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'Food, Inc.' offers something to chew over

Want to be thinner, healthier and richer? Forget fad diets and self-improvement books; reform American agribusiness, argues "Food, Inc."

Want to be thinner, healthier and richer? Forget fad diets and self-improvement books; reform American agribusiness, argues "Food, Inc."

Bombarded by ads for fast, cheap, adulterated foods, we consume in ways that are nutritionally unwise and harmful for our planet. Robert Kenner's intellectually nourishing film asks us to look critically at what we're being fed and think twice before swallowing.

After opening titles that mimic the bright, cheery graphics of food advertising, the camera prowls the aisles of a vast, shiny supermarket. The film contrasts the romanticized family farm imagery on grocery packaging with the industrial-scale assembly line production that fills the shelves and coolers. That oversized, shrink-wrapped chicken breast was a hatchling just 48 days ago. What was it fed, what drugs did it ingest, what was its life like?

Meet Carol Morrison, a former chicken farmer who lost her livelihood when she refused to raise her poultry in the stifling, windowless warehouses required by her corporate client.

"Food, Inc." tackles a hugely complex subject and frames it in human terms. We hear the story of a lifelong Republican tearfully lobbying Congress for stricter food safety policies after her 2-year-old son died from an E. coli-tainted burger. A low-wage family of Mexican immigrants decides that Whoppers will fill their stomachs more economically than fresh fruit will. We see the revolving door between government regulatory agencies and food corporations, weakening scrutiny and higher crop subsidies.

Those government payments artificially hold down the price of corn, which in turn emerges as a key ingredient of almost every food item you can name. It becomes cheap feed for cattle. But cows evolved to eat grass, so this artificial diet can make them sick.

Their diseases are treated with antibiotics, which have produced more robust strains of E. coli in their bellies. The mass-produced cattle move through slaughterhouses so fast that contamination is almost inevitable. So the meat is ground up and sanitized with a shower of ammonia. Fries with that?

Monsanto, the near-monopoly that once employed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has created an army of spies and litigators to protect its proprietary gene-manipulated crops. In an outrageous sequence, we meet soybean growers - guys who live in quaint farmhouses like the ones on food packaging - being bankrupted in court by the biotech giant. Their crime: saving their own heirloom seed.

Foodie activists Eric Schlosser (author of the bestseller "Fast Food Nation") and Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") are our onscreen guides through the agricultural-industrial maze. Kenner, who has made historical documentaries for PBS and the National Geographic Channel, is no propagandist. His film has a progressive tilt, but it has positive things to say about Walmart's openness to healthful organic products.

Seeking balance, Kenner invited representatives of big food, biotech and insecticide companies to tell their sides of the story. Almost all refused.

Organic farmer Joel Salatin, who treats his animals with kindness and care, shows us what best-practices farming looks like. In the film, one of his patrons says, "We've driven 400 miles to get this chicken, but it's worth it." An executive of Stonyfield Farms talks about changing consumer attitudes and the profit potential of organic farming. "Food, Inc." tackles a vast problem, but sends us home with glimmers of hope. *

Produced by Robert Kenner, Elise Pearlstein, directed by Robert Kenner, original music by Mark Adler, distributed by Magnolia Pictures.