- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

There are some indisputable facts about our nation’s food supply. Food is more plentiful and cheaper than it has been at any time in the history of the world. Families are no longer forced to skip meat because it’s too expensive. Supermarkets and grocery stores carry an unprecedented variety of goods, from nine kinds of mustard to previously unheard of versions of lettuce to beer from around the world.

Less positive but no less true are the facts about the nation’s health. Diabetes is up, especially among the young and the poor. Obesity is on the rise. Family meals are on the downswing, and fast food is coming to dominate the dinner table.

“Food, Inc.” takes a look at the intersection of these trends and tries to determine the source. Why is it cheaper to get a double cheeseburger at McDonald’s than a pound of broccoli at your local Safeway? Why do so many products contain ingredients derived from corn? What is all of this doing to us and our bodies?

Those expecting an unfair broadside against the food industry will be pleasantly surprised by “Food, Inc.” Instead of scoring cheap points by disgusting viewers with the messy inside workings of a slaughterhouse, director Robert Kenner sticks to relaying the facts.

Although the documentary sometimes feels a little one-sided, lack of participation by companies such as Monsanto Co. and Tyson Foods Inc. ensured such a result. Those who did play along got a fair shake from Mr. Kenner.

Consider his treatment of Wal-Mart. One of the few mega-corporations to give Mr. Kenner any access, the company comes out looking OK. Sure, the Arkansas-based company’s embrace of organic dairy products probably helped its cause in Mr. Kenner’s eyes, but there certainly are ways he could have gone after Wal-Mart had he been interested in scoring easy points against a faceless multinational corporation.

The questions posed by “Food, Inc.” are these: How much of a role should government play in regulating the food industry? Should we be heavily subsidizing the growth of corn, which consumes much of the heartland and makes it nearly impossible to grass-feed cattle and grow healthier vegetables on a mass scale? Should the Food and Drug Administration have greater power to stop the spread of E. coli and other food-borne illnesses? The answers Mr. Kenner and his supporters are seeking are, respectively: “a large role,” “of course not,” and “yes, duh!”

Unfortunately, real life isn’t so cut and dried. Some would argue that the manipulation of corn into an ingredient that is both easily grown and mass produced while it’s used in thousands of products, from soda to batteries, is a sign of progress and man’s ingenuity. And it’s certainly preferable to have too much cheap meat than too little.

There’s also the matter of personal responsibility that Mr. Kenner gently elides in decrying the prevalence of fast food on the national landscape. Nobody is required to eat at Burger King, and it’s typically cheaper and healthier to feed a family at home. Drinking a diet soda instead of a full-strength one is an easy, painless way to cut back on calories, yet somehow it’s the fault of the corporations that kids are contracting diabetes.

Though it’s an interesting look at where our food comes from, it’s fair to ask whether we’ve only gotten what we’ve asked for as a country: cheap, plentiful food. It’s not the fault of the companies that provide said food that we’re a nation of gluttons.

★★½

TITLE: “Food, Inc.”

RATING: PG (some thematic material and disturbing images)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Kenner

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foodincmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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