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Robert Kenner

Q&A with the Food, Inc. director

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/1/2009

Editor's Note: A shorter version of this interview appeared in our July 1, 2009 print edition.

Filmmaker Robert Kenner is no stranger to controversial subjects. He won an Emmy for his 2005 'Two Days in October," an episode in PBS' long-running The American Experience, which examined the domestic response to the Vietnam War during the turbulent fall of 1967. Kenner runs into a even more volatile subject with his new documentary, Food, Inc, an investigate peek into America's big agribusinesses and meat and poultry industries. City Paper spoke to Kenner by phone about labeling for cloned meats, trying to interview big agribusiness representatives, and why people should be able to know what's in the food they eat.

City Paper: How did you come to make this documentary? As in, when did you first start to learn about and understand how much we do and don't know about our corporate food industry?
Robert Kenner: I read Eric Schlosserís book, Fast Food Nation, and at some point I was thinking of doing a film about that but when Super Size Me [came out], you know, everybody thought that was the documentary on his book. But I became interested in doing a film on where does our food come from? Whatís in it? How does it get to our table? Itís kind of a miracle. On one level we spend less for our food than at any time in history but at the same time this low-cost food is coming to us at a very high cost that you donít see when you go to the checkout counter and I thought that would become an interesting conversation.

Unfortunately, many of the agribusiness that—there are very few corporations that control this system and they didnít want to be talking about it. And I think that they wanted to perpetuate this myth that our food still comes from small farms with white picket fences. But ultimately they were not happy to engage in the conversation. I was disappointed, because I thought that was important. Iím not Michael Moore making a preconceived documentary and when anyone did appear I think we more than gave them a good, fair shake. The National Chicken Council, we have them saying we grow more chickens on less land for fewer dollars--thatís a good argument and you want to include it. Or Wal-Mart—I was shocked when they came in.

CP: So how did you start? Did you start with activists/experts such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser? Did you try get big agribusiness to talk? Where do you begin with something this enormous and sprawling?
RK: Eric was one of the people when I started out but I wanted to make a different film. I wanted to hear about it from the people who make our food. So I called up all those corporations—far more than you see in the film, probably another 40 or 50, that declined. I called up dozens and dozens of chicken farmers and hog farmers but people who work in this business turned out to be scared to talk to me. Food turned out to be a rather subversive subject and, certainly, a rather litigious subject, which I didn't realize when we started. To me, the big shock in the making of this film was when I go to that cloning hearing about whether to label cloned meat and, ultimately, I was really surprised when that representative from the meat industry said, 'I think it's too confusing to give the consumers that kind of information.' And I thought, this happens time and again—genetically modified organisms or rBST, which is the growth hormone for dairy cows—not only do you not get the information but they'll sue you if you say their product doesn't contain that information. And I thought, if we live in a free society with a free market, to make your choices it's got to be based on information and we're being denied that information.

CP: Yeah, that was one of those moments in the movie where you can't help but feel that this company has nothing but contempt for its customers.
RK: I thought that was so surprising and it leads to the veggie libel laws—they've learned from tobacco that they can sue you if you endanger their products or disparage a food product. And I didn't know about that when I started making this project and it might have been intimidating if I had. I wish I had something like that for filmmakers.

CP: Have you or the movie come under legal action because of its contents? Has it screened to anything resembling anger or outrage or opposition or anything like that?
RK: Well, so far, we've had no issues—I think there's been some concern about the publicity—but [big agribusinesses have] certainly gone out of their way to try to manage their stories. There are web sites out there now and they try to follow me whenever possible on the radio. Though there are other companies—like Cargill, which is a large, large producer—that just came out and said, 'Listen, we welcome the conversation.' And I thought that was a great response. And they also said, 'We think industrial food has a place in this and we think there are a lot of solutions,' And I'm thinking, I totally agree with them. That's what I was hoping for when we started to make this film—just some level of dialog and we can disagree about it. But the fact is it's an important conversation to be had.

