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Gut Check: Pollan and Kenner on "Food, Inc."

For my new column on food policy, which debuts in today's Food section, I recently sat down with Robert Kenner, the director of "Food, Inc.," and writer Michael Pollan, a consultant on the film. Over the course of almost an hour, we talked about whether the food movement was elitist, whether cheap food is a trick, and why you can't say the word "externalities." Or at least why you shouldn't. An edited transcript follows.

Ezra Klein: Tell me what the argument of the movie was. It seemed to me you could've picked a couple out of the film. Which did you see yourself saying?

Kenner: On some level, we're telling seven or eight different stories and ultimately connecting them together to say that this system has some really high costs. People ask me if this is elitist. Is it elitist to think we can feed the world with healthy, organic food? I think it's elitist to be making people sick with unhealthy, subsidized food and not talk about it.

Klein: What I got from the film was that it was a study of the corporate takeover of the food supply chain. It struck me that you ended up with an ultimately ambivalent stance on the role of the corporation. You had a contrast between our friend from Polyface Farms, who was aggressively anti-corporate, and the CEO of Stonyfield. In the Stonyfield portion, you seemed conflicted about him. But then he played a big role in the conclusion. He was the guy who said you know, I'm really making a change here, I'm the one with the numbers.

Kenner: There are many spokes in the wheel of this movement. Joel [Salatin] is one where everyone is going to stand up and cheer. Gary [Hirshberg], well, Gary is more complicated. On the one hand, we're making a film about corporatization and consolidation, and even the organic industry is being taken over, as Gary explains. So that concerns me. But on the other hand, he's part of a movement getting chemicals out of the earth and out of our food system. But I think people need to decide for themselves. I didn't feel, as a filmmaker, that I had to give you all the answers. And I've been appreciative of Gary's support. He's putting "Food, Inc." on 20 million yogurt lids.

Pollan: The other point that Gary makes, that I think is useful, is that the consumer has more power than he or she realizes. The Wal-Mart story is that they felt their consumers were sending a vote that they didn't want hormone-treated meat, and so they got out of that market. They offered themselves up as a company willing to do whatever the consumer wants. I actually think that's totally disingenuous. Consumers do have power, but they make decisions in the context of choices they're given by corporations. The treatment of Wal-Mart was one of the things we argued about.

But before that part, I talk about resilience in the food system. To look for a single solution is, I think, a mistake. It won't be all local, or all grass-fed. We don't know enough to say which one we want. And by offering more than one glimmer of hope, I think it's good that the film doesn't come down and say this is the way to do it. I think the problem is that we only have one way to do it now. And that's what's dangerous.

Klein: So you're pro-choice for food?

Kenner: Some of the corporations are now coming out and saying that if the people from "Food, Inc." ran the world, you wouldn't be able to eat your favorite foods anymore.

Pollan: I think that's a rhetorical trick. I approach these questions ecologically. We don't know what's going to happen with fossil fuel prices or antibiotic disease. If what we say is true, that the industrial food system is unsustainable, that means something very precise: That it's subject to breakdowns. And we don't know what that'll be.

Kenner: To add to that, the thing I think Gary spoke to well was the empowerment of the consumer to change these things.

Klein: Let's focus on that for a minute. You didn't quite broach this in the film, but the corporations -- they're smarter than we are. Organic might mean organic the way we think of it when Gary says it, but it doesn't all the time. "Naturally-raised" just got its FDA definition, and it's a cruel joke: "raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), and have never been fed animal byproducts." It conjures up one image in the mind of the consumer but means something else for the producer. Pretty quickly after you had organics, you had organic Oreos. So when people are trying to trick you, and there's many degrees of separation between you and your food, how do you respond?

Kenner: This film was made for people who are not converted. I am hoping that we can reach an audience that has not thought about where their food comes from. And I feared that if we parsed it too much, it would be too complicated for mothers in the Midwest who had never thought of their supermarket this way.

Pollan: You're absolutely right, they are smarter than we are. Make no mistake: When you see a package advertising "no high-fructose corn syrup," that's an implicit health claim for sugar. So how do you beat that? My new rule is don't buy any foods you've ever seen advertised. About 94 percent of advertising budgets go to support processed foods. In Canada, they're selling Hellmann's mayonnaise as local because it's made from canola oil in Canada.

Klein: The movie didn't strike me as having an "ask." A lot of industries in this town -- industries built around a problem -- they know what bill they want passed. If they get Sen. Max Baucus in a room or Sen. Tom Harkin in a room, they know what they're asking for. It strikes me that the food issue is still a young critique. But what do you want in particular? If you could pass a bill, what would it say?

