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Week of 6.5.09

Transcript: Food, Inc.

BRANCACCIO: Michelle Obama's White House garden right about now should be about to bear if not fruit—then at least some vegetables. Butterhead lettuce, black kale, even some tomatillos, the first lady has going. When it's home grown, you know right where it's from. But what about all the other food we eat? Think about it: when was the last time you saw the inside of a food processing plant? The maker of a new documentary says there are reasons the food industry likes to keep its work generally out of view. Robert Kenner is director of "Food, Inc" which is described as "a civilized horror movie" for people who appreciate food.

Robert Kenner, thanks for coming in.

KENNER: Thanks, David.

BRANCACCIO: So you looked under the hood of the food industry. What did you expect to find going in? And what started to emerge?

KENNER: I had—I wanted to find out where our food comes from. I was really curious—you know, and we have three meals a day. And—I was interested to figure out where's this food come from? Where is it grown? Who makes it? And—

BRANCACCIO: I thought it's farmers. Pictures of farmers. Isn't that where it comes from?

KENNER: Well, it's a little different than I had imagined. Ultimately, our food has been really totally transformed. We have a whole new kind of food system. It looks the same. But it's fundamentally different. And we're being kept away from knowing what's happened to our food system.

BRANCACCIO: There are people who are gonna think, "Oh"—

KENNER: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: —"we're gonna be sitting in a slaughterhouse for the next 90 minutes." That's not your approach here. You seem to have a—I don't know, a love for food.

KENNER: I—I love food. And I think it's something that—I didn't want to make a film that stops people from wanting to go eat. But I wanted to make a film that made us think about where this food comes from and figure out how we can have a system that's gonna be a sustainable system. And at the same time, a system that doesn't stop us from asking questions of where this food comes from and lets us understand what we're eating and whether it's good for us or not.

BRANCACCIO: Your film makes it very clear that a lot of the philosophy that has now, you argue, permeated the food industry actually started with fast food. Let's take a look.

CLIP: That mentality of uniformity, conformity and cheapness, applied widely and on a large scale has all kinds of unintended consequences: When McDonald's is the largest purchaser of ground beef in the United States, and they want their hamburgers to taste everywhere exactly the same, they change how ground beef is produced. The McDonald's corporation is the largest purchaser of potatoes, they're one of the largest purchasers of pork, chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, even apples. These big, big fast food chains want big suppliers, and now there are essentially a handful of companies controlling our food system.

BRANCACCIO: But in case people aren't picking up on exactly what you're saying, which is even if you never would dream of setting foot in a fast food joint, this is affecting what you're probably eating.

KENNER: That's the key. It has—right now, our whole food system has been taken over by this industrialization of our food.

BRANCACCIO: Because actually in the grocery store, as your film points out, what you tend to see are images of nice little farms.

KENNER: I think the industrial system wants us to continue to think that this food is being grown in the same way for—as it's always been grown, on these pretty little farms. And we see labels like Farmer John and Farmer this and Farmer that. But in reality, they're owned by very few companies that are—and this food is grown in massive factories. Ultimately this industrialization of food has taken over our supermarkets. In a funny way, David, I realized this was a horror film that we were making.

BRANCACCIO: Like Frankenstein?

KENNER: Yeah. It's a little bit of, like, Invasion of the Food Snatchers or something.

Our tomatoes look the same. Our chickens look the same. But they're ultimately fundamentally very different than the tomatoes and chickens of our grandparents.

BRANCACCIO: How's a chicken different?

KENNER: A chicken now grows far bigger and far faster. It's—weighs so much. Generally—sometimes it can't even stand up under its own weight. They're designed—

BRANCACCIO: There's more white meat on a modern chicken.

KENNER: —They're designed for chicken McNuggets. So we have figured out how to make their breasts much bigger so that we can eat chicken McNuggets while we drive in our car.

BRANCACCIO: So there's that philosophy. Uniformity, conformity and cheapness.

But these are not all terrible things. Cheapness is a good thing.

KENNER: No, I think, on one hand, we're spending less of our paycheck—on food today than at any point in history. And I think that's a wonderful thing. And we should all be thrilled about that. Unfortunately, this inexpensive food comes at a very high cost to us. And these are invisible costs.

BRANCACCIO: See, that's a key thing. You're saying that the real costs are not really made clear to those of us who eat.

