Times Food Writer Doesn't Trust Food

Food writer Kim Severson claims E. coli is "a constant in the food supply" and passes along a filmmaker-activist's suggestions on combatting "Food, Inc.": "Plant a garden. Cook a meal for the family. Contact Congress."

For a food writer, Kim Severson is pretty puritanical. In 2007 she reported approvingly about a school snack-food ban. In Sunday's Arts & Leisure section piece,under the activist headline"Eat, Drink, Think, Change," she reviewed Robert Kenner's new documentary "Food, Inc.," a grim picture that treads the same nauseating road of Morgan Spurlock's "Supersize Me."

Movies about food used to make you want to eat.

The decade that spanned the mid-1980s to mid-1990s was particularly fruitful. It took heroic resolve to walk out of the Japanese spaghetti western "Tampopo" and not head directly to a ramen bar.


But that was then, before Wal-Mart started selling organic food and Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. Before E. coli was a constant in the food supply, before politicians tried to tax soda and before anyone gave much thought to the living conditions of chickens.

Into this world comes "Food, Inc.," a documentary on the state of the nation's food system that opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on Friday.

"Food, Inc." is part of a new generation of food films that drip with politics, not sauces. It's eat-your-peas cinema that could make viewers not want to eat anything at all.

Is E. coli really a "constant in the food supply"? That doesn't sound terribly scientific. Detection of E. coli has risen recently only because it's now easier to detect and track. Of course, the food supply as a whole is much safer than it was decades ago, "Food, Inc.," or not, and many E. coli cases have been traced to "organic food" protected with natural pesticides that don't do the job as effectively as conventional herbicides. But none of these facts found their way into the Times:

Mr. Schlosser is a producer of, and a character in, "Food, Inc.," in which the director Robert Kenner takes a sprawling look at the perils of Big Food. The film is being promoted as an exposé of "the highly mechanized underbelly" of the seemingly benign food people eat every day.

"Food, Inc." begins with images of a bright, bulging American supermarket, and then moves to the jammed chicken houses, grim meat-cutting rooms and chemical-laced cornfields where much of the American diet comes from. Along the way Mr. Kenner attempts to expose the hidden costs of a system in which fast-food hamburgers cost $1 and soda is cheaper than milk.


Viewers who haven't thought much about how all that food in the grocery store got to be there will likely find it hard to toss a few packages of pork chops and some Froot Loops in the cart and call it a day. Some viewers will undoubtedly look away during the meat cutting and processing scenes. For parents the eye-averting moment will come during repeated slow-motion scenes of a 2-year-old's last vacation. His mother, now a food-safety advocate, explains in a tearful voice-over the gruesome details of his death after he ate hamburger tainted with E. coli.

Near the end Severson passed along some helpful suggestions to help along Kenner's food crusade:

Because "Food, Inc." was produced by Participant Media (among others), the company that backed "An Inconvenient Truth," comparisons are inevitable. But there's a big difference. After watching Al Gore explain the horrors of climate change, moviegoers can turn off a few lights, think about a Prius and call it a day. People who leave "Food, Inc." still have to eat.

And the filmmakers know that. At the end of the film a series of suggestions run across the screen. Plant a garden. Cook a meal for the family. Contact Congress.