Kenner: The food safety seems to be first. It's unbelievable to me that you can sell meat with E.coli in it. I think one of the harder ones is changing the Farm Bill to the Food Bill. It's hard to change our support systems to work in favor of food that's healthier. Spending a bit more to encourage small farms to get us away from large corporations. Making school lunches healthier. But I'm not so politically tied in. It's my job to just make people more conscious. It's like tobacco; people smoked it for a long time and then the information began to come out that this isn't healthy. And things began to change.

Pollan: The film's job is to bring more people into this conversation. The way farm policy gets made is within a very tight group of people: Industry, committees on the Hill, the USDA, and very little input from us. The reason I got involved with this film is I saw it as a way to reach an audience beyond print and bring more people into that conversation: To simply politicize the film proposal. The policy proposals will come later. What you say is right. It's a young movement, a young critique. And sadly, our opportunity with this administration came up before we were ready. We have enough writers and chefs and foodmakers. We need policymakers and staffers and people who understand how policy works in Washington.

Klein: I think that you can separate out a number of different issues in the movie. Food safety, nutrition, environment, carbon, animal rights, worker's rights.

Kenner: The worker's rights piece is big. I was showing worker abuse and people thought it was animal abuse. People are much more sensitive to the treatment of animals than to the treatment of immigrant communities.

Klein: So to make a stylized argument here, those occasionally seem to point in different directions. Someone worried about nutrition might say we just need to get the prices of fruits and vegetables down as low as possible. Doesn't matter how. Blanket them in pesticides, use illegal labor. Just get it cheap. If your benchmark is pathogens, you could have an argument on food safety between someone who wants to bathe the meat in ammonia and someone who wants to grow more locally and naturally. The animal rights critique obviously puts you at cross purposes with some of these issues. Do you see these critiques as unified?

Kenner: I do. It's basically fair food. Fair to the people growing the food, fair to the animals, the earth, the consumers. Eric Schlosser has said that organic heirloom tomatoes are wonderful, but if they're picked by slave labor, there's still something wrong with that tomato.

Pollan: I think transparency is one of the unifying themes. You can talk about personal responsibility all you want. But you need good information before you can exercise personal responsibility. And a lot of these corporations are trying to keep that information from us. But in terms of fitting the critique to Washington, reform could be driven by the health care crisis. Or by the climate change crisis. Either way you have to look at food. More than half of chronic diseases are linked to diet, and three-quarters of our health care costs come from chronic disease. The health care crisis is another way of saying the catastrophe of the American diet. You could reduce our spending on health care if you expand our spending on food.

Klein: One of the things I thought the movie addressed well but didn't call out by name were externalities. And I think that was the right decision because the name is boring.

Pollan: [laughs] You'll never see that word in anything I've written ever.

Klein: But you'll see it all the time if you read me. I'm all about externalities. And it seemed to me that the movie was really about the high cost of cheap food.

Kenner: Absolutely! We're putting less of our paycheck towards food than at any time in history. But at the same time, it comes at an incredibly high cost. Maybe even one that will bankrupt us. It can't continue.

Klein: To go back to the family where the father had diabetes, it seemed to me that what they had done was borrow from their future selves. They bought cheap food years ago and now they pay hundreds out-of-pocket a month in diabetes costs. They paid high interest when they were older. And part of your argument is just forcing people to confront the long-term implications of their choices. But how do people confront what is, by this point, a complex food chain, where the effects come 20 years into the future or happen to an immigrant laborer?

Pollan: The problem is that that family actually is paying the price for their food choices. But most people don't. The Washington Post pays your health care. If you got diabetes, you'd never feel the cost of it. But the big cost of how we're eating is being born by unseen industries. I spoke to the AHIP -- the health insurance industry -- recently. And I argued that the health care industry should become an ally in changing farm policy because they pay more for every person with diabetes. We've never had a really tough public health campaign on diabetes. But what if we did? What if it was like our campaign on smoking? So one answer is to bring industries like the health care industry into this fight. To convince them that they have a dog in it.

Kenner: Plus they're spending billions of dollars a years on marketing.

Klein: So one struggle that folks in the food movement have faced is the perception that it's an elite movement. I think we can agree that the population likely to see that film is more like me than the family with diabetes. But the implication of that is that it's not reaching the audience most at-risk for diabetes.

