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Menu of a Mission

From the seed to the supermarket, “Food, Inc.” makes a case for going back to our roots.

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You won't be going to the grocery store any time soon after seeing “Food, Inc.” Instead, once you think you might actually be able to eat again, you're going to want to find a farmer you trust, who understands old-fashioned farming and who treats animals humanely and with respect.

If you don't want to know where your food comes from or how it's processed, this isn't the film for you. However — just thinking out loud here — you might want to get a little better informed. Although its tone is forthrightly polemical, the movie offers the same information that's been authoritatively documented in the books “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, one of the film's co-producers, and Michael Pollan's “The Omnivore's Dilemma.” Pollan himself emerges in this documentary as the shining light of reason, illuminating the horrors of the lowly egg.

Even if you've read both books, it doesn't really prepare you to see cows penned in a swamp of excrement or the perverse overcrowding of chickens. Industrialization, when applied to living, breathing organisms, becomes in its efficiency not only a stomach-turning example of animal cruelty, but also an outright danger to the health of all of us.

It's a crazy cycle: Overcrowding leads to sick animals that need antibiotics to stay alive until slaughter, which in turn breeds superbugs resistant to the same antibiotics we might need if we get sick. And given the sloppy nature of food inspection in this country, the presence of E. coli — bacteria that make us very sick indeed — in ordinary things such as peanut butter or cookie dough shouldn't surprise us.

But overcrowding is just one part of the problem. Animals, we learn, were meant to eat grass. Instead, the multinational food industry feeds them corn. And that makes the animals sick, and because of overcrowding, disease spreads quickly. In “Food Inc.” director Robert Kenner carefully lays out his argument by dividing his film into different sections that show how genetically modifying corn in order to lower production costs — in addition to the federal government subsidizing the farmers who grow it — has enabled corn to get into most of what we eat, from ketchup to hot dogs. Genetically modified foods pose unexamined health risks both to the environment and to us and make us more inclined to buy junk food instead of salads, because junk costs so much less.

It's difficult to imagine a credible defense agri-business could present once you witness any of the horrific scenes in this film. But perhaps the most insidiously disturbing scene is that of an ordinary supermarket, brimming with choices that are, according to “Food, Inc.,” not really choices at all. Instead, Kenner proposes, the only logical choice you can make is to directly purchase your food from the source. And that's where a farmer like Joel Salatin of Virginia's Polyface Farms persuasively convinces us that paying a little bit extra for the food you eat brings a peace of mind that saving a buck never can. (PG) 93 min. HHHHH  S

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