STEELE INTERVIEWS: Robert Kenner [FOOD Inc.]

Do you know where your food really comes from? Food Inc. director Robert Kenner wants you to know. He sets out across America to find the answers. He interviews Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan. Food Inc. will open your eyes and mind, may break your heart, and will definitely churn your stomach at least once or twice.

According to Food Inc., Americans want food bigger, faster, fatter, and cheaper. Why not? Americans like big things: look at gas-guzzling SUVs on the roads; the popularity of venti iced lattes; and extra large portions of food. The average American eats 200 lbs. of meat a year. [Gross] Americans like fast things: everyone is constantly on a cell phone; IMing; Twittering; no one wants to wait in line; everything is now, now, now. And fatter? According to the CDC, 34% of adults and 17% of children [ages 6-17] are obese. One in three people born after 2000 will develop early onset diabetes. And of course everyone is looking for things that are cheaper. Organic lettuce is $4.00/head and a can of peas is $1.00? What are you going to buy?

There are 47,000 products available in a modern American supermarket. The image supermarkets use to sell food is of the farming industry or “Agrarian American” with messages of “farm fresh” or images of farms, cows, pastures, picket fences. When most of the eggs, milk, cheese, and meat sold in a supermarket are mass produced factory-style. In the film, Carole Morrison, Perdue “chicken farm” owner says: “This isn’t farming. This is just mass-production like an assembly line.” The average chicken farmer makes $18,000 a year, yet invests over $500,000. The food industry has become corporate run and not about the consumer.

The FDA and USDA have less control than before due to the influence of a few mega-corporations that run everything. In 2006, the FDA conducted only 9,164 food safety inspections. Companies place “profit ahead of consumer health.” Food is overly processed. Animals are corn fed. Farm-raised fish (salmon, tilapia, and tuna) are fed corn. The food we eat is not that healthy. There’s engineering of food. There’s less regulation. Some food may contain pesticides, hormones, or other synthetic additives that no one should be ingesting. Bacteria easily get into food products and inspection processes have become lapse. More often there are incidences of food-borne illnesses in the news.

E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks have become frequent in the U.S. In 2007, there were 73, 000 people sickened by E. coli. In the film is a devastating story of Barbara Kowalcyk’s son who died of an E. coli infection 12 days after eating hamburgers. The FDA recalled the meat 16 days after his death. She is now a food safety advocate.

As a vegetarian and someone who mostly shops at Whole Foods, watching this film was rather painful for me. I recognize that everyone has a choice even though I think meat is gross and vile. Watch those chickens being killed and immediately go out and eat some chicken and come back and leave a comment. The truth of the matter is though, how much do you want to and can you in actuality pay for food? The process to get organic food to be reasonably priced is going to take a long time. I often have to shop at three stores to get everything I need and, more importantly, can afford. When the cost of food is raised, people give up savings or spending on healthcare or education. [I also suggest you take the time to watch the stellar documentary King Corn]

Food Inc. is not an attack on farmers but on the loss of consumer rights and an expose on the big business model that has been bringing down food industry for decades. Sure, it is mostly one-sided. Kenner claims he had no “agenda” or preconceived notion going into the filming of this documentary but I don’t believe it. The message is clear: eat organic. Do see Food Inc. You may cringe a bit but the message is vital to the health of our nation.

I sat down to talk to Food Inc. director Robert Kenner earlier in the week.

Amy Steele [AS]: So what kind of audience are you looking to attract with this film?

Robert Kenner [RK]: I didn’t make this for the convinced. I’m not looking to preach to the choir. I’m really hoping to broaden the circle. I didn’t start out to make a film with a preconceived point of view. I really just wanted to do an examination of our food system. And I just thought it thought it would be interesting to talk to all sorts of different people who are involved unfortunately most of the ag [agriculture] industry did not want to talk to me, did not want us to know where our food is grown and what’s in it and that was for me the shock.

When I go to Sacramento to a hearing about cloned animals and that industry representative said, “I think it’s against the consumer’s interest to label this because it would only confuse them.” That gave me goose bumps. I’m thinking, “Wait a second. If you have a good product, aren’t you supposed to advertise it? Not try to hide it? Whether it’s GMOs [genetically modified organism] or RBSTs [growth hormones to get cows to produce more milk] for dairy cattle or Trans fats, the industry will go to great lengths to stop you from getting the information about what is in your food. Consumers have power to change what they are getting but we’re being denied the information. If we want to have a free market and freedom to choose things, it should be based on information. So I realize this is a film that goes beyond food. Ultimately this low cost food is costing way too much money.

