The Gourmet Q + A: Robert Kenner

robert kenner

In his new film, Food, Inc., producer/director Robert Kenner teams up with Eric Schlosser (co-producer) to examine the impact of the industrialized food system on consumer health, American farmers, workers’ safety, and the environment. Gourmet web editor Christy Harrison spoke with Kenner about the reaction his film has been getting at nationwide screenings—and about how “veggie libel laws” have silenced critics of the food industry, why travel is horrible, and who controls America’s agriculture schools.

Christy Harrison: I saw your film at the Brooklyn Based screening last week; at the Q&A afterwards, you discussed a story line about strawberry farming that didn’t end up in the film. I’m interested to hear more about that.

Robert Kenner: That was one of about 300 stories we spent a lot of time on. We were pursuing people who design hazmat suits [for strawberry growers]. These growers have to be covered head to foot, and it looks like they’re walking on the moon. There was another story about someone who designs tomatoes that will last six months longer than the tomatoes we have now; they’re also a little more square so they can be packed better. We’ve forgotten taste—we now are so much more used to things just being there all season long, whether they have any taste or not.

And I almost filmed something about flavor factories. A woman [who worked at one such factory] was telling me that when they design flavors today, kids don’t even want them to taste like fruit anymore. They’re getting away from imitating real flavors and just creating absolutely artificial flavors. We don’t even want imitation-real anymore.

I also found somebody who does MRI scans on children—they show them commercials and study their brain patterns so that [the advertisers] can really refine their approach to selling. They understand that people develop their eating habits at a very young age, and they’re basically looking to hook them.

CH: So how do you get people unhooked, especially if the industry starts targeting kids even more precisely?

RK: It’s a hard drug to come off of. Cigarettes were hard to kick; food is maybe even harder. Sixty-four percent of Americans are either overweight or obese—I feel like I’m becoming one of them since I’ve been traveling. Travel, for me, is horrible food-wise.

CH: You’ve said you’re spending a lot of time in the airport on this media tour.

RK: It’s so bad when you’re hungry. I recently heard someone say we’re nine meals away from murder—to which a friend of mine said, try two. I’m one of those people (I guess a lot of us are) who get sort of desperate and end up eating things that we’re genetically designed to eat: sugar, fat, salt.

But I think we are starting to recognize something’s wrong. There’s obviously a growing demand [for good food], but it’s not just going to come from individuals—we’re up against very powerful forces that know how to appeal to us.

CH: Some of the farmers you talked to in the film said they wanted to show you inside their operations but were afraid of repercussions. Did you find that a lot of people wanted to talk to you but were torn?

RK: You know, most people want to talk— they don’t want to hide. I had interesting conversations on all sorts of levels. But when I started this, I didn’t realize how subversive this topic was. That was the shock: realizing how subversive food could be. I could have been doing a film on nuclear terrorism and had greater access.

CH: Right; you’ve said the film you made about the Vietnam War, Two Days in October, was easier.

RK: [For that film,] people just opened their souls—people whose opinions were different than mine. I thought it would be hard to crack them, but they were so generous; two guys left their hospital beds after operations because they had appointments to talk with me. And I think viewers walk away with a greater understanding, because we’re hearing from all different people with different points of view. That is what I hope to do as a filmmaker; I don’t want to make one-sided pieces. I didn’t mean to do that [with Food, Inc.].

CH: But it sounds like in this film, many of the people on the industry side just wouldn’t talk to you.

RK: They would not talk. That’s why I was shocked when Wal-Mart showed up. It was at the end of filming, and I didn’t know how they would fit into the film, but we’d spent so much time trying to get them that I felt obligated to show up. I didn’t want to do a puff piece, but I didn’t want to totally slam them. I had no idea how to make that work, but it fell into place. I’ve been attacked by many for making them look better, but I think it’s good because [the Wal-Mart story in the film] shows the power of the consumer.

CH: Let’s talk a bit about veggie libel laws and how they affected the making of the film. At the Brooklyn screening you said you had to have lawyers present basically every step of the way.

RK: There are state laws in a number of states that make it against the law to disparage a food product. And groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom are doing everything they can to stop people from having information on what’s in their food. When Oprah criticized hamburgers, the price of beef dropped the next day; she was sued for loss of income. So basically, food is being given the rights of a human being. Oprah ultimately won, but it’s very discouraging.

CH: And she’s Oprah—she has resources.

RK: Yes, deep pockets.

CH: Have you had any lawsuits brought against you?

RK: No, there’ve been no lawsuits, but I’ve made about 15 films and I’ve spent more on this one than all the others combined—probably times three—and that’s legal fees. When we did an animation of GMO labels, we had to redo it two or three times because our lawyer had to see it. We would spend all this additional time creating things that would have to be reviewed and okayed or rejected and redone.

CH: What was it about the animation that was so problematic?

RK: Our lawyer was saying he didn’t want us to show labels, but I was saying we have to because it doesn’t mean anything without the label. Here’s the trick with GMOs: Sometimes [food manufacturers] get their wheat or whatever and there might be some non-GMO crop in it, so they’re saying, “We don’t know if it’s GMO 100 percent of the time. There could be 3 percent that’s not GMO and you could be showing one of our products that’s one of the 3 percent.” But Americans want to know if they’re eating GMOs.

And the new problem—again, this is not in the film—is ag schools. These schools are no longer independent; they’re all sponsored by the Monsantos of the world. Everywhere I went, if I had someone who wanted to speak to me, the head of the school would become scared. We’re getting research [from ag schools], but it’s the kind of research we used to get that told us that tobacco was safe. It’s not independent research. Here we are at a moment in time when we are in desperate need of healthy conversations about how our food is made, and we’re not getting a good conversation. That’s what I had hoped to do in the film, but I think we also need it in these ag schools. Because if this system is unsustainable, then where are we going? And if the infrastructure for creating [an alternative] has disappeared, we’re in trouble.

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