barbara Kowalcyk, who died of tainted meat; Barbara is interviewed in the film), which looks like it's going through -- "Food, Inc." is playing into the food movement and helped to create a number of changes.

-- Paul Gaita

Photos: Robert Kenner (top); image from "Food, Inc."; Joel Salatin in "Food, Inc." Credit: Magnolia Pictures.

More from The Circuit:

The Contender Q&A: Jackie Earle Haley

The Contender Q&A: Garret Dillahunt

The Contender Q&A: Gregory Nicotero

The Contender Q&A: Anna Kendrick