They're not called barns. They're not called sheds or sties, coops or pens, either.

The places where most of the chickens, cows, and pigs we eat come from are called CAFOs. That stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and it says more than a little about how farming in North America has changed over the last 50 years.

Food, Inc., Robert Kenner's alarming documentary, says plenty more about the industrialization of food production and delivery systems and how it has affected our health, environment, and economy. The rise in obesity, early-onset diabetes, and incidents of salmonella and E. coli poisoning is traced in Kenner's film to these so-called CAFOs and the proliferation of processed foods on supermarket shelves and in fast-food eateries.

Giant processing plants. Animals injected with hormones and chemicals standing in their own excrement, being fed genetically engineered corn and grains to make them fatter. Chickens that never see sunlight, can barely support their own weight . . . It's not a pretty picture.

But Food, Inc. is an essential one.

Incorporating information from Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma - as well as talking-head commentary from the two authors and other experts, farmers, food advocates, and government officials - the film is a blistering indictment of giant food conglomerates such as Tyson and Monsanto. (Representatives of the companies cited were asked to respond - all refused.)

The documentary offers a none-too-comforting look at how the FDA and USDA have been rendered powerless by legislation and court rulings, and how a revolving door between international food corporations and the federal government has led to lax health and safety controls.

Another startling issue is secrecy: the lack of basic information available to consumers about what they are eating. Kenner uses footage from a California legislative hearing to show how agribusiness interests lobbied the state to keep labels off meats indicating that they came from cloned animals. Yes, cloned animals.

Food, Inc. is advocacy filmmaking, and Kenner doesn't trying to conceal that. He's out to scare people - parents with young children, low-income families who depend on fast foods to get by, politicians, food safety officials, all of us. And he succeeds.

He follows Barbara Kowalcyk, a mother whose 21/2-year-old son died from eating tainted hamburger, as she lobbies Congress to reinstate laws that give the USDA the power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meats. The boy, Kevin, died in 2001. "Kevin's Law," or the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act, still hasn't been passed.

Maybe that family growing veggies on the back lawn of the White House should take a look at Food, Inc.

Maybe they already have.EndText