I think the turning point for me in understanding just what we were up against — and what our movie is really all about — came when we were filming the sequence about Barbara Kowalcyk.
Barb and her husband lived in Wisconsin with their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Kevin. He was a beautiful, perfectly healthy child, until one day he ate a hamburger containing E. coli bacteria. Kevin developed a complication most people have never ever heard of — hemolytic uremic syndrome — and within twelve days he was dead, one of the thousands of victims of food-borne disease who die in the United States every year. And even after Kevin’s death, it took weeks for the tainted meat to be removed from the market — a shocking comment on the failures of our regulatory system.
As we show in the movie, sicknesses from contaminated food are on the rise, largely because of the lobbying power of the big food processors, which has crippled efforts to police the industry effectively or to impose meaningful sanctions on companies guilty of unsafe food-handling practices. Today, Barb has started a nonprofit organization, the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, and she devotes her time to advocating on Capitol Hill for better regulation of the food industry.
As you can imagine, when we heard Barb tell her story, we all got pretty emotional. (My co-producer Elise Pearlstein actually had to leave the room during the filming because she couldn’t stop crying.) But that wasn’t what shocked me. What shocked me was when I asked her how the death of Kevin and her subsequent research into the problems with our food supply have affected her family’s current eating habits.
“I can’t answer that,” Barbara told me, “because if I did, I could face a lawsuit.”
This left me speechless. I didn’t intend to put my inarticulate responses in the film, but I felt that there was no other way to adequately convey Barb’s situation. Barb is no conspiracy-monger or left-wing anticorporate extremist. She’s a lifelong Republican. But here she was, telling me she was actually afraid to speak openly about her opinions because of the unchecked power of the food corporations.
By this point, I knew that the food companies had no interest in talking on camera, but until that conversation with Barbara Kowalcyk, I had no idea how effective they were at intimidating other people and preventing them from talking.
Excerpted from the chapter “Exploring the Corporate Powers Behind the Way We Eat,” by Robert Kenner, from the book Food, Inc., edited by Karl Weber. Award-winning director Robert Kenner completed production on Food, Inc. for Participant Media and River Road Entertainment in fall 2008.