Lights, camera -- controversy

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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In the new documentary film "Food, Inc.," which opens today (June 12) in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, mainstream agriculture’s point of view, including that of the meat and poultry industry, is represented almost entirely by a single person – Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.

"Yes, I seem to be the fulcrum of the whole movie," he told MEATPOULTRY.com with a chuckle. "In the film I say that we’re producing more affordable chicken on less land than ever and that I can’t see how that’s a bad thing — and then they spend what seems like the rest of the movie saying how that’s a bad thing."

But Lobb said his experience with the filmmakers, including director Robert Kenner (his films include four segments for the "American Experience" documentary series on public broadcasting, plus one of the segments of "The Blues" series produced by Martin Scorsese, among several other projects), narrator Michael Pollan (author of the best-sellers "The Omnivore’s Dilemma" and "The Botany of Desire") and producer Eric Schlosser (author of "Fast Food Nation"), was good. "They treated me fairly. I thought the interview they did with me was perfectly normal," he said. "We had had some conversations back and forth going back to 2007, and I told them they needed to come in for a briefing. I gave them a Power Point presentation, which they filmed pretty much at the same time they were interviewing me."

At the film’s premier in Washington, D.C., on June 8, Lobb said both Kenner and Pollan thanked him "effusively" for representing the industry with cogent, thoughtful observations.

"Food, Inc." also includes comments from two executives from Wal-Mart who discuss the huge retailer’s interest in bringing more organic products into its Supercenters, and an interview with Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s largest producer of organic yogurt (which itself is majority owned by European yogurt giant Groupe Danone).

The film is an unabashed indictment of practices by major food companies, including meat and poultry companies, which, according to the film’s point of view, put profit ahead of food safety, environmental safeguards and human welfare. At the same time, the film invokes a halcyon past when food was grown locally for local markets. The problem with this scenario, Lobb told MEATPOULTRY.com, is that as far as the broiler industry is concerned, it never happened. "They’re inventing a past that never existed," he said. "It’s never been done that way. The broiler industry as we know it was invented on the Delmarva peninsula by a woman named Mrs. Steel who ordered 50 chicks but got 500 by mistake. She made money on the deal, though, and pretty soon was raising 5,000 chicks. The other farmers in her area took notice and soon everyone was raising 5,000 broilers. This was back in the 1920s. The idea that commercial chickens were raised a dozen at a time on small farms – that never happened."

Part of the misconception may be due to the fact that the film’s production team was not able to gain access to any modern poultry operations. "When Robert Kenner got to my office, he told me they weren’t able to get in to any plants," Lobb said, adding that the director and the film’s producers also seem not to have directly contacted any broiler companies. "As far as I know, they never picked up the phone and called Springdale, Arkansas," he said in reference to the headquarters city of Tyson Foods. "They talked to some farmers, just sort of showing up. But you can’t just pop up on farms and say, ‘Hey, you want to be in our movie?’"

But Lobb said the industry needs to do a better job giving the public a view of what it does. He pointed out that all of the broilers grown in the U.S. are raised on about 50,000 acres of land. "That’s a great story, I think. It’s an incredibly efficient use of land to produce millions and millions of pounds of good protein." He added: "I think we need to re-visit this and be more open." He cautioned, however, that there are two immediate problems: "One, we do have brand names, and no one with a brand name wants to get tangled up in this kind of story. Two, there are biosecurity issues with allowing film crews tramp around broiler farms and processing plants."

Even so, "If you work at it, it can turn out well," he said, mentioning a documentary made by CBS television in late 2005, when avian influenza had captured news headlines and the public’s attention, which he called "accurate and excellent." Before the CBS crew arrived to film at a plant, however, all the signage was taken down so that it wasn’t apparent which operation was being filmed. But the host of the documentary, who was toured through the plant by the then-president of the Arkansas Broiler Council, called the operation "the Fort Knox of poultry" in reference to its tight biosecurity and food safety measures. "So it can happen, you just have to work at it," said Lobb.

He called "Food, Inc.," "not a fun movie. My own personal opinion is that it really dragged after the first 45 minutes. It’s only 90 minutes long, but it felt like two hours." He said the reviews he’s read have been mixed.

He’s not yet sure how big a stir "Food, Inc." will cause. "I tend to judge these things from the secondary coverage," he said. "There was a story in the Associated Press, there was a story on National Public Radio, and there’s going to be something on television. The producers are working with activist groups, and I understand they want to get information into schools. There’s also going to be a companion book, I think. I’d like to brush the whole thing off, but I’m going to be watching ticket sales and any additional coverage closely."

After the New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles openings, "Food, Inc." opens "wide," to use the film industry’s term, on June 27. Lobb said he believes a distribution deal has been made with the Landmark chain of theaters, which are mostly clustered in major metropolitan and college towns and which tend to show art-house and independent films rather than blockbusters.

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