New movie Food, Inc. dissects our dysfunctional food system

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Among people who care about where their food comes from and how its provenance affects the daily lives of everyone in the world, there are some fundamental givens: the ills of factory-farming animals; the insidious prevalence of corn-based products in almost everything we eat; the consolidation of our food supply under just a few corporate entities; the consequences when organic goes corporate; the looming specter of Monsanto; and the causes of the West's diabetes epidemic. Everyone's already up on all that, right?

Considering the growing market share of fast-food dollar menus, maybe not. That's where the newish movie Food, Inc. comes in handy, with its glossy and shallow take on the usual suspects in America's maimed relationship with food. Think of it as the greatest hits of our dysfunctional food supply, complete with legends Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) back to reprise their roles as the last decade's most influential food figures.

As such, Food, Inc. works just fine, providing the less knowledgeable but concerned eaters out there with a broad outline of what's wrong with food. Whenever Pollan or Schlosser appear on the big screen — often sitting casually in a quaint kitchen with a prop glass of iced tea at hand — they sum up what they wrote hundreds of pages about, a Reader's Digest condensed version of three of the best food books of our generation.

That folksy chattin' is interspersed with slick graphics, interviews with farmers, consumers and activists, and the requisite footage of animal — and human — mistreatment. It's there that Food, Inc.'s attempt at more widespread appeal hits the mark.

Despite the ominous music and decidedly manipulative framing, the movie uses a subdued hand when it comes to shock imagery. You'll still find workers kicking chickens, forklifts shoving diseased cattle, and the impersonal, assembly-line moment of death for pigs, but only in very brief clips. Food, Inc. doesn't want to risk losing audience just to pound home a message.

Until, that is, a segment about a food safety advocate who lost her 2-and-a-half-year-old son to E. coli from tainted beef. Instead of subtly linking her loss to the viewer, the tragedy is relentlessly pounded home through a long segment of video footage of the boy accompanied by his mom's tearful description of his final, heartbreaking days. It's gruesome and affecting, sure, but not entirely to the point.

But what is that point, anyway? Like Pollan and Schlosser's books, Food, Inc. makes it easy to see the problems inherent in our current system. And, like those books, it treads very lightly when offering solutions.

One possible path the movie explores is that of Gary Hirshberg, former food activist and hippie, now CEO of organic giant Stonyfield Farm. His is the middle way, where education and consumer demand drive the market to provide better products, like Wal-Mart's big push in recent years to focus on organic foodstuffs. You'll notice, however, that Pollan's gleaming talking head doesn't appear during this segment to recap his chapters detailing the serious problems with large-scale organic farming.

Maybe the solution is Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia and the hero of Pollan's Dilemma, if there is one. He's the only person in the entire movie who seems natural, as he leads an abbreviated tour of his farm for the cameras, happily slitting chickens' throats and pulling innards in the open Shenandoah breeze. Here, we finally see a farm, and a food supply chain, that works. If you want to pay a little more. If you live near his farm and are willing to drive in. If he doesn't sell out of his product.

By the end of the film, Food, Inc. is reduced to the sort of simple, demand-side solution that Pollan outlined in his post-Dilemma work, In Defense of Food, with rules for better eating floating across a black screen at the end. Take two local, organic aspirin and call me in the morning.

For all of its faults, though, Food, Inc. does cram enough easily digestible information into its brief 90 minutes to take a place as the best primer on the endemic problems of the modern food system. If you've read Pollan and Schlosser, follow the news and think about what you eat, you won't find anything new here.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't go see it, however. Preferably with a half-dozen of your friends and family who aren't quite as aware.

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