Interview: Robert Kenner, director of "Food Inc."
Robert Kenner's new film "Food Inc." attempts to lift the veil from the food industry, where food has been great for business, but bad for the American waistline.
Kenner speaks out about his Oscar-nominated documentary, what inspired it, and how he thinks American consumers can break the chains of obesity.
The Yap: Your movie is "Food Inc." What is your movie about?
RK: It's really about how the world of food has been transformed more in the past 30-40 years than it has in the past 10,000, even though it looks pretty much the same, it's really a fundamentally different thing. Cattle used to be grown on the range, now they're being grown on CAFOs-Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Chickens are grown in big warehouses where 30,000 might be stuffed without light or air. Tomatoes and other vegetables are genetically modified and have massive amounts of chemicals sprayed on them.
Ultimately what may have been changed the most is us. We're eating about 300 more calories per day than we used to, and it's making us less healthy. Right now 64% of Americans are overweight or obese. We're becoming transformed by this new strange food that you don't notice when you go to the supermarket that things are different. One of the things we point out in "Food Inc." is that it doesn't have to be this way. It's happened relatively recently. We as consumers have a lot more power.
Our farmers are great farmers and I think they'd rather be growing healthy food than right now, most of our crops are corn and soy and they're being subsidized by the government to grow this corn and soy, and it's 90% of the stuff you buy in the supermarket, and it's partially responsible for what's making us so heavy, because it's filled with sugar.
And it's unfair because our fast food is far less expensive because it's subsizided. And it's everywhere, in the hamburger buns, the french fries, the soft drinks, the ketchup. It's in everything. We're eating so much more sugar, fat and salt than we used to. But there are great solutions to this.
That's what I wanted "Food Inc." to do is offer solutions. We need to create a dialog with what happened. Our food today is very inexpensive. We're paying less out of our paycheck for food than any time in history, which is a great thing. Unfortunately, there are unseen costs in this food, and you don't see it at the checkout counter. One out of every three Americans born after the year 2000 will have early onset diabetes. This is going to cost us a lot of money. One of the families in our documentary can't afford fresh, organic food, but meanwhile they're spending $500 a month on diabetes medicine.
The Yap: So what's the driving force behind this? Who stands to gain from all of this?
RK: Well, the driving force is basically after the second world war, with the start of fast food restaurants, when McDonald's started they didn't want to buy meat from 50 providers, they wanted to buy from 3 or 4 or 5 providers. So all of a sudden you have four producers of meat. I think after 1950-I don't remember exactly, but it's in the film-we had 10 or 12 produce 50%. We had many producers. Today we have 4 on the market. And since the filming ended it looks like we might have 3 producers. With chickens, we have very few producers. But McDonald's wanted to buy from few producers, and potatoes they bought essentially from one guy. They're big buyers, not only meat, chicken, potatoes, but apples, tomatoes, milk, and all of a sudden we have fewer and fewer people producing, and fewer crops. So on one hand we're producing very efficiently, but we're very vulnerable. And I was hoping to talk about that, but unfortunately it was hard to get these producers to talk.
The Yap: So you didn't have any cooperation from the industry?
RK: For me, one of the more surprising moments, and I thought it was indicative, is they didn't want to go on camera. I can understand them not wanting us in their kitchens--slaughterhouses or whatever. But they didn't even want to talk, and I thought that was a missed opportunity. Finally, Wal-Mart came on, and I think they're presented very well. A few other people came on, someone from the National Chicken Council, and he said "We produce more chickens on less land for fewer dollars, and what's wrong with that?" I think it was good to have that point of view in the film. There are concerns about it, but I wanted to represent what he had to say.
But the most shocking thing was this discussion about whether there should be labels on cloned meat. I didn't even know there was such a thing as cloned meat. The person representing the meat industry said "We think it's a bad idea, because it would be too confusing to the consumer, and would be too difficult to give them this kind of information. And I realized this has happened time and time again. We're not being given, whether it's genetically modified organisms, which is in 70% of the items in the supermarket, or the growth horomones for dairy cows, or trans fats. But the companies are able to not put the information on the food, so I'm thinking in a free market we should have the right to know what we're buying, and we should have the right to make choices. These choices are being taken from us. You can't make choices if you don't have the information. We as consumers, the good part here is we get to vote three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We don't have to be perfect eaters, but we can start to read the labels, we can start to try to eat locally, we can go to farmer's markets and ask for these organic items. So that's what we're advocating.
The Yap: Did you focus any on the mistreatment of animals? A lot of the objection to this sort of lifestyle is the way the animals are treated.
RK: Well, we really didn't...I think people are familiar with the mistreatment of animals, so I didn't go there. It's not really in the movie. And it's difficult to watch. Ultimately we need fair food. What's not fair is the food's not fair to the people who are making it. We're using illegal immigrants basically to grow and process our food, because they basically have no rights in taking low-paying jobs basically because no Americans want the jobs that are being created to make this food. It's not fair to the animals, it's not fair to the Earth, because we're polluting the water and land, and it's not fair to us as consumers who have to eat this stuff. Ultimately people care most about what they're eating, and they care about animals. But I didn't want to make a movie that's hard to watch.
The Yap: What ultimately are you hoping to accomplish with this film?
RK: I'm not preaching to the converted. This isn't a film for vegetarians who believe you should only eat organic. It's for people who've never thought about this world. It's a way of starting to think. And hopefully it's the start of a movement not led by extremists. I didn't start it with a preconceived point of view that I was going to prove. It's really a look at, and trying to create a conversation, and trying to entertain. I'm trying to make something you'd want to go to the theater to see.