Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press, 2006). It’s a compelling read, full of fascinating details and worrisome overviews of the lengthy food chains that ensnare us. His first meal, the one at the end of the industrial food chain, reveals the bizarre ubiquity of corn in our diet and how it got there. It’s partly because we switched our meat animals to a corn diet (cows, you might remember, used to eat grass) and partly because high-fructose corn syrup and practically every other ingredient in processed food is corn-derived. This has consequences, not the least of which is the presence of dangerous varieties of E. coli bacteria in our environment. Cow’s rumens used to be pH neutral and favored bacteria that would die in our acid guts. On a corn diet, cow’s rumens are acidic and select acid-tolerating bacteria that happily survive in our gut.

Two of Pollan’s other meals are organic–two because he discovered that he had to separate industrial organic from truly sustainable local farming. His tour of the industrial organic food chain is vivid and disturbing. I talked with Pollan last week about some of these issues.

INDEPENDENT: The contamination by E. coli bacteria of bagged spinach has been all over the news lately. I noticed in your book that you mentioned that particular variety of E. coli, 0157:H7, as a product of industrial cow production.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes, that’s where that bug comes from. We need to remember that it is a pollutant spawned by industrial agriculture, by keeping animals on feedlots. Eighty percent of feedlot cattle are thought to carry this bug. So if you put that much of it in the environment–think of all that manure–you’ve got a real problem for all kinds of agriculture.

The New York Times had a letter today blaming organic fertilizers for the E. coli problem.

There’s been no evidence that organic greens are involved. It said these greens were being grown for organic production. So far, the brands they’ve isolated are not organic.

It doesn’t matter that much though if it were organic, and it could easily have been organic. We don’t know how it got into the spinach.

But there’s this canard out there that organic agriculture fertilizes with manure and conventional agriculture fertilizes with these clean pristine chemical fertilizers, and that’s just not accurate. Organic agriculture [uses] compost and that compost can sometimes be made from cow manure, but it’s composted, which is to say it’s transformed to kill off the pathogens. It’s a charge often made by critics of organic agriculture. What they overlook is that conventional agriculture commonly fertilizes far more with human manure in the form of sewage sludge. This kind of name-calling has been around before. What’s that line? “A lie travels ’round the world while Truth is putting on her boots.” There’s no evidence that this is a story about organic agriculture.

People’s more immediate association with industrial facilities and factories is that they’re very clean, and when you think of organic, countrified farm families you think not pristine, not stainless steel.

Very often. I’ve been to Earthbound Farms [the major packager of bagged organic greens] and I’ve toured their fields and the packing facility, and it’s no one’s image of an organic farm. It’s a very clean, stainless steel industrial operation at every level. Laser-leveled fields; no families involved, except the two owners happen to be married. It’s a major industrial operation. And it looked to me like it was being conducted with incredible scrupulousness about hygiene and things like that.

If you have these pathogens in the environment, it’s a risk; it’s going to come back and bite you.

Particularly when it’s done on a big scale and everything is mixed together….

That’s really key. These lettuce-washing operations are not so very different from hamburger grinding operations that Eric Schlosser described in Fast Food Nation–you’re taking the meat from a hundred different animals, at least, and grinding and mixing it all together in one place, and then you’re sending it out to a million hamburger eaters. So if there is pathogen in any one of those animals, you’re going to spread it. If there are pathogens in any one spinach plant and you’re washing them all in essentially the same sink, there’s a very high risk that you’re going to spread them much further than if you weren’t mixing them all together. No question that the weakness exposed here is the weakness of a highly centralized food distribution system, and we’ve known that this is a risk for a long time. Post-9/11 there was a lot of talk about the risk of a having a highly centralized food distribution system, where just a handful of companies are [for example] essentially washing the nation’s bag lettuce in one sink. That’s a risky thing to do.

While we’re on the subject of industrial organic and the news, There’s a long section in your book about Whole Foods, which is at one end of that long food chain; but now there’s Wal-Mart getting into the organic game, which is a whole other scale of operation.

It’s going to be a very interesting development; we’re already seeing a run on organic milk. Wal-Mart’s demand for organic milk is so great that the price for it is going up. There are probably a thousand dairies in the process of trying to convert to organic right now. That’s the positive side. On the negative side, the price pressure coming from Wal-Mart will be so intense, you probably will get more industrial organic dairies than small family organic dairies; and they will push organic milk in the direction of the factory feedlot. And that’s a shame. It’s like all the interesting issues in life; it’s not all good or all bad, it’s a very mixed bag. And you can argue that the positive side of having Wal-Mart in organic–just making organic accessible to so many more people than it has ever been. But on the negative side, in the process, they’ll change what organic is.

