Food Inc. (2008) Movie Synopsis and Review

Shining a Light on the U.S. Food System

'Food, Inc.' Los Angeles Premiere
Food, Inc. WireImage / Getty Images

"Food, Inc.", the new documentary film directed by Robert Kenner, opens with the sentence, "The way we eat has changed more dramatically in the past 50 years than in the previous 10,000 years." Later in the film, it's pointed out that one of the important changes in what we eat is that our food supply has been flooded with sugar and other refined carbohydrates. "Food, Inc." is about how these and other changes came to be, and little-known things about the state of our present food system.

Weaving a Web of Stories About our Food System

Why this story is little-known is a story in itself. In a dramatic change from 100 years ago, we don't know where our food is coming from -- which is exactly how the large food corporations want it to be.

Narrated mostly by Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food), "Food, Inc." starts from several places on the "food web." We see the points of view of farmers, food workers, and consumers, among others. It looks at many issues involved with food production, such as worker safety, food safety, and food labeling. One strength of the movie is that instead of just talking about it, we go right out into the fields with the farmers, into the grocery store with a poor family trying to put food on the table, and into the feedlots and slaughterhouses (sometimes having to resort to hidden cameras).

Incidentally, although it's true that the movie shows animals in distressing circumstances, please don't use this as a reason not to see the movie. You can always close your eyes during those parts if you need to (though I advise that you don't).

Large Corporations Seizing Power and Consolidating the System

The movie points out that almost the entire food system of the United States is now in the hands of very few companies.

For example, in 1970, six companies produced 20% to 25% of the meat consumed in the U.S. Now, four companies produce 80% of the meat. Where there used to be thousands of slaughterhouses in the country, now there are 13. One problem coming from this is that when something goes wrong, for example, contamination, it affects an enormous amount of food. Another is that food is being transported greater and greater distances. It turns out that the more centralized our food system is, the more vulnerable and fragile it is.

The film also focuses on how the consolidation of food production is affecting farmers. One chicken farmer wanted to continue to farm in an "old-fashioned way" where light gets into the chicken houses. She was cut off from earning a living raising chickens. Another farmer described how the large companies keep their farmers in debt, with very little actual income, by piling on more and more requirements.

Some companies, such as Monsanto, have systematically eliminated most of the farmers who are their competition by means of expensive litigation. In this way, they have gained control over 80% of the U.S. soybean crop in just 11 years.

Large government subsidies for corn, wheat, and soybeans help continue the system, so the food corporations put key people into positions in the government, including the FDA.

Thus, we have vast amounts of cheap, fast, carbs available, but expensive broccoli.

The Positive Side And the Power We Wield

But this film is not just doom and gloom. All over the U.S., people are starting to make changes, and the movie makes a big point of the fact that "we vote for the food system we want, three times a day." These changes in consumer demand have, for example, gotten organic foods into Walmart. (We meet one farmer meeting with Walmart executives - the farmer cheerily admits that she's been boycotting Walmart for years.)

One farmer I really liked was Joel Salatin, whose Polyface Farm is featured in the book The Omnivore's Dilemma.

I wish the filmmaker had shown even more of the system he uses of rotating his cattle over his land, followed a few days later by his portable chicken houses, to the benefit of the animals and the land.

The film finishes with a lot of steps we can take, from supporting our local food economies to writing our Congresspeople. We are far from powerless in this situation, but if we don't seize that power, the current food production system (which is having negative effects all over the world) will just continue to grow.

Often when a movie is described as "important" many people run the other way. But if you've read this far, you are probably someone who really does want to know where the food you put in your body comes from. And, truly, it's hard for me to think of many things more important than that.

Continue Reading