KENNER: We're not paying for this food when we check out of a supermarket. We're not paying for the health care costs that are gonna so—bankrupt our health care system. We're not paying for the environmental costs. We're not paying for the damage done to the workers or the polluted land and water systems. These are all invisible costs that don't show up at the cash register.

BRANCACCIO: One key cost is our tax dollars. A lot of our tax dollars, you point out in the film, go to what? I think it's corn.

KENNER: We're subsidizing a crop, corn and soy, actually, two crops, that are partially responsible for making us very unhealthy. It seems insane. We're—we're paying money for foods that are making us sick.

Basically, when we eat this corn, it's filled with sugar. And this sugar is making us obese. And this obesity is creating diabetes.

BRANCACCIO: There are scientists who see a link between lots of calories, obesity, and getting type-two diabetes.

KENNER: Yeah. There's a definite link between these two. And the fact that one third out of every American—born after 2000 will get diabetes is gonna bankrupt our health care system.

BRANCACCIO: Well, in the film you make this point, let's take a look.

CLIP: Corn is the great raw material. You get that big fat kernel of starch. And you can break that down and reassemble it, and you can make high-fructose corn syrup, and you can make maltodextrin and di-glycerides, xanthan gum and ascorbic acid. All those obscure ingredients in the processed food - it's remarkable how many of them can be made from corn. Plus you can feed it to animals.

BRANCACCIO: It's really everywhere, corn.

KENNER: Corn has made its way into almost every product, well ninety percent of the items in the super market contain corn or soy so all those names that you see on the label that you can't pronounce they're basically one of those two items.

BRANCACCIO: They do give a lot of this cheap corn as feed to—cows where we get our meat from.

KENNER: The corn is going into the meat, when you eat a hamburger. It's going into the bun, when you eat a hamburger. It's going into the French fries. It's going into the soda.

BRANCACCIO: And the ketchup.

KENNER: The ketchup. Probably the cup. And the plate. It's—the corn is going everywhere. So it's kind of this invisible ingredient. Sort of like—when I talk about how our food has been transformed without us knowing it, one of the major items is corn. It's—I think it's a good symbol for this transformation and industrialization of food.

BRANCACCIO: Many Americans, particularly in this recession, are struggling. They're trying to make ends meet. And sometimes running over to a fast food place is the best option. I mean, you have a family in your film that—is in this bind. Tell me about them a little bit.

KENNER: Well, I think, ultimately, here's a family that is buying very inexpensive fast food—for a number of reasons. One is it's quick. Two is it's readily available. And I think that they were unaware of the damage that this food was doing to them.

BRANCACCIO: So they pop into a fast food place. Everybody gets a burger or something. Ninety-nine cents each. And what—the bill is, what, about 11 bucks?

KENNER: Yeah, I think it was about—a dollar or two dollars each—for each person. So it's very inexpensive food.

BRANCACCIO: So the foodies here are going, "Well, why don't they go over to the grocery store and buy something nice and fresh and cook it up?"

KENNER: The fact is the father has—diabetes, and the young daughter, who's 13, has—sort of a precondition for diabetes. They are spending a tremendous amount of their paycheck towards medicine to keep them healthy. So they were forced—they were thinking, okay, we'll go buy a cheap quick meal. But this meal, they're slowly beginning to understand, is making them very sick.

BRANCACCIO: You take them shopping. Right?

KENNER: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: They go to look at broccoli in a regular grocery store. So what happens there?

CLIP: Dad: "Look at the broccoli. Too expensive, man."

Mom: What did you want to eat? First check to see how many are there for a pound?

Older daughter: not worth it

Younger daughter: why not?

Older daughter: you'd only get like 2 or 3

Mom: you can find candy that's cheaper. You can find chips that are

cheaper. The sodas are really cheap. Sometimes you look at a vegetable

and say 'ok, well, we can get 2 hamburgers over here for the same amount

of price.'

KENNER: We're creating food that is making lower income people sick—because we're subsidizing certain foods that are not healthy. And I think, we as a society, have to learn how to change that.

BRANCACCIO: But, Robert, the industry, right now, shouting back at their televisions going, "This food didn't make them sick. This is about personal responsibility. If you want to worry about not having too many calories don't eat too many calories."

KENNER: Yeah. I think the personal responsibility argument is an insidious argument. And it's—really reflects the smoking argument. That, you know, we should take care of ourselves. But we're not getting certain information. That family was not aware of how sick this food was gonna make them.

