Warning: The article you are about to read could be considered libelous in several states.
Robert Kenner's Food, Inc., which screened last weekend at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham and is scheduled for national release in June, is a damning look at a food system that treats its animals, farmers and workers little better than the commodities of corn, wheat and soy that form the basis of most foodstuffs lining grocery store shelves.
It's unlikely the content will surprise foodies already schooled in the inhumanities of the food-industrial complex. Yet the film makes an earnest effort to bring light to places where the sun literally never shines—such as the interior of chicken houses run for poultry giants Purdue and Tyson's—and helps dispel the persistent myths cultivated by the food industry that what we eat comes from bucolic family farms.
Carole Morison could shatter that notion. Filmmakers asked dozens of chicken growers to show them the houses, which can hold up to 40,000 birds. Morison was the first to say yes. This seems a prodigious act of bravery after viewers see how Tyson pressured another grower to ban cameras from his farm, despite his initial willingness to allow them.
"I understand why farmers don't want to talk, because the company can do what it wants to do as far as pay goes, but it's just gotten to the point that it's not right what is going on," Morison told the filmmakers.
In 13 states, free-speech protections don't apply equally to critics of the food industry as they do to other people. In some cases, citizens reporting on the abuses of the industrial agriculture system can be sued for ostensibly cutting into the food companies' profits.
This was Kenner's first film about food, and he said he had to constantly "self-censor" in a way he wasn't accustomed to. He also spent an extraordinary amount on attorneys' fees for this film compared to others he has made, said Kenner, who has produced and directed a half-dozen features, mostly for TV.
Here's what Kenner's cameras capture: chickens so dense the floor is invisible; the smell of fecal matter so overwhelming that Kenner and the camera crew cannot breathe without masks; hidden-camera images of workers rounding up the birds for slaughter, kicking the animals like soccer balls and literally throwing them into pens. The segment ends with Morison cleaning up dead birds and using a tractor to dump them in a pile.
Relative to other industry poultry houses, these chickens have it good: They're exposed to sunlight and ventilation through windows because Morison uses the old style of housing. Poultry companies are pushing growers to go to windowless houses. Morison's contract was not renewed when she refused to "upgrade" to such quarters.
Both Purdue and Tyson's declined to be interviewed for the film.
Despite being difficult to watch at times, the movie doesn't deliver what audiences seem to fear from such information: a fear of ever eating again. It avoids this by offering up a more desirable vision of a food system that treats humans, animals and their ecosystems with reverence.
The chickens on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley spend their days outdoors foraging for bugs on a farm every bit as pastoral as the images falsely cultivated by agricultural conglomerates in order to sell chickens and eggs raised in the opposite conditions.
(Salatin is the farmer and food advocate made famous by author Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.)
Salatin's chickens die outdoors, too, a fact the U.S. Department of Agriculture tried to use as a reason to shut down his on-farm processing, even though he says an independent lab found significantly less bacteria on his birds compared to chicken at the grocery store.
"If I can make a chicken that's as clean as Tyson's can on the clothesline in my backyard—if it's clean, it's clean—who cares how much stainless steel, infrastructure, concrete, rebar and parking lots are wrapped around that bird?" Salatin asked in an interview with the Indy.
Salatin said the question is whether the growing fear of industrialized food will result in another layer of regulations or in meaningful change in how food is raised.
"It scares me to death when I hear the food policy wonks saying we need a bunch more regulation, because I know by the time it runs through the sieve of the industrial food cartel and gets implanted on the ground, it actually puts community-based, local food systems out of business," he said.
Ultimately, how a society raises and distributes its food is the clearest manifestation of that culture's values, a point upon which Salatin reflected in the film, igniting the packed theater into roaring applause during last week's screening:
"A culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic, inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures within the community of nations with the same type of distain and disrespect and controlling-type mentality."