NEW YORK - Bigger-breasted chickens fattened artificially. New strains of deadly E. coli bacteria. A food supply controlled by a handful of corporations.
The documentary "Food, Inc." opens in the United States on Friday and portrays these purported dangers and changes in the U.S. food industry, asserting harmful effects on public health, the environment, and worker and animal rights.
Big corporations such as biotech food producer Monsanto Co., U.S. meat companies Tyson Food Inc. and Smithfield Foods, and poultry producer Perdue Farms all declined to be interviewed for the film.
But the industry has not stood silent. Trade associations across the $142-billion-a-year U.S. meat industry have banded together to counter the claims. Led by the American Meat Institute, they have created a number of websites, including one called SafeFoodInc.com.
"Each sector of the industry that's named is doing its part to counter a lot of the misinformation in the movie," said Lisa Katic, a dietitian and consultant with an unnamed coalition of trade associations representing the food industry.
Their campaign promotes the U.S. food supply as safe, abundant and affordable, whereas the film asserts that images of animals grazing on grassy farms emblazoned on U.S. food product labels are misleading.
"Food, Inc." explores the argument that food comes not from friendly farms but from industrial factories that put profit ahead of human health.
"The film pulls back the curtain on the way food is produced," said Michael Pollan, who appears in the film and is the best-selling author of several books including "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.
"Products with farm labels attached -- this stuff comes from factories now," he said.
But an industry spokesman said 98 percent of U.S. farms were family owned and operated and they accounted for 82 percent of farm production.
Mace Thornton of the American Farm Bureau, the nation's largest farm group, said the industry was interested in the well-being of farm animals.
"If a farmer or rancher is not the kind of person to take care of their animals, they're not going to be in business long," he said.
A PEEK INSIDE
The film shows footage inside cattle, pork and chicken production plants, some secretly recorded by immigrant workers under cramped conditions for both workers and the animals.
Maryland farmer Carole Morison let cameras in to show chickens collapsing and dying before they are put on the market because, she said, of fast weight gain caused in part by antibiotics in the feed. Morison said she lost her contract with Perdue.
The film says U.S. food corporations now widely use industrial techniques linked to growing problems like obesity, diabetes, salmonella, toxic strains of common E. coli bacteria and environmental pollution.
"Confined animal agriculture is so unsustainable in so many ways. It depends on using antibiotics in the feed that lead to antibiotic-resistant diseases. It produces more pollution than any other industry," Pollan said.
"It costs treasury, costs the public health system," he said. "The film vividly shows it costs the people who do the work and of course it is brutal to the animal."
Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2-year-old son Kevin died from an infection of E. coli, appears in the film trying to persuade Congress to pass "Kevin's law," which would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to shut down plants that produce contaminated meats. It has not passed.
Consumers can effect change, the film says, pointing to Stonyfield Farm's Gary Hirshberg, who now offers his line of organic products at giant chain Wal-Mart due to demand.
"You vote for what you eat by what you buy at the supermarket," Pollan said.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Michelle Nichols and Philip Barbara)