CP: Did some of the agribusinesses you try to speak to—Tyson, Perdue, Monsanto, etcetera—give you outright "Nos" for interview requests or did they just ignore as if you didn't even exist?
RK: Oh, no, they talked forever, Monsanto—they've gone on their web site and said they've never declined to be in the film. And the fact is we had four to five months of conversations on the telephone and there were 10 back and forth e-mails. We gave them the names of who was in the film with permission of the characters. We told them what we were talking about. And then they asked for phone numbers. Do you give phone numbers of all the people [you interview]? We actually gave them phone numbers. Then we said, 'You need to respond by a certain time because we have to finish this film and a lack of response will be taken as a no.' And they never responded to that e-mail. And then they say, 'We never declined.' I guess—at the suggestion of my lawyer—I'd say that's misleading. I would have used other words.

CP: Then how did you go about finding out about what big agribusiness doesn't want people to find out about?
RK: The fact is, it's there, we just don't know about it. I think the American consumer is very knowledgeable and will make choices. I'm not out to tell people that they shouldn't eat fast food or processed foods—that's what the industry is saying of Food, Inc. around the world, that you wouldn't be able to eat these things. That's not true, but I do think we should have the right to know about it. And I also think that people say, 'If you see Food, Inc. you'll never eat again,' and I'm hoping that people will become empowered when they start seeing it and they'll start realizing that there are a lot of great [food] choices and we should start embracing those great choices. There are great things to go eat out there. We're not going to be perfect, but hopefully we'll become conscious of this stuff.

CP: It ends with a fairly positive note, that consumer power can change corporate practices: Do you really think so? I ask not to be a cynic but because the corporate flow-chart the movie creates is so vast, the sums of money so large, the people with their hands in it so powerful, that it can feel a little daunting, such that sure, maybe American consumers can get Wal-Mart to stock organic products, but the skeptic in me thinks that just means corporate food industry will acquire smaller organic farms and the like and take their high-fructose corn-syrup genetically modified foodstuffs to, like, Africa and South America or something.
RK:I think cigarette tobacco is a great model. There are a few corporations with incredible amounts of money, well-connected to government, who put out tons of misinformation about the safety of their product, they probably paid for studies that said cigarettes weren't bad for you—but when we started to find out how bad they were, we put through a law that said you have to label what's in the cigarettes. I'm thinking one day we'll have to label what's in our food. And I think as people realize that we don't know what this is doing to us and that there are all these other great options, we're going to go to those other options. You know, we like our cheap food, but when we realize how much it's really costing us, it's going to be easier to go spend more. And, hopefully, we'll be able to change the subsidies so that good food doesn't cost more. The fact that we're paying tax dollars to support that's making us sick feels wrong to me.

CP: I read Fast Food Nation and Omnivore's Dilemma and over the past decade have become highly aware of what I put in my body and where it comes from, but I'm also a college-educated member of the pseudo-progressive urban middle-class, so I've always kind of been the target market for this information and its accompanying dietary practices. How can—or how would you like—to see the information in your movie reach an audience that is already intimately involved in the industry that the movie covers?
RK: That group in Baldwin Park [California] who are being totally affected by this—this is the lower-income family—we had a screening down there and people were so upset that this is happening to them. And a reporter from the LA Times—I wasn't there—wrote me and said 'It felt like the beginning of a movement.' I think if we can start to change the National School Lunch Program, if we can start to change subsidies, if we start to give the government the power of recall of food that makes us sick, it's all going to start to change. And if we can let people know that the amount of sugar, salt, and fat that's in this processed food, it's just not good for us and ultimately this cheap food is costing us too much money.

CP: What, if anything, has happened since you finished the movie that you would have included in it?
RK: I'm really hopeful. First of all, we have a new administration. And we basically screened this film for our new administration and they basically said, if there's a movement, we'll help change it. So I think we need to help start that movement. As Eric Schlosser says, when he wrote Fast Food Nation there was nobody out there thinking about this food. Now there are so many different groups out there thinking about it and it's growing. When they did An Inconvenient Truth it was 30 years after [the first] Earth Day. We're eight years after Eric's book, so it's a growing movement and it's being led by mothers who want to keep their kids healthy.

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