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Lifting the Veil on Industrial Food

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We're living in a "lifting the veil" moment.

From getting a grip on how we arrived at this global financial crisis to revelations about the Bush administration's legal wrangling to allow waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay, not to mention calls for further investigations (and prosecutions), the veil is being lifted everywhere.

There's a lot of talk about "lifting the veil" in the new documentary film Food Inc. Here, the filmmakers want to reveal to the audience how industrial food makes it from the farm to your table and show audiences the stark difference between the idealized images of farming on food packing and the serious problems of modern industrial food production, ranging from ethical issues in the treatment of animals to fair labor practices, food safety crises, and the increasing health problems due to change in diets towards carbohydrates influenced by the business of food.

It's all a little depressing to watch. But, while the muckraking film clearly has an agenda for change, it's not overbearing. The tone is cool, not hot. With excellent cinematography and colorful graphics, the presentation is more Al Gore than Michael Moore. Sort of a gastronomic An Inconvient Truth if you will.

If you are familiar with the work of authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser (who both appear as talking heads in the movie), you may not learn much of anything particularly new. The film rehashes the (compelling) arguments these authors have made concerning how government policy has favored "cheap food," driving the food industry toward producing the lowest common denominator in terms of nutrition, negative environmental impact, and health risk.

But, to use a cliche, a picture does speak a thousand words, and so while it may be one thing to read about factory farming, it's another thing to see footage of Matrix-like chicken processing plants where thousands of fuzzy cute baby chickens are hatched and pulled from steel drawers and and sorted and stamped like mail through a system of conveyor belts and chutes. It's as marvelous as it is disturbing. And when the filmmakers are not allowed to see inside the houses where chickens are grown -- the curtains are pulled down to keep the daylight out -- what we don't see is even more haunting.

Unfortunately, the film is terribly one-sided, but only because it seems that all of the corporations featured in the film -- Monsanto, Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue -- declined to be interviewed. They did this at their peril, at least cinematically, as they remain faceless while the filmmakers interview a range of sympathetic farmers who are severely restricted by the heavy influence of big agriculture. A particularly insightful segment deals with a farmer whose dwindling "seed saving" business is under attack from lawyers from Monsanto seeking to protect their patented seed strains.

But, it's not all bad news. The film does get a bit of uplift and some humor from the farmer Joel Salatin, a charismatic iconoclast and true believer in traditional methods of raising livestock and working outside of the industrial system. His corporate counterpart is the yogurt giant Stoneyfield Farm, which has managed to carve out some success using organic practices. It's depicted as a model for making changes in the business of food. In a late rally, Pollan suggests, on a positive note, that however daunting it may seem, change is possible, comparing the challenge of transforming the food industry to the success of anti-smoking advocates in changing the tobacco industry.

The film is very effective at weaving together a complicated message about ethics, health, and the environment, but I don't know whether audiences will be emboldened or just dejected and head back to the snack bar for the haze of a new veil made of salty popcorn with fake butter and high fructose corn syrup-spiked soda.


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