Robert Kenner, Food Inc., 2008, stills from a color film, 94 minutes. Left: Joel Salatin. Right: Eric Shlosser.


PORTIONS OF FOOD INC. have a familiar aftertaste: In an otherwise blistering expose of the chemical, industrial, and economic underpinnings of the global food supply, the segments pertaining to fast food—involving inhumane animal treatment, abysmal nutritional value, and questionable employee relations—have already been reported in more vivid detail in the pages of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. But what Food Inc. lacks in revelation, it makes up for in intellectual rigor. The weight of Robert Kenner’s documentary stems from its comprehensive approach in its full-fledged analysis of systematic decay, pointing to a food industry stretched to the breaking point.

Food Inc. closely parallels the structure of another smart and scathing documentary, The Corporation (2003), which chronicled the ways that corporate America exploits and destroys the world’s natural resources, all the while bribing its way out of adequate monitoring and regulation. That, too, was a film steeped less in provocation than in insight and analysis, stringing together a series of detailed case studies to advocate a central thesis.

So it is with Food Inc., as Kenner—joined by a cadre of journalists and activists—dissects the vertical integration occurring within the food industry, methodically navigating such controversies as nutritional diversity, labor standards, and farmland economics. A cornerstone of the discussion involves factory farms (though cameras are repeatedly denied access to the buildings housing livestock), as Kenner links inhumane living conditions in these overcrowded pens to a surge in food-borne illnesses. At independent farms, meanwhile, the prospect of autonomy is increasingly distant, as companies like Monsanto have taken to patenting soybean seeds, regulating access, and thereby redefining the economics of the family farm.

Following the supply chain from farmland to factory, another set of issues arises. Food processors have started exploiting illegal labor, turning to hourly workers who fear complaining about unsafe working conditions, resulting in a good amount of tainted food reaching the grocery store. Similarly distressing, when defective products are routinely discovered and recalled, Food Inc. depicts companies solving the problem with a batch of chemicals rather than by correcting their processes. The government, Food Inc. claims, is not only unable to shut down unsafe food companies, it is reluctant to mandate detailed consumer labeling that would point to cloned, chemically altered, and genetically engineered foods.

The conversation is dense and positioned to educate more than to entertain. Food Inc. argues convincingly that the present system of crops, livestock, processing, shipping, and inspection is unsustainable—if not broken entirely. For all those who have already been questioning the origins, preparation, and protection of their food supply, Food Inc. is a devastating reinforcement of the fear that consumers are being misinformed, if not misled, about the food they are putting on the dinner table.

Food Inc. opens Friday, June 12, at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

S. James Snyder