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Last Night

Food Inc.: Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser Discuss Food Safety, Walmart and How to Feed the World

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Thu, Feb 10, 2011 at 1:59 PM

click to enlarge From left to right, Evan Kleiman moderated a discussion between Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser.
  • From left to right, Evan Kleiman moderated a discussion between Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser.
The lights in USC's Bovard Auditorium dimmed and the crowd erupted into whoops and applause. It was as if Bon Jovi was about to take the stage.

But in a way, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser are rock stars of the food world. They are rarely seen together, but last night Evan Kleiman (KCRW's Good Food, Angeli Caffe) interviewed them in front of hundreds of food-obsessed Angelenos.

Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, among other food-centric books, and Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation. Both appeared in the documentary Food Inc. and are advocates for change in our nation's food system.

Kleiman led them through discussion of a wide range of topics including McDonald's, the Food Safety Bill, the power of food corporations, "pink slime" and Monsanto, as well as how to feed the world. Check out the highlights after the jump.

Not five minutes into the talk, Pollan and Schlosser slipped in a dig at McDonald's, noting that while the fast food company has improved its slaughtering methods and has quit using genetically modified potatoes, it still managed to create a salad with more calories than a Big Mac. But regarding large food companies, they had far more to say about Walmart.

Recently Walmart promised to carry more nutritious food, as well as to cut prices on produce. Pollan was hopeful this initiative would succeed but wary as well since, according to him, history shows Walmart will crush their growers. He explained that in the past they've asked growers to cut their prices by 20% in order to renew contracts -- a decision that forces the producers to take a huge hit. Still, he said Walmart promises not to do that in this case, so he's optimistic. He believed the more interesting Walmart initiative is their attempt to "re-regionalize" its sources of produce. He pointed out this move is self-serving, since it will save them money on fossil fuels, but will force them to contract with more local growers.

Schlosser agreed Walmart's intentions were sincere, but asserted that no one corporation should have that much power. The audience applauded when he called Walmart's size "contrary to democracy," and again when he charged them to pay a living wage and improve the benefits they offer employees. "Ultimately it's about unchecked power," Schlosser said.

They also touched upon school lunches, calling the public school food system a "disposal" for otherwise unsellable food. They called out the government for not only allowing in meat with "pink slime" or ammonia-based filler into cafeterias, but also for using "spent hens," or scrawny, antibiotic ridden chickens that even the fast food chains won't buy, according to Pollan. Later, via a question from an audience member, (who live-tweeted the event) they commented on Jamie Oliver's food initiative, saying his intentions are noble, but reminding the audience he is making a commercial reality TV show, so various motives may be at play.

Finally, Pollan and Schlosser discussed how to "feed the world," an idealistic turn of phrase that made both the panelists chuckle. Simply put, Pollan says we can't do it on the current American meat-based diet. He explained that worldwide, we're growing enough food to to feed 10 to 11 billion people, but that we're feeding half of it to animals, leaving approximately one billion people in this world hungry.

Pollan also knocked selling subsidized grain overseas. He said that when we "dump" that subsidized grain on Africa, we bankrupt African farmers. He also pointed out that those interested in improving the food system should oppose ethanol fuel made from corn, explaining that it's simply more food not being eaten by humans.

The discussion concluded and, after the aforementioned Q & A, the audience filed out and queued up for one of two things: a book signing or a free buffet catered by Angeli. We chose the latter.

Were you there? What did you think of the interview? Weigh in below.

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