The fast food companies are very similar to the tobacco companies in that they've—figured out how to sort of make this food very appealing to us. They certainly try to hit lower income groups, and try to make it as attractive as possible. And, ultimately—I—I think that they're designing this food—and hiding sort of the dangers of what it is.

BRANCACCIO: Too many calories is one thing. But food contamination is also on many of our minds.

KENNER: Well, food poisoning is not necessarily new. The dangers today are that it's become very centralized.

BRANCACCIO: All right, so centralization. You'd also think higher technology. You would think, therefore, safer.

KENNER: Yeah. Our food has not gotten safer. And, unfortunately, we have so many, like, for one hamburger you might have 1,000 cows in that hamburger. So if you have one sick cow, all of a sudden that—that meat could be traveling throughout the United States.

BRANCACCIO: Because chunks of meat can come from many different animals and end up in a single patty.

KENNER: Yeah. Yeah. It's all going into one big pot. So—

BRANCACCIO: So if one is sick, there's the contamination.

KENNER: Yeah. And I think, for me, David, what was most shocking—is that—there was a woman in our film, Barb Kowalcyk, whose son died from eating a hamburger.

CLIP: In July 2001 our family took a vacation. Had we known what was in store for us we would have never gone home.

KENNER: He was two years old. But it turned out that that meat was not recalled off the supermarket shelves. . And, for me, that was the most shocking. That the government does not have the right to take—off meat off the shelves. It's the companies themselves that have to do the recall.

BRANCACCIO: Well, the—the little boy who died, his mom goes on a quest. And we can see her here on Capitol Hill.

CLIP: Barbara Kowalcyk:...Went from being perfectly healthy, beautiful little boy. I have a small picture with me today that was taken 2 weeks before he got sick. He went from that to being dead in 12 days.

BRANCACCIO: So Mrs. Kowalcyk, what is she trying to accomplish? What is she trying to get done?

KENNER: She is trying to pass a law called Kevin's Law, which is named after her son, that says that the federal government has the right to recall meat when it contains levels of salmonella and e coli that will make us very sick.

And, at the moment, these corporations are the ones that have to recall this meat, and the government cannot do it.

BRANCACCIO: Well, how long has she been working on this?

KENNER: Barb's been working on this for about eight years.

BRANCACCIO: And there's still no law to her satisfaction.

KENNER: There is—there is still no law that gives the government the right to recall meat off the shelves. To me, that seems like such an obvious thing.

BRANCACCIO: Well, what do you think, is this like a money in politics story? Is that why that's the case?

KENNER: Well, the—agri-business is very powerful. And they think that they are better equipped than the government to decide when they should recall this meat. Or other products besides meat.

BRANCACCIO: When it comes to e-coli contamination you make a case in the film, there's a connection between how we feed our cows, on a big feedlot, and the dangers of e-coli contamination.

KENNER: Well, I think, again, it's all about centralization. We're bringing all the cows to one location. They're living in their manure. We're bringing in corn from the Midwest that's artificially subs—subsidized by the federal government. It's just a system—the—these cows are not meant to eat corn. They're meant to eat grass. So there's bacteria that grows in their stomach. And it's—on one hand, it's cheap. It's very efficient. The cows grow much faster. But there's certain dangers in it. And it's not a healthy system.

BRANCACCIO: Well, one way of looking at it, to take some of the methods of the smaller scale farm, and bring them to the country as a whole, is to get some big old corporations involved. And you explore this in the film.

KENNER: Well, we have different people making—different food producers in this film—Gary Hirshberg from Stonyfield—

BRANCACCIO: The yogurt company.

KENNER: The yogurt company—is arguing that we need—to work with the Wal-Marts of the world to help change the world.

CLIP: Gary Hirshberg: The irony is that the average consumer does not feel very powerful. They think that they are the recipients of whatever industry has put out there for them to consume. Trust me, it's the exact opposite. When we run an item past the supermarket scanner we're voting for local or not, organic or not.

Tony Airoso: At Wal-Mart we made a decision about a year ago to go through a process of becoming rBST-free in our milk supply. We made that decision based on customer preference.

GH: Individual consumers changed the biggest company on earth, and in so doing probably put the last nail in the coffin of synthetic growth hormone.

KENNER: I think that they are interested in sustainability. And more than anything, they're interested in what the consumer wants. And I think that's really why we put Wal-Mart into the film. Because it shows that the consumer has power. That if you say you don't wanna have rBST, which is a human growth hormone—

BRANCACCIO: In the milk?