Pollan: The movement is democratizing right now. It's happening. The critique that it's elite is a serious one. Elites have the time and resources to experiment with how they eat. And historically, it's been common for movements for social reform to begin among elites. The civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, environmentalism. These all began as elite movements. This critique will be a lot more devastating if we can still say it in 20 years.

Kenner: For me, entering this world, what felt elitist was that this family, with very little money, was buying food that was making them sick. And there's something wrong with a country that is subsidizing food that makes people sick. That's what's elitist.

Pollan: When the populist high-ground can be claimed by McDonald's and Coca-Cola, there's something wrong with that picture.

-- Ezra Klein

Editor's Note: Thanks to blog reader scottpauls for suggesting the winning name of Ezra's new column: Gut Check. E-mail your contact information to us at, and we'll send you your prize.

By Joe Yonan  |  July 1, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Gut Check , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Ezra Klein, food policy, movies  
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EXCELLENT article, reflecting my post-Food,inc.-viewing sentiments EXACTLY, and thank you for introducing "Gut Check!" I hope all concerned will commit to restraining themselves from snide political digs and/or partisan shots at either Libs or Conservatives. I'm a died-in-the-wool conservative and capitalist, but I see the truth in what you say and I'm ready to join you under the whatever-color flag of food production revolution!

Posted by: mirabeaulamarr | July 1, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Joe/Ezra, you've got the guy as both Kenner and Keller--or I'm super confused.

Posted by: ShaniG | July 1, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, Shani -- All fixed.

Posted by: Joe Yonan | July 1, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

This isn't about food. This is reflexive anti-business ideology. This is wanting to impose extra costs on consumers to make them conform to Ezra's and the filmmakers' personal moral outlook. This is anti-choice arrogance.

If the Government were setting out to restrict our sexual and reproductive choices in the name of "externalities" and "fairness," Ezra would howl "Keep out of my bedroom." Well, Ezra, keep out of my kitchen.

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 1, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Typical you have an overeducated ignorant urban dwelling punk questioning two other urban dwelling overeducted little boys. The punk asking the questions has a definite bias and doesn't have a clue about real life putting food on the table for your family.

ERza and friends how much do you think a lb of bonelss chicken breasts would cost if
we followed the recommendation fo these two urban dwelling socialists AR freaks? How's about a pound of spinach? Or a gallon of 2% milk.

These two fools are part of the AR movement which wants to see all livestock production come to end and wants no one to have a pet.

Get over yourself little boys and get a clue about life!

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | July 1, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Great interview! Looking forward to more of this. The choice is clear: skimp on what you consume, and pay a much greater price with your health later (exacerbated by an inadequate and expensive health care infrastructure), or put down the Cheesy Poufs and claim your well-being!

I think we can all guess what the greedheads would have us eating if they could manage to get away with it.

Posted by: fluxgirl | July 1, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Reading about people worrying about the prices of milk or spinach rising and them being unable to feed their family is hilarious. Perhaps if the food prices rose because of an increase in quality of food half of your family would not be obese. I am from Europe where food is expensive. But it is REAL – no genetically modified tomatoes for us. And a meal costs three or four times as much as here but everyone eats smaller portions and better quality food. Wishing for food that is not (more-or-less) created in a lab is not an elitist or snobbish desire.

Posted by: hanumica | July 1, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Nothing against the column's name, but didn't the original call for suggestions say that they had to be original?

Gut Check is also the name of Warren Rojas' blog over at Northern Virginia Magazine.

This should have been an easy catch. It's not like it's some obscure weekly in northern Idaho or's right across the Potomac.

Posted by: JoeHoya | July 1, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Hey! Omar is back. I'm still waiting for your suggestions for Virginia wines, Still, Kim and I had a good chuckle over dinner the other night. Hope the hunting is going well.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | July 2, 2009 10:16 PM | Report abuse

"Gut Check" is an great idea I'd have missed had I not linked to the food section. I hope in the future will provide a homepage link.

Those too young to recall the hard-fought legislative victories, mandating so little as the listing of even ingredients and later calories, etc., may not realize the argument advanced was that consumers aren't interested in knowing, though transparency is the obvious key to informed consumption.

Posted by: jhbyer | July 5, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

For Kenner to worry about making things "too complicated for those mothers in the Midwest who may not have thought about their supermarket that way" reeks of parochial ignorance. Moms in America's breadbasket surely can parse issue as well as any, say, Southern dad or urban single.

Posted by: jhbyer | July 5, 2009 8:41 PM | Report abuse

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