The film received positive responses and was nominated for several awards, including the Academy Award and the Independent Spirit Awards in 2009, both for Best Documentary Feature.
The film's first segment examines the industrial production of meat (chicken, beef, and pork), calling it inhumane and economically and environmentally unsustainable. The second segment looks at the industrial production of grains and vegetables (primarily corn and soy beans), again labeling this economically and environmentally unsustainable. The film's third and final segment is about the economic and legal power, such as food labelling regulations, of the major food companies, the profits of which are based on supplying cheap but contaminated food, the heavy use of petroleum-based chemicals (largely pesticides and fertilizers), and the promotion of unhealthy food consumption habits by the American public. It shows companies like Wal-Mart transitioning towards organic foods as that industry is booming in the recent health movement.
Michael Pollan was a consultant and appears in the film. Eric Schlosser co-produced and appears in the film. Participant Media was the production company. The film took three years to make. Director Kenner claims that he spent large amounts of his budget on legal fees to try to protect himself against lawsuits from industrial food producers, pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers, and other companies criticized in the film.
An extensive marketing campaign was undertaken to promote the film. A companion book of the same name was released in May 2009. Stonyfield Farm, an organic yogurt maker located in New Hampshire, promoted the film by printing information about it on the foil lids of 10 million cups of its yogurt in June 2009.
The film was shown as a preview at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, in February 2009. It also screened at several film festivals in the spring before opening commercially in the United States on June 12, 2009, in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It made $61,400 in its first week. It expanded to an additional 51 theaters in large cities in the U.S. and Canada on June 19. It made an additional $280,000 its second weekend.
The film was due to be released in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2009; however, its release was postponed until 12 February 2010.
The producers invited on-screen rebuttals from Monsanto Company, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Perdue Farms, and other companies, but all declined the invitation. Monsanto says it invited the filmmakers to a producers' trade show, but they claimed that they were denied press credentials at the event, and were not permitted to attend. An alliance of food production companies (led by the American Meat Institute) created a website, SafeFoodInc.org, in response to the claims made in the film. Monsanto also established its own website to specifically respond to the film's claims about that company's products and actions. Cargill told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the company welcomed "differing viewpoints on how global agriculture can affordably nourish the world while minimizing environmental impact, ensuring food safety, guaranteeing food accessibility and providing meaningful work in agricultural communities." But the company criticized the film's "'one-size-fits-all' answers to a task as complex as nourishing 6 billion people who are so disparately situated across the world."
Fast-food chain Chipotle responded to the documentary in July 2009 by offering free screenings of it at various locations nationwide and stating that it does things differently, which it hopes customers will appreciate after seeing Food, Inc.
The film's director, Robert Kenner, has denied attacking the current system of producing food, noting in one interview: "All we want is transparency and a good conversation about these things." In the same interview, he went on to say, "...the whole system is made possible by government subsidies to a few huge crops like corn. It's a form of socialism that's making us sick."
On June 10, 2009, REACT to FILM screened Food, Inc. at the SoHo House in Manhattan, NY followed by a moderated Q&A with executive producer Eric Schlosser.
The film has been highly rated by critics collectively, with a combined rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 80 out of 100 on Metacritic. The Staten Island Advance called the documentary "excellent" and "sobering", concluding: "Documentaries work when they illuminate, when they alter how we think, which renders Food, Inc. a solid success, and a must-see." The Toronto Sun called it "terrifying" and "frankly riveting". The San Francisco Examiner was equally positive, calling the film "visually stylish" and "One of the year’s most important films..." The paper called the picture's approach to its controversial subject matter "a dispassionate appeal to common sense" and applauded its "painstaking research and thoughtful, evenhanded commentary..."
The Los Angeles Times, too, praised Food, Inc.'s cinematography, and called the film "eloquent" and "essential viewing". The Montreal Gazette noted that despite the film's focus on American food manufacture, the film is worth viewing by anyone living in a country where large-scale food production occurs. The paper's reviewer declared Food, Inc. "must-see", but also cautioned that some of the scenes are "not for the faint of heart".
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that other documentaries and books have examined similar issues before; however, the film was still worth seeing: "The food-conglomerate angle was covered in a less-ambitious documentary called King Corn, and a more-ambitious documentary called The Corporation touched on the menace of the multinationals; but this one hits the sweet spot, and it does it with style." The review concluded that the most powerful portion of the film focused on Monsanto's pursuit of legal action against farmers it accuses of improperly saving and reselling or replanting Monsanto’s patented seed, in violation of a signed stewardship agreement and contract not to save and resell or replant seeds produced from the crops they grow from Monsanto seed.
The San Francisco Chronicle, while noting the film has a "flair for the dramatic", concluded: "...it throws out one zinger after another, making its case with the methodical and unremitting force of muckrakers trying to radicalize—or at least rouse—a dozing populace." The Environmental Blog sympathized with the film's message and urged viewers to "vote to change this system."
Other reviews have not been as positive. A commentator at Forbes magazine found the film compelling but incomplete. The picture, the reviewer found, "fails to address how we might feed the country—or world" on the sustainable agriculture model advocated by the filmmakers, and that it failed to address critical issues of cost and access. A reviewer for The Washington Times said the movie was "hamstrung" because few corporate executives wished to be interviewed by those documentarians, although the reviewer agreed that the film was aiming for balance.
The film tied for fourth place as best documentary at the 35th Seattle International Film Festival.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film at the 82nd Academy Awards, but lost to The Cove.