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New film offers troubling view of U.S. food industry

The new documentary "Food, Inc." begins with idyllic scenes of American farmland, panning from golden fields of hay to a solitary cowboy rounding up a herd of cattle. Then the camera zooms in on a grocery cart overflowing with packaged food and rolling down the aisles of a gaudily lit supermarket.

Eerie, horror movie-style music swells in the background. It's meant to signal that the pastoral fantasy of agrarian America on everything from packages of breakfast sausage to cereal boxes is not what it seems, that great danger lurks behind the cheery images of 1930s-era red barns and white picket fences.

Director Robert Kenner is bent on showing us a far grimmer reality. He tells of dust-choked poultry houses where chickens never see the light of day and are pumped so full of chemicals they produce more meat than their organs can support. Eventually they collapse under the weight of their abnormally large breasts and die before slaughter.

He shows us industrial feed lots where cows are fattened on chemical-enhanced feed and forced to spend their days standing ankle-deep in manure.

Kenner is hoping his film will raise awareness of the enormous price in health and safety that he says Americans pay to gorge themselves on the relatively cheap calories that stock supermarket shelves courtesy of a handful of multinational corporations.

Just as the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" helped galvanize the fight against global warming, Kenner and his partners want to spur legions of activists to rise up and take aim at lawmakers and government regulators they believe have been corrupted by lobbyists for agribusiness.

An alliance of trade associations that represent the nation's meat and poultry producers have set up a Web site to counter virtually every claim in the documentary, from the contention that E. coli contamination could be reduced by feeding cattle grass instead of grain, to charges that federal inspection agencies are understaffed and ineffective, and foodborne illnesses are on the rise.

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