It wasn’t an ingredient many people thought was in their food. But reporter and author Eric Schlosser kicked open the kitchen door with his eye-opening book “Fast Food Nation,” an exposé on the fast-food industry, which stunned readers with an unsettling revelation from one of its characters: “There’s shit in the meat.”
Whether you read the repulsive line in Schlosser’s text or heard it from a fast-food executive in Richard Linklater’s 2006 film version (then later witnessed why a shitless burger is impossible after cow stomachs and other meaty parts commingle on slaughterhouse conveyer belts) chances are you didn’t end the night at Mickey D’s.
In the new documentary “Food Inc.,” filmmaker Robert Kenner explains why a little fecal matter in your quarter-pounder is the least of your problems when it comes to the foodstuff you’re devouring on a daily basis. Kenner says it’s not only the fast-food establishments that are serving up their fair share of gag-inducing contaminants; it’s the entire food industry.
“I was moved by Eric’s book,” Kenner said. “But at the same time I began to wonder, ‘We have three meals a day. Where does all that food come from?’ I thought it would be interesting to explore into the entire system and find out who actually makes our food.”
According the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, six people died and nearly 500 people became ill from the nationwide salmonella outbreak in peanut butter last year. In 2006, three people died while another 200 people got sick from an E. coli strain found in spinach. In April, it was pistachios that were a cause for concern when salmonella was traced in a million pounds of nuts out of California, some of which could have ended up in everything from ice cream to trail mix. Most recently, batches of Nestle Toll House cookie dough have been recalled after E. coli was found in the product. Seventy people have been infected this month. According ot the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 73,000 people get sick from E. coli poisoning and 40,000 from salmonella.
During his journey, Kenner went from cornfields to kill floors to research the reason why the food people eat is making them sick. It’s the myth of an agrarian America, Kenner says, that is blinding the everyday consumer from realizing the actual unappetizing origins of the groceries they’re bringing into their homes.
“People want to continue to believe in the illusion that our food comes from a farm with a white picket fence and a red barn when, in fact, it comes from these huge mega-factories,” Kenner said. “We are living in this pastoral fantasy where we’ve grown to accept things that don’t have taste. We’ve been so bombarded with foods filled with sugar, salt, and fat we’ve forgotten what natural food is supposed to taste like.”
While Food Inc. delves deeper into the entire food industry than other films including “Fast Food Nation” and “Super Size Me,” which focus more on dollar-burger chain restaurants, Kenner agrees that the major food problems of today stem from the multi-million dollar fast food establishments. Food manufacturers relax standards to keep the chains happy because they’re the largest purchasers of everything from ground beef to chicken to apples. That means companies like Tyson inject chickens with chemicals to produce plumper breasts, and no one in the industry has much incentive to stop them.
“The whole system has become industrialized,” Kenner said. “Things look the same, but they’re fundamentally different. Our food has been transformed without us knowing it. The tomatoes may look bright red, but they don’t have taste or nutritional value. Basically, we have very high-processed food poisoning us.”
It’s not only the E. coli-tainted spinach, salmonella peanut butter, or ethylene-flavored tomatoes that are causing health issues. Researchers say a majority of the products found on the shelves of your local grocery store are edible science experiments. Take Steve Ettlinger’s 2007 book “Twinkie, Deconstructed” in which the food writer uncovers the 39 ingredients that make up the spongy, cream-filled snack cakes. These include calcium sulfate and Chinese petroleum.
“Read the labels,” Kenner said. “Those words on a lot of those packages didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago.”
Besides Hostess and Little Debbie playing mad scientist, other companies are just as guilty of engineering fake food. According to “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” by Michael Pollan, who also wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and is featured in “Food Inc.,” breaking food down into its simplest form isn’t as easy as it was a few decades ago.
“The good news is that, to the carrot eater, it doesn’t matter,” Pollan writes. “That’s the great thing about eating foods as compared with nutrients: You don’t need to fathom a carrot’s complexity in order to reap its benefits.”
Kenner wishes filming “Food Inc.” was as simple as the elemental makeup of carrot. But from the start of production, he was turned away by companies who didn’t think it would be beneficial to go on camera to defend themselves from his investigation.
“I found all these people in this system, but most of the big industrial players did not want to talk to me,” Kenner said. “I really hoped we could have had a conversation with the big businesses. I wasn’t expecting the incredible stonewalling that I got. I realized they don’t want us thinking about where our food is grown and what’s in it.”
Unlike “Fast Food Nation,” Kenner wasn’t interested in showing the “gross food processing” side of the story (there are a few chicken deaths, but nothing too disturbing). Instead, he basically wanted to understand how food is made and what people are putting in their bodies as sustenance.
“I didn’t want to try to turn people’s stomachs by showing them scenes of animal abuse or anything like that,” Kenner said. “I was more interested in turning people’s minds. I’m not Michael Moore going into this with a total preconceived point of view. Maybe this is a lesson that these companies have to learn – not to hide behind the veil. It’s better to have transparency.”
Until that happens, Kenner, who says he’s not a vegetarian but always reads labels and tries to buy local and organic food whenever possible, considers people’s grocery shopping habits an invaluable way to voice their disappointment with the choices corporations and agra-businesses are offering. Refusing to buy tomatoes when they’re not in season, for example, could start a food revolution.
“Many of these farmers would love to be growing good food for us,” Kenner said. “They know industrial corn is not good, but that’s what consumers are asking for when they go to the store. We have to realize that shopping is like voting. We get to vote three times a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner – to make a change in the system.”