LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In 1906, Upton Sinclair published his muckraking novel "The Jungle," which exposed corruption, unsanitary conditions and horrifying labor practices in the U.S. meatpacking business. The book caused a sensation that brought about a huge public outcry and considerable reform. More than a century later, "Food, Inc.," a documentary from director-producer Robert Kenner and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation"), might be "The Jungle" for the 21st century. Things, it seems, have gotten worse in our food supply.
No question, watching this film is a tough go. Horror films cause less seat-squirming. The challenge faced by Magnolia Pictures is how to bring in the unconverted, meaning those who pooh-pooh the notion that what they eat could possibly be unsafe. Making the film available across several platforms should deliver not only greater returns but a better-educated public that can vote for greater food safety by the way they shop for food.
Several films, including "Food Fight" and "Fast Food Nation," have explored many of these themes. But none engenders the sense of urgency -- and anger -- that "Food, Inc." does. The main villain is agribusiness, a multicorporation behemoth that controls virtually everything you eat.
The film, like Sinclair's novel, is an unapologetic exercise in advocacy journalism. However, lest anyone accuse the filmmakers of unfairness, representatives of the corporations that control our food supply were offered time to explain their approach to food safety. Everyone proved camera shy. Worse, the corporations pressured farmers not to give interviews or allow cameras inside food factories. Conditions are that bad.
But one chicken farmer did cooperate. And hidden cameras got inside a "factory farm." Don't schedule dinner after seeing this film.
Guided by Schlosser -- who appears on camera, as does fellow food journalist Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") -- the film explores how food has changed more in a half-century "than in the previous 10,000 years." Despite the farm images that appear on packaged foods, a handful of corporations, not farmers, control our food supply. Governmental regulatory agencies charged with overseeing food safety essentially are toothless because most of the administrators are former -- or future -- food company executives.
Here is what results: Cattle are fed corn rather than grass because it's cheaper. This has produced new strains of E. coli virus that have stricken thousands and killed hundreds. The processing of animals -- an often cruel process for animals and humans alike -- admits far too many contaminants into the meat supply.
Government policy favors subsidies for the "wrong calories" in our diet. This has led to epidemics in obesity and diabetes. Because of these policies, the cost of many foods is actually down -- but at the hidden cost of increased medical expenses. Don't flatter yourself if you don't eat fast food: The "system" reaches into everything you eat.
Kenner takes you through these unsettling stories through a mix of articulate talking heads, cameras peering where Food Inc. doesn't want scrutiny, citizens lobbying their representatives in Congress and entertaining graphics and animation. It's Michael Moore without the self-aggrandizing hyperbole.
What it's not, though, is discouraging: The film ends by asking people to shop wisely, to support farmers' markets and food produced by organic or sustainable farming methods. If Wal-Mart can change its products and policies because of customer demand, every one of those Food Inc. companies can do likewise.