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Required Viewing: Robert Kenner's Remarkable 'Food, Inc.'

Now playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, one of the year’s most important films, Food, Inc., traces the industrial food revolution from its mid-20th century beginnings, when new, profoundly influential restaurant chains like McDonalds introduced the factory-inspired concept of line cooking in their kitchens, to the present, when supermarkets are routinely stocked with genetically engineered meats and vegetables.

How the rise of America’s top purveyors of beef and corn has contributed to the nation’s obesity epidemic and recurring E. coli outbreaks is explained with devastating clarity in director Robert Kenner’s big-screen debut, which pulls back the curtains on the highly mechanized food industry to reveal a culture dominated by government-sanctioned greed and an alarming disregard for the health of the consumer.

This is not the kind of movie that will reach the audience it deserves. Unlike Michael Moore’s more inflammatory provocations, Food, Inc. is a dispassionate appeal to common sense for those who would rather understand what they eat than blindly scarf down whatever’s cheapest and quickest. There’s a reason a burger costs less than a pound of broccoli, and it has nothing to do with nutrition.

It has everything to do, we learn, with the industry’s breeding of fatter, corn-fed cattle and the government’s declining regulatory standards – a troubling trend, also dating back to the 1950s, and a direct result of former Big Food lobbyists and lawyers being appointed to federal watchdog agencies like the Department of Agriculture.

Where’s the outrage? It’s here, presented with painstaking research and thoughtful, evenhanded commentary from authors and activists including Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and U.C. Berkeley’s Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). If that makes Food, Inc. sound like a dry polemic, it’s anything but. A veteran of public television’s American Experience, Kenner delivers a vital, visually stylish piece of filmmaking that is as informative as it is fascinating, infuriating and, at times, heartbreaking.

Is there hope for a fundamentally flawed system that the government and corporations like Perdue, Monsanto and Tyson would rather spend millions to preserve than fix? Surprisingly, there is, and part of the solution involves retail chains like Wal-Mart catering to a growing demand for organic foods. The uneasy alliance of big business and organic farmers is a single step but an important one. So, too, is Food, Inc.