Review: Food, Inc.

Movie Poster for Food, Inc.This weekend, partly out of personal interest and partly in relation to a project I'm working on for the CWRL, I saw the new documentary Food, Inc. What follows is a brief "review" of the film (in other words, my scattered response to it) and some ideas for incorporating the film in the classroom (I assume it will be released on DVD sometime in the fall). I won't be discussing the visual rhetoric of the film in depth, but will instead focus on the film as the visual presentation of an argument about food.

The opening credits of Food, Inc. present viewers with a tour of the modern American supermarket and the cornucopia of brightly colored packages filling it. The audience is later informed by voiceover narration that this supermarket contains somewhere around 47,000 products. In one of the film's more sardonic moments, we are also informed that an astonishingly high number of these products are made with elements derived from a single ingredient: corn. This arc covered by the film, from the universal supermarket to the particular kernel, establishes its intention of uncovering the origins of the American food supply. Food, Inc. tells the story of industrial agriculture for an audience that, it presumes, is largely unfamiliar with where (or what), exactly, its next meal is coming from.

The film is particularly interested in exposing and documenting the adverse effects of factory farming (in fact, as one of my fellow viewers pointed out, the film was far more interested in meat than in vegetables), and included some gruesome images of the ways chickens, pigs, and cows are raised and slaughtered in this country. (Although there are many disturbing documentary images in the film, in fairness I think it could have been a lot more graphic than it actually was.) Yet these images are somewhat rare since, as the filmmakers argue, industrial meat producers are at pains to keep the means of production hidden from consumers. At one point, the narrators even mention that there is an effort afoot to make it illegal to publish photographs or video of factory-farming operations. This claim is not documented with evidence, but the film does introduce viewers to so-called "food disparagement" laws. These laws are in place in many farm-states, and they limit what food safety advocates can and can't say about food products and producers. I suspect that many viewers will be surprised to learn about the existence of such laws, but they were made famous as the basis of the well-known lawsuit brought against Oprah Winfrey by Texas cattle ranchers.

The film points to these laws above all to demonstrate another of its major arguments: that the food industry, by means of well-organized lobbying groups, wields considerable power over food policy in the United States. One of the film's more amusing animations chronicles the revolving door between industrial agriculture and the USDA, FDA, and Dept. of Agriculture. This portion of the film also includes one of its most powerful emotional appeals, the story of a two year old who died of e. coli food poisoning and his mother's efforts to lobby Congress to enact and enforce stricter regulatory powers for the agencies tasked with keeping the food supply safe.

Food, Inc. includes a number of familiar faces, most notably Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and a co-producer of this film, and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Pollan, cited in the credits as a "Special Contributor" to the film, adds much here. In fact, Food, Inc. essentially repackages the material of Pollan's books, presenting his arguments for an audience that hasn't, and maybe won't, read them. The structure of the film closely mirrors The Omnivore's Dilemma by presenting industrial agriculture, industrial organic, and local/sustainable organic farming in turns. At the same time, the argument of the film is less cerebral, and more immediate, than Pollan's writing. This stems in part from the fact that visual arguments may carry more weight than textual ones (since reading about acres of filth in factory farms, and seeing footage of mountains of manure, can produce markedly different physical responses in the reader/viewer), and in part from the fact that the film makes a concerted effort to move the audience with emotional appeals not present in Pollan's writing (such as the death of Kevin Kowalcyk from e. coli, or the plight of workers in a pig slaughterhouse).

The strengths of Food, Inc. are related to its weaknesses. The film effectively achieves its primary aim of informing the audience about industrial food practices and promoting an agenda of reforming (or revolutionizing) food production in the United States. It seeks to move its audience by deploying a number of different appeals, including both reason (there are plenty of facts and figures) and emotion. But the latter are not, perhaps by definition and certainly by design, subtle, and the film does promote its cause by linking it to the most helpless of victims (the toddler who dies of food poisoning, the sick cattle who are dragged to slaughter on forklifts). Such imagery may be justified by the urgency and gravity the filmmakers wish to convey, but some in the audience will undoubtedly accuse of the film of what is commonly referred to as "bleeding-heart" liberalism. To this criticism might be added the fact that the film is not balanced; it does not present the viewpoints of industrial agriculture, although not, perhaps, for lack of trying. In what becomes something of a running joke, Food, Inc. repeatedly informs the audience that representatives of X company declined to be interviewed for the film. This refusal of access by the leading industrial agricultural corporations is construed by the film as a conspiracy of secrecy, and at times the corporations are presented as shadowy overlords and de facto rulers of America's farming communities and food culture.

But of course, Food, Inc. does not need to present the views of its opponents; that is not the point of polemical documentaries. What it presents instead, effectively and compellingly, is advocacy for a particular point of view about the world we live in and the food we eat.

Food, Inc. and Pedagogy
Instructors working with Pollan's In Defense of Food will find Food, Inc. a useful film to show to students since it recapitulates many of the arguments found in that book, albeit in a visual form. The film also raises additional, related issues, however, that instructors may wish to pursue in class, or encourage students to pursue in their research projects. These include, among others, the regulatory powers of the FDA and USDA ("Kevin's Law"), immigration and labor in industrial agriculture, and "food disparagement" laws (including the film's claim that factory farmers want to make it illegal to publish images of their farms).

It might also be useful to use the film to raise the introductory questions of visual rhetoric. For example, instructors might devise an exercise in which students consider and debate whether the film makes a more or less effective argument than the book. Does the addition of the visual dimension, including intensified appeals to pathos by means of graphic or emotional images, change the persuasiveness of the argument? What sorts of audiences are more likely to be moved by such images, and what audiences are less likely to be moved by them?

Additionally, the film might raise general questions about the visual rhetoric of arguments about industrial agriculture. I am thinking in particular of the notion of identification as it is introduced in rhetorical pedagogy, and of this film's reliance on images of suffering of animals to move its audiences. Such images are common, for example, in arguments in favor of vegetarianism or veganism or against factory farming in general (even when a change in diet is not advocated). How effective is it to ask audiences to identify with the suffering of animals? How much do such arguments, fairly or not, rely on the so-called "pathetic fallacy"?

Similarly, another pattern of interest is the film's pastoral imagery. The use of such imagery to market and sell processed foods is explicitly noted by the filmmakers--but to what extent do the filmmakers, in turn, rely on a romanticized image of the American farm that is, or is not, attainable today? What role does the topos of the country (or of the city) play in our debates about food and culture, and how does this situate them in relation to the long history of such debates in American politics and culture more generally, from Jefferson's agrarian republic, to Thoreau's Walden, to TV's Green Acres?



"illegal to publish photographs or video of factory-farming operations" - such a law would wholeheartedly ignore the democratic principals that are the foundation of our country.  Is this a frantic response to the Slow Food movement?  As an optimist, I would agree with experts such as Professor Ikerd that healthy recipes and a return to wholesome ingredients are on the horizon.  I would be sorry to see a dictatorial food system, especially one whose monopoly would go unnoticed by the average American.  Or has this already happened?

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