Cow manure, like religion, can be a force for good or evil. It makes things fruit and flower, but it also spreads toxic contaminants. Terribly confusing to the average American consumer with a limited understanding of agricultural practices, no doubt, but that’s why we love Michael Pollan, who plows through the poop to get to the root of the problem; industrial farming practices have turned a formerly harmless fertilizer into a source of pollution and disease:

Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution — the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops — and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. Rather than return to that elegant solution, however, industrial agriculture came up with a technological fix for the first problem — chemical fertilizers on the farm. As yet, there is no good fix for the second problem, unless you count irradiation and Haccp plans and overcooking your burgers and, now, staying away from spinach. All of these solutions treat E. coli 0157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.

The Haccp plan Pollan refers to is the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, which the government developed to deal with E. coli contamination in beef. Cattle feces were tainting our hamburgers, but rather than trying to keep the manure out of the meat, the industry opted to, well, sterilize the shit out of it.

Pollan predicts that our industrial food chain’s reliance on such technological “solutions” means that we’ll be hearing calls to irradiate the entire food supply any day now. Did he know that in the business section of Sunday’s NY Times, on the same day that his piece ran in the Times’ magazine, Danial Akst wrote a column entitled “Big Farms Will Keep Spinach on the Table?” Akst defends the practice of irradiating food as a life-saving technology that’s been stymied by “public fears of anything sounding too nuclear.”

Akst states that “Someday irradiated food will be commonplace, and thousands of lives will be saved because of it. Someday, too, I expect that tasty meats will be grown in vats rather than taken from the carcasses of dead animals. These developments will be humane, earth-friendly — and brought to you by big agriculture, hopefully with big government keeping a watchful eye.”

Yeah, hopefully. Because, you know, it’s Agribusiness’s job to make a profit, not to protect our health and safety; that’s up to the FDA and the USDA. They’re looking out for us, except when Big Food lobbyists pay them to look the other way. To the highest bidder go the spoils; to the loser, the spoiled meat. Or spinach.