New film exposes unsavoury side of US food industry

For millions of Americans, a trip to the cinema involves loading up on popcorn and supersized drinks before the show.

But when the much-anticipated documentary Food, Inc. opens this week, many may find themselves unable to finish their snacks as the film exposes some unsavoury realities about how food reaches the dinner table.

"There are no seasons in the American supermarket", a voice intones in the opening scene as a camera swept past supermarket shelves groaning with plump-breasted chickens, perfect cuts of meat and bountiful fruit, vegetables and grains.

Major food producers would not agree to be interviewed for the movie and they tried to ban the filmmakers from their stock yards, pig farms and chicken barns.

But the producers fought off law suits, grabbing headlines and impressive reviews as they aim to do for the food industry what former Vice President Al Gore's controversial documentary An Inconvenient Truth did for debate about climate change.

The documentary was produced by the same company that made An Inconvenient Truth, which was widely criticised by global warming sceptics for its apocalyptic approach. Indeed, Food, Inc. has already been dismissed as one-sided propaganda by the food industry.

The documentary claims cows are fattened up on heavily subsidised corn, even though they cannot digest the grain properly and their guts become breeding grounds for deadly E. coli strains as a result.

It also says chickens with oversized breasts are grown to maturity and are ready to be slaughtered twice as quickly as they would be naturally, thanks to chemicals in their feed.

There is also stomach-churning footage of conveyer belts packed with little yellow chicks being pushed around like mechanical parts; a cow, barely alive, being dragged around by a forklift; and herds of squealing pigs being forced onto a factory "kill floor".

Celebrities have lined up to endorse the film. Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse in California who is credited with revolutionising American cooking in the 1970s and '80s is a champion. So is Martha Stewart who has been tweeting about the film: "See the film then tell me organic is too expensive for you and your family. It is so upsetting that good food is hard to find."

Knowing they would be cast as the villains of the documentary, food corporations refused to co-operate with the producers. To counter what it says is "a one-sided, biased film" that "demonises" American farmers and a system that feeds more than 300 million people, the agri-giant Monsanto is fighting back with its own Web page.

Food Inc is being released as America is finally starting to wake up to the public health crisis fuelled by its eating habits and food industry.

Organic food stores are booming in affluent urban neighbourhoods and even some mainstream supermarkets are responding to demands for healthier food – most notably, Wal-Mart recently began carrying organic options and stopped selling milk containing growth hormone. But America remains far behind Europe in terms of regulation of the food industry and consumer demand for organic produce.

In the film, the best-selling food writer Michael Pollan says: "The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000. You go into the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers, the picket fence and the 1930s farmhouse. The reality is, it's not a farm, it's a factory. That meat is being processed by huge multinational corporations that have very little to do with ranches and farmers."

The movie's director Robert Kenner compares the state of American food production to the current financial crisis. "Stupid high risk decisions brought the financial system low," he told The Daily Telegraph. "Our food system is unrecognisable from 40 years ago and it could fall off a cliff for the same reasons – unregulated greed and excessive risk-taking."

The film addresses the country's epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Among young Americans born after 2000, one in three will contract early onset diabetes. For blacks, Hispanics and American Indians a staggering one in every two will contract the disease.

Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation one of the driving forces behind the movie, said: "There is this deliberate veil, this curtain that's drawn between us and where our food is coming from.

"The industry doesn't want you to know the truth about what you're eating because if you knew, you might not want to eat it. We've never had food companies this big and this powerful in our history." (6.14.2009, Leonard Doyle)

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