< Covering Big Food


Friday, July 17, 2009

Big tobacco, big pharma, weapons manufacturers, they're all industries notorious for stonewalling journalists and for intimidating potential sources from talking to the press. But what about big food? Filmmaker Robert Kenner didn't expect that doing a documentary on agribusiness would be that difficult, but he says that making his documentary Food, Inc. required more legal fees than his past 15 films combined. Kenner joins me now. Robbie, welcome to On the Media.

ROBERT KENNER: Great to be here, Bob, thanks.

BOB GARFIELD: You have described the process of making this film about agribusiness as Orwellian. Why - [LAUGHS] what did you expect when you set out to make this film?

ROBERT KENNER: Well, I actually thought we would be having a conversation with the people who are producing our food. I realized that we might not be welcomed into slaughterhouses with open arms, but I did think that people would be able to sort of talk with us. I think I could have had greater access if we were doing a film on nuclear terrorism than if we were doing a film on food. I, I didn't realize what a subversive subject this turned out to be. I was surprised by it.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, since you brought up subversion, I should say that I'm looking at your filmography and I don't see any, you know, immediately evident ideological tilt.

ROBERT KENNER: You know, I don't think of myself as a ideological filmmaker. My last film before this was told from multiple points of view, and I found myself becoming totally sympathetic to viewpoints that were very different than mine. And I sort of was open to that on this film, but it turned out to be very different. There were occasional cracks. Richard Lobb from the National Chicken Council came and talked with us, and we used one little piece of his, which is, “We produce more chickens on less land for fewer dollars. What’s wrong with that?” And, you know, I thought that’s a valid viewpoint, and I wanted to present their best viewpoint. Unfortunately, he was one of the very few people who would talk to us.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, as to what is wrong with that, what’s the bill of indictment?

ROBERT KENNER: Well, I think that the food we eat is really very different than it was 40, 50 years ago. Most of agribusiness is not interested in us looking behind the veil. For me, one of the more shocking things was we went to a hearing on whether we should be labeling cloned meat. And the representative from the meat industry said:

FEMALE MEAT INDUSTRY REP: The reason that we are concerned with labeling is it creates unnecessary fear in consumers’ mind. Until the industry has an opportunity to educate why we want to use this technology and evaluate the technology, we don't feel that consumers just having a warning label will help them.

ROBERT KENNER: I found it really upsetting to be told that it’s too confusing to be given this kind of information. And I always thought in a free market you need to have access to information to make decisions, and we're being denied that information. And the industry keeps saying these things are good, but they'll do everything possible to not let you get the information that it’s in the food you’re eating. They'll actually even sue producers who put on their labels that their food does not contain that. And, it goes beyond that. In talking to one of the people in the film, a woman named Barb Kowalcyk, whose son died from eating a hamburger with E. Coli, at the end of the interview I asked her how it affects how she eats.

BARB KOWALCYK: Yeah, we [SIGHS] - you’re going to – you probably have to call - talk to an attorney before you would put this in there.

ROBERT KENNER: Well, you can say, this is, you know, we've – you know –


BARB KOWALCYK: Yeah, I know, but the –


BARB KOWALCYK: I could have the meat and poultry [LAUGHING] industry coming after me, and I really -

ROBERT KENNER: Seriously, for saying –


BARB KOWALCYK: But I get asked this all the time.



ROBERT KENNER: It’s pretty amazing that you can't say how you and your family have changed. [LAUGHS]


BARB KOWALCYK: Well, the veggie libel laws are different.

ROBERT KENNER: She said, don't you remember Oprah? And then all of a sudden I vaguely remembered that Oprah had been sued for saying, during the Mad Cow Disease, it makes you think twice about eating a hamburger. And she was sued for disparaging a food product –

[BOB LAUGHING] - and/or potential loss of income.

BOB GARFIELD: Oh, I'm laughing. It’s, it’s so not funny. But please explain the whole idea of disparaging a food product.

ROBERT KENNER: Well, there are now laws that if you endanger the profits of a food corporation you can be sued. And Oprah spent six years in court, over a million dollars. And she eventually won her case. But it’s very difficult for people in this world to sort of start to question things. And if I had been aware of [LAUGHS] how litigious this world was before I began, I might have had second thoughts.

BOB GARFIELD: I – I have - I'm curious whether the defensiveness and the stonewalling and at least the implicit threat of litigation changed the thrust of your film?

ROBERT KENNER: Well, I found the more I was being rejected, the more I wanted – it sort of made me very angry, but it also kept me up at night and made me scared. Right now there’s another film, that there’s an injunction against it. Luckily, we did not have an injunction against our film.

BOB GARFIELD: I guess what I'm trying to figure out is whether the industry’s stonewalling actually backfired on them, whether the film is much harsher for you having been forced to do without their comments.

ROBERT KENNER: Well, I, I think that’s the case because there are a few companies that actually come into this film, and one of them [LAUGHS], at the very last second, after two years, was Wal-Mart. And they are shown in probably one of the more positive lights that you will ever see Wal-Mart. They had been approached by numbers of their consumers who did not want milk with the RBST, with the growth hormone in it. And when we went to film with them, they announced that they were no longer going to buy milk with RBST. Soon after they made that announcement, Monsanto ended up selling the company that produced RBST. So, I was so sort of anxious to show that we were going to treat a corporation very fairly that was wanting to be somewhat transparent and sort of come to the table and talk.

BOB GARFIELD: Did you end up pulling some punches, you know, in anticipation of litigation?

ROBERT KENNER: There are things that I pulled out that I think were true. I'm used to working with high levels of factchecking. I've worked with National Geographic and worked with American Experience. But on this film we spent a lot of time and looked for multiple sources, and there were times where our lawyers would make us redo things. One example was that we were dealing with chicken farmers who were involved with Tyson and Purdue, who I think are very big in the Southeast. And one chicken farmer said that she was giving arsenic to her chickens, and Purdue said, well, we've stopped that practice. But they had defended the practice of giving arsenic to chickens a few weeks prior to our filming with the chicken farmer. I ended up taking that out of the film, but the fact is they were like defending that just a mere few weeks before. But I felt, you know, we'll, we’ll take it out.

BOB GARFIELD: Why were they giving arsenic to chickens?

ROBERT KENNER: Because it kills the bacteria and it helps them grow quicker. But the fact that it’s getting into the water, into the land and into our - the food we're eating is besides the point. And if they can keep it off the label, they find customers were still buying it.

BOB GARFIELD: The chicken farmer who was giving her broilers arsenic, under contract with Purdue, having acknowledged that to your cameras, is she still a Purdue contractor?

ROBERT KENNER: She is no longer in the industry. If you speak out against this industry, you do so at great peril, and that’s what happened to this lady. She knew basically what the consequences would be, but she just could not live with herself any longer. I should say that we tried approaching dozens and dozens and dozens of other chicken farmers, most of whom would have liked to have talk to us, but they realized the consequences of talking, and they ultimately would not go on camera.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Robby. Thank you very much.

ROBERT KENNER: Thanks a lot, Bob. It’s been a pleasure.