Interview: Robert Kenner, Director of “Food, Inc.”

by Jessica Baxter

The opening sentiment to “Food, Inc.” asserts that the way we eat has changed more drastically in the last fifty years than in the last 10,000. This has a lot to do with population growth and scientific advancement, but mostly it can be attributed to the invention of fast food. The McDonald brothers, with their “bigger, faster, cheaper” business plan, turned food into a corporation – an evil corporation, at that. Big Food controls every aspect of our eating lives from what we can afford to how much we know about where our food came from. Because of their ties to government, abhorrent labor practices go un-policed. Inspections are insufficient to nonexistent, and the lack of proper scrutiny has led to E.Coli outbreaks and death. Perhaps worst of all, people are unable to speak out for fear of a lawsuit.

Not even Oprah is safe. In 1996, during the Mad Cow Disease outbreak, Oprah stated on her show that it has “stopped [her] cold from eating another hamburger.” She was subsequently sued for libel by a group of Texas cattlemen. She’s since settled the suit but not after spending piles of money on what is essentially a First Amendment case. The average person certainly can’t afford those legal fees. And since we can’t just stop eating, it seems like there’s nothing we can do about it.

But “Food, Inc.” director Robert Kenner is optimistic. If we make some changes to our purchasing and eating habits – buy locally and organically and avoid processed and fast food – we can force the hand of the Big Food by employing a concept that even a capitalist can understand: supply and demand.

I recently chatted with Kenner about the hardships he faced making the film and the impact he thinks it will have on America and the food industry.

First of all, I wanted to say thank you for making such an important and powerful film. I was aware of some of the things that were going on but I wasn’t aware of the full extent of the corruption of the food industry. So I was really blown away.

Wow, thanks. You know, even stuff that I was aware of kind of surprised me when you start to hear about it in context. It was like when I was with Barb Kowalcyk [whose 4 year old son died from E.coli poisoning from a hamburger]. That was one of the most shocking…well, there were a bunch of shocking things but that was one for me. And, like, whether to label cloned meats and the idea that it would be too confusing for the consumer…and the idea that all the stuff is being hidden from us. Because it’s not only cloned meats, it’s like RBST [Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone] or genetically modified GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms] and how they keep saying this stuff is good for you but we don’t want you to know about it. And then it just keeps happening. You can’t have freedom of…you know, you can’t run a democracy or have a capitalist system if you don’t have information. A free market is based on correct information. And we’re not getting it with food.

But for me the more shocking thing was when I was with Barb Kowalcyk after she told the story about her son and I asked her what I thought was a totally stupid, silly question which was, “How has it effected your eating?” And I thought it was a throwaway question. And then she told me she couldn’t answer because she could be sued. And I thought, “Oh my g…” I was just totally shocked. And then she said, “Well, you know, remember Oprah?” And I thought I do remember Oprah but I never thought of it that way. It was all of a sudden in context. It was so weird to know something and yet not understand it. I don’t know if that makes sense…Because it hadn’t seen so insidious before.

Yeah. It hadn’t come to light how much of a conspiracy it all is, really.

Right. So on a funny level…that was really bizarre to have known something but not understood what it meant.

None of the meat companies let you into their factories and all declined an interview. Have you received any contact from them since the completion of the film?

Well, to begin with, it wasn’t only the meat companies. And it’s not only the companies in the film that say they wouldn’t let us in. It was dozens more. So it was one after another. And I’m not shocked that the meat companies didn’t let us on to the slaughterhouse floor. But I was really surprised they didn’t want to have their opinions represented. And now they’re very anxious to have their controlled message out there since we finished the film because they’re very concerned that it’s gonna be a popular film. And that’s scaring them. So they’re setting up websites. They’re trying to follow me on radio stations. Montsanto went on a radio station after me and said, “We never declined to be in their movie.”

Let me just give you background. We spoke to Montsanto. Basically we communicated by phone though we did have over a dozen emails. They asked questions. “Who’s gonna be in the film?” We told them. They wanted to know what we were talking about. We told them. We told them everybody who agreed to let us tell them which was everybody but Moe Paul. They wanted phone numbers so they could speak to people. They wanted to speak to Smithfield. They wanted to speak to the National Chicken Council. I think they got four phone numbers. They wanted to speak to Walmart but I didn’t want them to speak to Walmart because they hadn’t said yes yet. They kept asking questions. We kept asking them to be in the film. At one point we sent a letter, at least four months into the process, saying “We have to finish the film so failure to respond will be taken as a no. We have a few weeks. Will you please get back to us?” They never responded. So they then go on the air and say “We never declined [an interview].”

The film ends on an optimistic note – The idea that supply and demand of organic foods will be the solution to the problem of Food as an evil corporation. How likely do you think it is that organic foods will become the norm?

Well, to begin with I think organic foods are one of the good things we can be doing, but I think we need numbers of things that we do. I think we need local foods. They might not all be organic. One of the real problems is that all regulations favor bigger business so there are a lot of organic small producers that can’t afford to get certification. But I think we need multiple pawn attacks. And I think that’s one of the problems is now we’re just producing food that’s just like a monoculture itself. Right now about 2% of our food is organic. It’s the fastest growing segment. But I think that there are multiple ways. I think that local is just as important if not more important. And there’s a site, by the way, for your readers. It’s called the Dirty Dozen. It’s the 12 worst things to eat [non-organically]. You don’t want to eat industrial versions of these 12 items. It’s a good site. I just heard about it from Michael [Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and appearing in “Food, Inc.”].

