Filmmaker Robert Kenner's new documentary, Food, Inc., is an investigative peek into America's big agribusinesses and meat and poultry industries. City Paper spoke to Kenner by phone about trying to interview big agribusiness representatives and why people should be able to know what's in the food they eat.
City Paper: How did you come to make this documentary? As in, when did you first start to learn about and understand how much we do and don't know about our corporate food industry?
Robert Kenner: I read Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, and at some point I was thinking of doing a film about that, but when Super Size Me [came out], you know, everybody thought that was the documentary on his film. But I became interested in doing a film on where does our food come from? What's in it? How does it get to our table? It's kind of a miracle. On one level, we spend less for our food than at any time in history, but at the same time this low-cost food is coming at us at a very high cost that you don't see when you go to the checkout counter, and I thought that would become an interesting conversation.
CP: So how did you start? Did you start with activists/experts such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser? Did you try to get big agribusiness to talk? Where do you begin with something this enormous and sprawling?
RK: Eric was one of the people when I started out, but I wanted to make a different film. I wanted to hear about it from the people who make our food. So I called up all those corporations — far more than you see in the film, probably another 40 or 50, that declined. I called up dozens and dozens of chicken farmers and hog farmers, but people who work in this business turned out to be scared to talk to me. Food turned out to be a rather subversive subject and, certainly, a rather litigious subject, which I didn't realize when we started.
CP: Did some of the agribusinesses you try to speak to — Tyson, Perdue, Monsanto, etc. — give you outright "Nos" for interview requests or did they just ignore as if you didn't even exist?
RK: Oh, no, they talked forever, Monsanto. They've gone on their website and said they've never declined to be in the film. And the fact is we had four to five months of conversations on the telephone and there were 10 back and forth e-mails. We gave them the names of who was in the film with permission of the characters. We told them what we were talking about. And then they asked for phone numbers. Do you give phone numbers of all the people [you interview]? We actually gave them phone numbers. Then we said, "You need to respond by a certain time because we have to finish this film and a lack of response will be taken as a no." And they never responded to that e-mail. And then they say, "We never declined." I guess — at the suggestion of my lawyer — I'd say that's misleading. I would have used other words.
CP: It ends with a fairly positive note, that consumer power can change corporate practices: Do you really think so? I ask not to be a cynic, but because the corporate flow-chart the movie creates is so vast, the sums of money so large, the people with their hands in it so powerful, that it can feel a little daunting.
RK: I think cigarette tobacco is a great model. There are a few corporations with incredible amounts of money, well-connected to government, who put out tons of misinformation about the safety of their product. They probably paid for studies that said cigarettes weren't bad for you — but when we started to find out how bad they were, we put through a law that said you have to label what's in the cigarettes. I'm thinking one day we'll have to label what's in our food. And I think as people realize that we don't know what this is doing to us and that there are all these other great options, we're going to go to those other options. You know, we like our cheap food, but when we realize how much it's really costing us, it's going to be easier to go spend more. And, hopefully, we'll be able to change the subsidies so that good food doesn't cost more. The fact that we're paying tax dollars to support something that's making us sick feels wrong to me.