AS: How do you get the people who will benefit most from seeing the film to see the film?

RK: First of all, all of us will benefit. The problem is we’re subsidizing food with food that is making us sick. Therefore there’s inexpensive food we can buy but we pay for it on a bunch of levels. We’re paying for it with our tax dollars to subsidize it. We’re paying for it with our healthcare dollars as well and it’s going to be a fortune. So even though the food is cheap when you go to the check out counter, it’s really very expensive.

AS: Apples can be $1 an apple.

RK: If we stop subsidizing unhealthy food it will help bring down the cost of good food and it will save us in health care. Here’s a fact for you. [writer’s note: I cannot find Kenner’s date of birth so I cannot do any “fact checking” here] When I was a kid, food cost us about 18% of our paychecks; today it cost us about 9%. Healthcare cost us about 5% and today it cost us about 18%. In aggregate, our costs have gone up and I think there’s a real direct relationship between healthcare and food. So we really have to fix the system and I thought the tobacco analogy was a good one. There are a few powerful corporations with unbelievable amounts of money, totally connected to government, who are putting out misleading information about the safety of these products. I think when we start to understand what this food does to us we’re going to change the system. So I’m very optimistic. It is going to change even though we’re up against incredibly powerful forces. The consumers are also more powerful than they are. And that was one of the empowering things that you learned. You get to vote three times a day. But we also have to vote with our dollars to make it an even playing field. So how to we get the food to Baldwin Park and places like that in the movie. That’s the challenge but I think that’s also with our votes. I think we have to create a fair system.

AS: So. The patented genes with Monsanto. Can you explain that a bit more? Are they the only company that makes soy beans?

RK: Monsanto is amazing. They’re a company that practiced radiation on animals in the 40s and 50s. They invented Agent Orange in the 60s and 70s and now they’re the ones who provide us our food. They are looking to own seeds that they can use their chemicals on. They are looking for ways of selling fertilizer.

AS: But there are people who do soybeans without their seeds?

RK: Very few.

AS: [thinking. great the majority of the protein in my diet. Good thing I love quinoa]

RK: And they’re putting people out of business who don’t use theirs and that’s the problem. They’ve gained control. They own our food. This is all about anti-trust. How could this go on in our country? I’m so amazed.

AS: Even when you went to that organic market and that guy was pointing out that Kashii is owned by Kellogg and…

RK: It’s all a consolidated system. A lot of people feed into it but there’s a bottle neck because there are very few corporations that control it.

AS: So even with the USDA and FDA, they’ve lost control and the corporations have more control of the food industry?

RK: Well there’s that woman whose son died of eating a hamburger. The horrible part was the meat that they knew had killed her son stayed on the shelf for 16 days after he died because the USDA did not have the power to recall that meat. I didn’t know that.

AS: I actually took a class in infectious diseases and it was interesting. Every week the professor had new articles and new things going on with food-borne illnesses when we discussed them.

RK: It’s constant. You think with science it should have gotten but it’s getting worse and that’s the scary part but I’m optimistic and I do believe that we’re going to change. I do believe that food safety laws are going to be one of the first things to change. The FDA will be able to gain control to be able to recall but the USDA recalls meat. The laws are so byzantine and none of them have power but it looks like it’s changing.

AS: How can the average consumer make the changes and get her voice heard?

RK: First of all, shop at Farmer’s Markets whenever possible. Try to buy organic whenever possible. Try to buy local. But when you go to the supermarket, read labels. All those weird words for corn and soy, they are there to make us sick. Ask questions. Let people know we care. It’s going to change things. If you start asking question, start making changes, it’s going to affect that system. It’ll bring the cost down. As we increase the demand for this, it’ll improve the distribution systems.

AS: What are the biggest issues affecting the food industry?

RK: Well for me it was connecting the dots. The food system’s become industrialized. Corn and soy has become subsidized. The corn and soy is making us sick. One in three Americans is going to get diabetes and it’s going to bankrupt healthcare. We’re not allowed to know what’s in our food. Upton Sinclair in The Jungle wrote about a system that is broken and we kept improving the system but then it got worse and worse again. We use illegal immigrants. Think about a society using people who have no rights grow and process their food. There’s something wrong with that. Not only do we treat the animals badly, we treat the workers badly, and we treat the earth just as badly. And we the consumers are treated badly. So it’s broken.

AS: Why should people care about this film?

RK: Because we eat this stuff everyday. We should know what’s in the food. We’re not telling you what to eat but we’re telling you that you should have the right to know what you eat.

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