But I’m optimistic. I think the system is gonna change. And I think the tobacco analogy is a great one. Because we’re up against the most powerful corporations in the world. And they’re so incredibly well financed. They have great ties to government. There’s the revolving door story that we talk about. And Tobacco certainly put out absolutely misleading information about the health of their product. But when people started to find out about it, things started to change. But with food, I think we’re still being denied a lot of information. But as we’re starting to find out about it, I think people are going to get upset and the system is gonna change. I’m really optimistic.

I was with Eric Schlosser [author of Fast Food Nation, also appearing in the film] the other night and he was saying when he wrote his book there was so little out there. So little happening…. And this film is part of an incredible movement. We’re not just following Eric and Michael, but following lots of people out there. What I hope the film leaves people with is that we as consumers have a lot more power than you think. And that’s important and we have to start to use that power.

One of the most appalling parts of the film, for me at least, was learning that the meat industry turns in individual members of their illegal labor force to immigration as part of a deal to avoid raids. Do you think there is any solution to this issue in regard to the food industry?

First of all, I think this film is about food. But it’s really broader than just food. On some levels it’s about first amendment rights for all people. I think…you know, I’m hopeful but I think that certainly, this White House is a lot more sympathetic but…It’s a difficult issue. Put it this way: There’s a hypocrisy to what’s happening. The hypocrisy is that basically our food is both grown and processed by illegal immigrants. That we wouldn’t have such cheap food without them. But yet there’s an absolute backlash against them for being here. Because they’re part of the invisible cost of this food system. When they go into communities, one of the reasons they’re not welcome is that they tax the communities. It’s hard on school systems. It’s hard on health care. It becomes expensive sometimes for communities to have illegal immigrants. But they’re brought in by these corporations. And when they’re arrested, it’s not the corporation that pays. It’s these very hardworking, very decent people who are put in jail. And the scene in the film where the woman is being arrested, she is in her 50s, she’s put in jail. And she’s gonna spend a year in jail without her heart medication and then sent to Mexico. It’s just not right.

Something is wrong. It’s just wild that ultimately the reason we have illegal immigrants doing this work is that it’s such unpleasant work. It’s such dangerous work. Both the meat packing plants and the picking of the fruit. There are people dying all the time. And these lines are moving so fast. It’s weird because on one level, we’ve become like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But after he published his book, things [in the meat packing industry] really improved. We just kept improving and those became great jobs. But now, fifty years later, we’ve gone back. And they’re just terrible jobs where people are being abused. That’s one of that many unfair things about this food. And there are many unfair things.

Upton Sinclair’s book is brought to mind early in the film before you even mention it, just based on everything that you’re showing. Is that a book that you thought of when you set out to make the film or is it something that you realized part way through production?

It was more realizing it. Again, like being surprised by the Oprah thing. I had known the Upton Sinclair book but I think we’ve actually returned to that period, you know? That we’ve gone back in time like that, it’s just amazing.

It seems like we’ve gone back in time in a lot of areas.

Yeah, in a lot of ways! But it’s so interesting that you know it but also you’re going “Oh my gosh! We’re back to where we were!”

What was the hardest part to film from a logistical standpoint?

Hmm. Well, obviously since we weren’t allowed in, generally we didn’t film inside the factories. We had people who gave us footage or sold us footage. Getting that was not easy. Trying to convince people. But on a logistical level it was getting people who are involved in agro-business to talk to us. You’d show up to places and people who wanted to talk would change their minds because they had pressure put on them.

What about from an emotional standpoint?

Well, emotionally…obviously you don’t like to see animal cruelty and I tried to keep it out of the film as much as possible.

I certainly appreciate that.

Yeah. But to see what it’s doing to people, you know? Seeing what it was doing to the people who were being arrested was very painful. And to be around them and not knowing where the woman’s mother was. It was horrible. That was horrible. Also, logistically filming in the cornfields with Troy Rauch who was someone who was very sympathetic but unfortunately I got doused with Roundup Ready chemicals. [Laughs]

Yikes! On a lighter note, I found it very ironic that Eric Schlosser’s favorite meal is a burger and fries.

[Laughs – no comment.]

What’s your favorite socially dubious meal?

[Laughs] Yeah. Well, I guess my dirty secret is I like to eat too many calories. I’m really vulnerable when I’m on the road and I’m really hungry. And there’s a lot of bad food out there. And sometimes I just break down. When we were in Tarheel, it was basically…I was thinking it’s a little like the inverse Henry Ford. Henry Ford paid workers a lot of money and they were ultimately able to start buying cars. It was the birth of the Middle Class. With this food, basically we’re paying people so little that they have to start buying all this bad food. So when you’re out on the road, sometimes you can’t even find the supermarket. There’s no place to buy industrial vegetables. So occasionally I think, “Am I just not gonna eat for the day or am I gonna eat fast food?” And…I would generally break down and eat something.

Originally posted on (now defunct).


Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s