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WH Talks with Michael Pollan

Very few people out there have the power to change the way millions of Americans eat. The government is one. So is Oprah. But for the thinking person, there's Michael Pollan. And, since we like to think of ourselves as a thinking person's blog, we were estatic when we heard one of our veteran SN reporters, Roseanne Harper, was this week able to catch the author and Berkeley professor on the phone while he was packing for vacation. They spoke for more than 20 minutes, which isn't a surprise to us here. With her endearing West Virginia accent, Roseanne could delay the departure of Air Force One with a casual query about a cockpit dial.

SN: What's your relationship like with the supermarket industry right now?

Pollan: I had an inquiry [recently] from the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Would I be willing to speak at one of their conventions? I don’t know if that will happen. I would be happy to engage with them. I think it’s important to engage with people you’ve been critical of, and supermarkets aren’t wedded to any particular kind of food. Look, if the consumer says, "Listen we want local food or we want grass-fed food" [supermarkets] will sell it.

SN: Your last two books, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food," certainly raised some eyebrows among consumers and food retailers alike.

Pollan: In the research, there were plenty of surprises, like discovering so much in the supermarket is made out of corn; that organic is much more industrialized than people think.

Organic milk comes from feedlots that are indistinguishable from conventional feedlots — not always, but very often…Things like that were very surprising.

SN: [laughs] Any hate mail?

Pollan: No, I haven’t had any critical letters from grocery people. I have not heard as much from industry as I had expected. I don’t think they’re reading! But other responses surprised me.[There are a] number of people who told me these books have changed their life, and how they shop, how they eat. I was flabbergasted by that! And I hear it over and over again.

SN: But the industry is listening to you, and them, in some ways. Some of what you talk about in your books is already happening.

Pollan: I’m happy to engage with them and hopefully push them in what I think is the right direction. The supermarket shopper is changing. I think if you go to farmers markets, you see a new shopper emerging and I think supermarkets have to take account of that person or he or she will abandon the supermarket. There is so much more happening than exchanging money for food.

SN: How are supermarkets keeping these customers who are demanding more?

Pollan: Some supermarkets are experimenting with allowing farmers markets in the parking lot. There is a movement in this country to reform the food system and I’ve been the beneficiary of that in many way. That movement has not had a manifesto; for a lot of people, they see my book as that manifesto… along with [others].

SN: Tell us where you see the all this animal welfare activity fitting into the overall wellness movment.

Pollan: The humane animal treatment is a real issue for me and I think increasingly it is for consumers. It’s not easy to justify on moral or ethical grounds, the way we raise animals, but I think that’s going to change. I think cage-free eggs will be the standard within a couple of years. I think sow crates will be eliminated because right now sows live in crates for most of their lives that are even too small to turn around in. The more people learn about these things, the more they want a different product.