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On Movies: Most major food companies refused to talk to him

See the cows grazing on the grassy hills! The chickens clucking around big old barns! All those lakes and trees, beneath cloud-flecked blue skies!

See the cows grazing on the grassy hills! The chickens clucking around big old barns! All those lakes and trees, beneath cloud-flecked blue skies!

Walk around a supermarket and look at the labels on the meat and poultry, the milk and juices, and the images are pastoral, perfect - bucolic visions of the quintessential family farm.

Look at Food, Inc., the documentary opening Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse, and the picture is altogether different: cattle standing hoof-deep in their own excrement in giant meat-processing plants, chickens pumped up on chemicals to make them fat and packed into hangars where they never see the light of day, genetically engineered tomatoes that have no taste - it's scary stuff.

"It's threatening, it's Orwellian," says Robert Kenner, who has spent the last few years making Food, Inc. "The small farm, the image of lots of family farmers providing our food - that's an illusion. It's actually a few corporations and giant factories growing what we eat."

A nightmarish view of the U.S. food industry, Food, Inc. makes the case that the health and safety of consumers have become less important than profits for the multinational corporations providing the bulk of the country's food supply. Kenner's documentary reveals the hidden costs - widespread obesity and early-onset diabetes, salmonella and E. coli bacteria in the food chain - behind the cheap meats and fast foods we've grown accustomed to.

"I'm not trying to change people's stomachs, I'm trying to change people's minds," says Kenner, in town last week and taking time for an interview after appearing at South Street's Whole Foods market. "I eat meat. I'll go to a barbecue restaurant and happily chow down."

But what startled Kenner when he began researching and interviewing for his project was how little information he could get from the major food suppliers - Monsanto, Tyson, Perdue, Smithfield. The filmmaker says that "30 to 40" companies were contacted and that none would speak to him, or allow his cameras in their facilities.

In the film, he interviews Barbara Kowalcyk, a mother who became a food-safety advocate after her 21/2-year-old son, Kevin, died in 2001 from E. coli poisoning after eating tainted hamburger. Kevin's Law - the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act - still has not been passed by Congress.

As Kenner reports in Food, Inc., the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not have the power to remove tainted meat from supermarket shelves, nor to close a plant that is consistently cited as the point of origin for contaminated foods. Thanks to lawsuits, legislation and lobbyists, the food industry pretty much regulates itself, fighting consumer efforts to label foods clearly with country of origin or bioengineering information.

"All we're trying to say is that we should have the right to know what we eat," says Kenner. "And to me, it seems un-American that we're being denied a real free choice in terms of the foods we eat. It should be based on information, and we're not getting that information. That was the most shocking thing for me. . . .

"You know, when you buy a car, you get information on the window. Why are they so concerned about giving us this information?"

Not surprising, slow-food and organic-food advocates have embraced Kenner's film. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) are featured talking heads in Food, Inc. Stonyfield Farms' Gary Hirschberg - a dairy entrepreneur who sells his organic products at Wal-Mart - makes the argument that healthy food can be made, and marketed, to the masses.

As for big-industry suppliers like Monsanto, shown chasing down farmers for illegally replanting its patented herbicide-resistant soybean seeds, they've now launched aggressive anti-Food, Inc. campaigns. On the Web page, the company counters Kenner's assertions that the American family farm has virtually disappeared. The site also challenges the film's suggestion that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' majority opinion in favor of seed patents was influenced by his three years as an attorney for Monsanto in the late 1970s.

Kenner says Monsanto and other companies had no interest in telling their side of the story when he was busy researching, reporting, and shooting his film. He says he was stonewalled and stymied at every turn.

"We could have been making a film about nuclear terrorists, and we would have had better access," he says. "This is a film about food! I didn't realize how scary it was."

Kenner, whose documentaries include the Peabody-winning Two Days in October and "The Road to Memphis" segment of Martin Scorsese's The Blues Series, says that he has the Solebury School in New Hope, Bucks County, to thank for his career.

"I grew up outside of New York, but I went to Solebury for my high school years," he explains. "Instead of doing my homework, I would sneak out to the Strand movie theater, which was a little art theater in Lambertville. I probably watched two or three movies a week. I thought, This is exciting, I want to do this!"

So when Kenner finished at the elite boarding school in 1968, he made his way to New York, skipping college.

"I moved to Manhattan to work on films when I was 18. The first real film I worked on was a documentary about roller derby. I traveled around the United States for a year, doing a film about the derby," he remembers.

"You get to fall into these wonderful worlds, and you get to see and meet people that you'd never meet. You learn so much."

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