It’s already happening.

One of the big surprises to me in writing this book [came from] exploring industrial organic and seeing the reality of industrial organic–the [reality] and the image are completely out of synch.

I was glad, in a perverse sort of way, when oil prices went up. It’s perverse because some people really suffer under high prices. But of course the positive effect of high prices is that it makes some things that look like bargains for agri-industries not such bargains anymore. But now the price is coming down again. Do you see things getting better over the years as petroleum becomes more expensive and not such a cheap input to the system?

Yeah, [industrial agriculture] depends on cheap energy to such an extent that when energy prices go up and stay up, it will make it easier for organic to compete because organic fertilizer will be cheaper–and also make it easier for local food to compete. At Whole Foods in New York City, they were selling grass-fed beef from New Zealand at a lower price than the local upstate New York grass-fed being sold across the street without a middleman. What allows that to happen is cheap energy; cheap energy allows us to fly meat round the world. So in a sense there was something positive for the food industry in high prices (or for the reform of the food industry). But [oil prices] are not down to stay … but I think sooner or later cheap energy will be over. And I hope that will be a boon to local agriculture.

One of things your book makes clear in many ways is that the industrial food system is sustained by lots of hidden subsidies, lots of downstream costs and other shifted costs like our military budget keeping the price of oil down. Now do you think, looking past the Bush years, there’s any political will coming from anywhere to change that?

Michael Pollan will be the guest speaker at the Third Annual Harvest Dinner to benefit SEEDS, an inner-city and community gardening program in Durham, on Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. at the American Tobacco complex, Bay 7. Local chefs will prepare a four-course wine-paired meal using locally grown ingredients. Tickets are $100 per person. Info: 683-1197 or info@seedsnc.org.

Pollan also will speak on America’s “Eating Disorder” at the Morehead Planetarium on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill on Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. as part of the National Humanities Center’s Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity: The Human and the Humanities initiative. Admission is free.

No. I don’t see a lot of it. There will be pressure on the farm bill next year that we haven’t seen before. I think that the public health crisis we have around heart disease, obesity, diabetes–chronic diseases tied to food or too much food–is a function of farm policy, and there will be pressure to change farm policy to bring our public health goals in line with support of agriculture.

[But] it suits any government to have food prices as cheap as possible, whether that food is nourishing or not. So anything that would lead to increases in the cost of food, increases that I think are necessary if we’re going to internalize all those costs we are now externalizing, I don’t think there will be a lot of political support for that.

I guess that externalizing them is the secret of success.

Yeah, in many things, not just food.

It’s very hard for farmers to handle meat products at the processing end–getting them well-processed or processed at all so that they can sell at farmers’ markets.

It’s generally a big problem for small meat producers because the USDA operates under regulations that are designed for huge meatpacking plants, which is unnecessary unless you’re trying to slaughter 400 beasts an hour. So that even a farmer who is doing things very cleanly and carefully, or a local slaughterhouse, they have to have the kind of technology and facilities that only a very high-capital company can do. I have the case of Joe Salatin in the book, who’s been told that if he’s going to process meat he’s going to have to install a dedicated restroom for the federal inspector. And that’s really not realistic on a tiny farm, where everyone is welcome to use the family restroom. So there is this blindness to small operations … that really makes life difficult for them.

In fact, a small plant, which is only moving 10 animals a day, may well be doing a much cleaner job. So many of the problems in meat plants have to do with speed. That’s how you spatter manure on carcasses and cut people. And that is an area where farm policy could help–build a regulatory framework that deals with small regional slaughterhouses and put some money into that. That would do a lot for encouraging local food production. But there’s very little in the federal farm legislature aimed at encouraging local food production.

I wonder if in some state that isn’t doing well agriculturally (or is, say, moving out of one crop, like tobacco), if you could get the representatives in those states to see this as real constituent service, a good form of pork barrel.

Yeah, yeah, but I think you’d have the big guys fighting it. The beef lobby is very powerful; when the E. coli gets into the hamburger they just tell you to cook it more, they don’t tell you to throw out your hamburger. You don’t get to tell Americans to not eat their beef; all you can tell them is cook it at a higher temperature. But you can tell people to throw out their spinach.