Food Inc., a new documentary by director Robert Kenner, points an accusing finger at the U.S. food industry - a corporate monopoly, it says, that treats livestock inhumanely and grows genetically modified crops with fertilizers and pest killers that put public health and the planet at risk.

The film has stirred the long-simmering debate between food industry representatives and consumer advocates over what's safe and not-so-safe to eat.  

Raising questions about chemicals, cleanliness

In Food Inc., author and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser describes the American food industry as an over-mechanized monopoly in which a handful of corporations produce and sell 80 percent of what we eat. Schlosser argues that the highly processed food it produces is filled with chemical additives and is nutritionally inferior to natural foods. Other food ethicists appear in the film to echo Schlosser's concerns.

The film shows us cattle artificially fattened with high-corn diets. Cows, it reminds us, did not evolve to eat corn. According to Kenner's documentary, poultry are also fed chemically enhanced foods so chickens will grow larger and faster and be ready for market sooner. The film takes us to crowded and dirty cattle feed lots that are a breeding ground for a potentially deadly form of E.coli bacteria.

Industry insists food is safe, nutritious

Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Meat Institute in Washington, says the industry follows strict safety standards by using clean facilities, sterilized equipment and FDA-regulated antibiotics.

"I found the movie to be a caricature of the industry I know," Riley says. "I didn't feel that it represented it at all. I felt that they tried to condemn the food industry through some anecdotes, through some unusual practices." 

Riley insists that the meat industry today produces safe, affordable food for the country's growing population.
"Most of the food we consume in the U.S. is perfectly safe,"  Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, agrees - to a point.

But DeWaal says locally produced food usually arrives at our tables sooner and fresher and often tastes better. We also can learn first-hand how it is grown. 

Local farmers offer food straight from the field

Farmer James Born, from Calvert County, Maryland, sells his produce in local farmers' markets like one in Old Town Alexandria in Virginia.

"I have personal relationships with my customers," says Born. "They are always welcome to come and see what I'm doing. I have one intern. Everything else is family oriented. My family has owned this farm since 1690. It's intense [work], but I love it."  

Customers love it, too.

"It's the taste; it's the atmosphere. It's kind of knowing who you're buying your food from and how they raise their chickens or how they grow their food. It's just great," says a young woman at the market. 
"Everything is fresher and homegrown and tastes much better," chimes in an older Alexandria resident.

"We like the market very much," says a local. "In fact, we were just told that this [shows off a cucumber] was picked yesterday, and we're gonna eat it today. So, it can't get fresher than that."

Consumers advised to weigh their options
But all that fresh, local food - grown on small-scale farms - is also more labor-intensive to produce and more costly to market than foods grown conventionally on distant mega-farms.  So is the consumer really better off? 

"There is definitely a romantic love affair that's occurring with this sort of peasant agriculture," Janet Riley says. "But for those people who are looking for value, who are struggling to make ends meet, they need to have options, too."

But Caroline DeWaal says that customers have the right to know where their food comes from.

"You can't market food grown on a farm but produced in a factory," she says. "You need to be honest about what you're selling."

And that's the central theme of Robert Kenner's new documentary, Food Inc., as it takes on the American food industry and joins the continuing debate over the quality and safety of the nation's food.