In conversation with: Elise Pearlstein

By Alicia Hamilton

In conversation with: Elise Pearlstein
Elise Pearlstein, co-producer of the documentary "Food, Inc.", chats to MiNDFOOD about consumer consciousness in the kitchen.

Elise Pearlstein, co-producer of the documentary “Food, Inc.”, chats to MiNDFOOD about consumer consciousness in the kitchen.

How much do we really know about the food we buy from our local supermarkets and serve to our families?

The feature-length documentary Food, Inc. lifts the veil on the American food industry, explaining why the country’s food supply is controlled by a small number of corporations that sometimes value profit over consumer health, and how this affects the rest of the world. The film will make you think twice about what you put in your mouth. The filmmakers also outline how you can ensure you and your family are eating healthy and ethically produced food.

Here’s what you can do: Always choose foods that are organic and in season. Keep it local – shop at farmers’ markets or plant a garden. Know what’s in your food – always read labels – and buy from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect.

Ask your child’s school to provide healthy food options. And enjoy food – cook a meal for the family and eat it together.

MiNDFOOD chats with Food, Inc. co-producer, Elise Pearlstein, ahead of the film’s Australian and New Zealand release on October 22, 2009.

The film shows the dark side of the American food industry, and could possibly turn people off buying food from mass suppliers. Is that the response you want from audiences?

The response that we’re hoping for is that people start thinking more about where their food comes from, not just taking for granted that their food is safe and good for them, good for the environment and good for the workers.

It’s really more about starting a public discussion about the current state of our food system which is definitely showing signs of strain.

Have there been any policy shuffles since the film was released in the US in June?

The film has been seen by members of Congress and, not necessarily in direct response to the film, but there is an overhaul of the food safety agencies being proposed right now. There’s also a lot happening to create legislation that would ban the use of antibiotics in livestock production. So both of those things are issues that we touch upon in the film but obviously the legislation was in the works before our film.

What does the overhaul of food agencies, such as the US Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration, entail?

There is definitely an acknowledgment that there has to be more done to prevent conflicts of interest – in the film we call it the revolving door. President Obama, when he became president, in one of the first presidential orders he made an address to not have people in his administration who are tied to any kind of industry that they would be regulating. It wasn’t specific to the food industry, but it would definitely have repercussions for those in food safety agencies.

The legislation is about trying to give more authority to these agencies, more ability to recall food, and to trace where food has come from. Currently there’s a surprising lack of authority among these agencies.

How did it make you feel when you learned of the power that US food companies wield?

It was sobering, depressing and in some ways surprising. I felt like I was a little naïve, I really didn’t understand how pervasive that industry influence could be inside the government – it was pretty shocking to me.

How long has the industry been like this?

I don’t know exactly, but I think you could guess that the last administration was favourable to industry representatives. It was like open season, a lot of regulation stopped during the Bush administration, as you can see with the financial industry. A lot of authority was given to the industries to regulate themselves as well, which is never a good idea.

What sets Food, Inc. apart from a Michael Moore documentary?

For one, we’re not in the film. The filmmakers are not characters, which is frustrating at times because we actually really wanted the audience to know the length we had gone to to try and get some food companies to participate. If you were Michael Moore you would just film yourself on the phone, or film the door being slammed in your face.

We really made an attempt to show different points of view to complicate the issue. We didn’t want to make a black and white film. It wasn’t just good guys and bad guys. We were trying to show that even when you buy organic food there are questions about big organic versus local organic, it’s complicated on any level.

What was the most shocking thing that you discovered whilst making the film?

Obviously I was shocked by some of the conditions in which animals are raised and kept alive. Chickens in particular, I spent a lot of time inside a chicken house.

I was also really shocked by the fear and reticence to speak freely about these issues. We encountered that among farmers, among different workers, and even the woman Barbara Kowalcyk whose son had died [from food poisoning]. She couldn’t even tell us what she can and can’t eat anymore, for fear of legal repercussions.

We found with the farmers there was a lot of fear that if you said the wrong thing you’re going to upset the one company that you’re depending on for your livelihood. It’s as if free speech is not alive and well in the US.

How did you come across the outspoken small-time farmer Joel Salatin from Polyface [a family-owned organic farm]?

We actually found him through Michael Pollan, he was featured in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemna. We wanted to have someone with that point of view and we did a lot of research and ultimately we realised that Joel was the best guy. He’s so articulate and his farm is so beautiful, you actually want to eat his animals.

How many other “Joels” are there in the US?

I don’t know an exact number, but there’s definitely a growing movement to farm differently, to raise animals in a more sustainable way. And for the first time there are younger people going into farming. The average age of farmers in our country is actually quite old – 50 to 60 years old. And the number of farmers has been dwindling. But there is a young movement of people trying to get back into farming and to get back into a different kind of farming.

Do you think the economic crisis has played a role in this trend?

I’ve read that right now there are so few options for people coming out of college, so why not farm? You can kind of do it yourself, if you get access to some land. It’s an easier business to start than some others. Just by necessity more young people might be going into farming.

How does the Slow Food Movement fit into your personal philosophy and the philosophy of the film?

In the film we’re trying to not advocate for one particular type of eating, except maybe you could say conscious eating, but I think some of the values of Slow Food about cooking and appreciating food and trying to connect back to the sources of your food are definitely philosophies that resonate with me personally. I feel like the farther away you are from the source of your food the easier it is to not really care about what’s going on.

In the film Joel Salatin says that killing an animal for food is one of the most intimate things a person can do …

Joel’s the only person in the film that you see killing an animal. If you’re going to eat animals you have to face the fact that you’re killing an animal for food. When you get past that, it’s about thinking about what kind of life that animal had – did you treat it humanely? At least Joel is trying to respect the life of the animal and acknowledge what he’s taking to make food.

The film touches on the meatpacking industry being quite dangerous. What was your reason for not interviewing people who had suffered some kind of injury whilst working in a meatpacking plant?

We actually did interview workers who had suffered injuries. In one version of the film we had half the film devoted to that one angle. But it just became an issue of not being able to include everything in the film.

What type of food do you eat?

I can’t tell you that!


No I’m just kidding. I eat all different kinds of food. I do like to eat organic food when I can. I have little kids and I feel like if I can give them organic and if I can keep pesticides and antibiotics out of their little bodies, then that’s a good thing.

Since making the film I’ve shifted the way I think about meat, to think of it as more of a side dish, not a main dish – which is more the way they eat in Asia. I think it’s a particularly American thing to think that you should eat meat three meals a day, and have huge chicken breasts and huge steaks on your plate. I also try to eat something that hasn’t been on a ship or a plane to get to my plate.

Luckily I’m a little spoilt as I live in California and we have long growing seasons. But we have definitely become accustomed to getting whatever we want whenever we want it.

As a documentary maker, must you believe in your film’s subject matter?

Some people don’t, but I do need to believe in the film that we’re making. This is a difficult one because Robert Kenner (the director) and I really wanted to hear other arguments. The big companies do have arguments to make that can be compelling I was interested in being convinced by them as well. I would have a hard time putting a message out there that I didn’t believe in.

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