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Q&A: ROBERT KENNER, director of Food, Inc.

An online exclusive

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Friday, June 26, 2009

By Steve Dollar


In the wake of eye-opening exposés like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Slow Food movement hero Michael Pollan’s thoughtful study The Omnivore’s Dilemma, director Robert Kenner explores America’s industrial food chain in Food, Inc. Kenner tracks the flaws of large-scale chicken and cattle production, among other facets of the industry, and celebrates the virtues of small organic farms and educated consumerism. Much of the personal testimony is harrowing (a mother who lobbies on behalf of her young son who died from E. coli poisoning), and occasionally it’s inspiring (hardcore organic guru Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm). Kenner chatted by phone from Los Angeles about the challenges he had in making the documentary, and the challenge it makes to its viewers.


Stop Smiling
: Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, who have become foodie superstars, appear in and contribute to your film. What did you feel you had to add to the conversation they started?

Robert Kenner
: I was ultimately interested in figuring out where our food comes from, who grows it, and talking to all the different players. I wanted to make a film where we talked to everybody, like my last film, Two Days in October, about Vietnam in 1967. I found I learned more from people whose point of view I differed with. But I found that agri-business had no interest in letting us in the kitchen or even talking to us about how our food is grown. They really want to not have us thinking about this food system. Which is a brand-new food system. The illusion that the food still comes from farms with picket fences is a myth they are really invested in keeping alive.

The thing that really shocked me the most was when I went with Eric Schlosser to Sacramento. We were going to talk about whether cloned food should be labeled. Not whether they should sell cloned food. We weren’t even talking about whether it was good or bad. I didn’t even know there was cloned meat.

SS: I’m sure I’ve had some!

RK: When that person said to me, “We don’t think it’s in the consumer’s interest for us to label our meat as cloned. We think it’s too confusing for the consumer.” That sent chills up my spine. The idea that we are being denied access to information about where our food is grown and what’s in it. They do this time and time again, whether it’s GMOs [genetically modified organisms] or country of origin. When you go to buy a car, they list the information on the window.

SS: But isn’t the general perception that consumers are gaining the edge on this?

RK: I’m optimistic. We are going to change it. The tobacco analogy is a good one. There were really powerful companies, with tons of money, totally tied into the government, who were putting out misleading information about the health effects of their product. We’re beginning to learn the truth about the safety of the food we’re eating. If those cracks are to appear, there’s going to be a very strong movement towards getting healthy food. It’s going to be led by mothers who want to give their children good food.

SS: So even for someone in the industry to come out and deny everything becomes an admission, so it’s better to refuse comment?

RK: Richard Lobb [director of communications] of the National Chicken Council did talk to me. And he said, we grow more chicken on less land for less dollars. That was the best statement he said and I put that in the film. We spend less of our money than at any time for this food we eat. That’s a great thing.

The problem is, inexpensive food is coming at an incredibly high price. I’d read Michael’s book, I’d read Eric’s book, but I didn’t realize that high cost. Like that family in Baldwin Park, Ca., in the film, the lower-income family, and how bad it was for them with their father with diabetes. That food is very inexpensive, but they’re having to spend $400–$500 every month on medicine for their father’s diabetes. And I have to believe that food is as responsible for his diabetes as anything else. One out of every three Americans born after the year 2000 is going to have early onset diabetes. It’s an incredible epidemic that is going to bankrupt the health care system.

SS: Monsanto (which dominates the genetically modified seed market) is a major villain in the film, though the company never put a spokesperson in front of your camera. I’m curious if you’ve heard from them since Food, Inc. was finished?

RK: Monsanto now has a website dedicated to our film, and they’ve started to go on radio shows after I appear. They say, “We never declined to participate.” Technically, they’re correct. We spent months answering their questions. We sent them a list of everybody in the film, with one exception, because we had to ask permission from everybody. They wanted the phone numbers of everybody so they could talk to them. At a certain point we sent them a letter and said, “We’re wrapping this up. Your lack of response at a certain point will be taken as a ‘No.’” They never responded. Now they say, “We never declined.” It’s typical of the misinformation Monsanto is putting out.

SS: We get to see what Eric Schlosser likes to eat for his favorite meal, which is a big greasy cheeseburger. What about you? What’s your guilty gastronomic pleasure?

RK: I’m not as much of a burger man as Eric is. The hard thing for me is when I travel and get hungry, I find myself breaking down and eating industrialized food. And I now catch myself saying,"I don’t know if I really want to eat that." I’m trying to use more will power.

SS: Organic veggie pita coming right up!

RK: Yeah, yeah. I eat a lot of good food.

 

 

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