KENNER: In milk—it makes the cows produce more milk—and it's less expensive. But at the same time it's potentially not good for you.

BRANCACCIO: Although this is a point of great scientific debate. But the point is some consumers do not want that in their milk.

KENNER: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: That's what they—they don't want it in their milk. And Wal-Mart has responded.

KENNER: Wal-Mart's responded. And they've had this great effect of trying to help eliminate it. What I find most upsetting is that ultimately—that these corporations are suing people for saying we don't use rBST. They don't want us to know what's in the milk.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah. There's a big, big debate —and your film spends a lot of time on this fascinating area —about labeling and disclosure. And actually what you and I can talk about in this interview, there are, what? Meat libel laws?

KENNER: They're called veggie libel laws.

BRANCACCIO: Veggie libel laws.

KENNER:They're laws designed to stop us from disparaging a food product. It's illegal to damage the profits of a corporation by talking about food.

BRANCACCIO: You can't say something bad about food in, like, 13 states have these laws.

KENNER: Yeah. Well, Oprah—was—had people on whose children died from—mad cow. And she said, "It makes—it would make me want to stop dead from eating another burger." And she was sued for that comment.

BRANCACCIO: It took her years to fight that. Apparently in the end she won.

KENNER: She won. But there are stories of a number of people who have basically settled because they can't afford to fight these food corporations. They are these giant corporations. And to me, that was the biggest issue in this film is that we're being denied the right to know what's in our food and we're being discouraged from talking about it.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah—you and I are talking about some of this. And presumably lawyers have gone through your film. You were able to say some of this?

KENNER: We've spent more on legal fees on this film than I've spent on all my other films combined times three.

BRANCACCIO: Just to talk about food?

KENNER: I think it's probably—we would have had greater access if we were talking about nuclear terrorism.

BRANCACCIO: Is it a tough argument to make right now, in the depths of this recession, where people are pinching pennies, people are looking for cheaper ways forward? A lot of that, as you would see it as industrial food, will cost less when you go into the store to get it.

KENNER: Well, David, I think that's the really important question. And I think that these invisible costs with this c—what we call conventional food, are gonna s—ultimately bankrupt us. So I think it's really elitist to think we can continue with this system where the families that are eating this fast food or developing diabetes—they can't go on.

We can't go on with this health care system with people eating food like we have. We can't go on polluting. We can't go on—we're gonna have to change this unsustainable system. And that's what's gonna—we're gonna have to figure that out. Otherwise we're gonna fall off a cliff and not have things to eat soon.

BRANCACCIO: But it starts, in your view, with disclosure and then honest dialogue?

KENNER: That was what our—we attempted with this film. I really wanted to be able to get inside and have a dialogue with industrial food makers. And with organic food makers to figure out how can we feed the world? And I thought that would be an interesting dialogue.

BRANCACCIO: But the food companies didn't sit down and talk to you?

KENNER: That was what really sort of surprised me, is how much they wanted to keep us out. And—

BRANCACCIO: Well, you called up Purdue. And—

KENNER: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: —they said no?

KENNER: They said no.

BRANCACCIO: Called up Tyson?

KENNER: They said no.

BRANCACCIO: Smithfield?

KENNER: No.

BRANCACCIO: Monsanto that makes genetically modified seeds?

KENNER: They were not very anxious to talk with us. But we also called up probably 30, 40 other companies as well, at least that many. And ultimately they didn't want us looking inside. They didn't want consumers to think about where this food comes from and how it's made. And that was—that was a distressing part.

BRANCACCIO: Do we really wanna know? That's—

KENNER: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: —that's my question. Because—

KENNER: Well—

BRANCACCIO: —part of it is us. If you take a look behind the curtain—

KENNER: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: —like from the Wizard of Oz, you might not like what you see.

KENNER: Well, you know, do you wanna take the red pill or the blue pill? You know, do you wanna think about it? I think ultimately—I'm hoping people do wanna think about it.

BRANCACCIO: Robert Kenner's film, Food Inc., opens in select theatres June 12th. Robby Kenner, thank you.

KENNER: Thanks very much, David.

BRANCACCIO: Improving America's food system is in your hands... if you place them on your computer keyboard. For ideas on how to eat right and also to do right...in your kitchen, your restaurants, and your community check out our website.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.


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