"The Omnivore's Dilemma" should provide good fodder for conversation at WSU in the fall. The book follows four meals from field to table...

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” should provide good fodder for conversation at WSU in the fall.

The book follows four meals from field to table exploring their impact on us and the planet. WSU is a leader in the agricultural sciences and is situated in farm country. Book and university seem made for each other.

But there was a glitch on the way to making Michael Pollan’s 2006 work the school’s 2009 Common Book — a work that would be read by all incoming freshmen and discussed in various venues.

In May, the university decided not to go ahead with the program, and the blogosphere bloomed with rumors that big agribusiness had leaned on WSU to plow under its planned program.

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WSU President Elson Floyd said it was a matter of budget constraints.

Someone at WSU called former Regent Bill Marler, a lawyer who has made a national reputation and a nice living suing corporations over tainted food.

Marler called Floyd and offered to pick up the bill for bringing Pollan to campus to speak and completing the program. Floyd agreed.

I called Marler’s office on Bainbridge Island, but he was on his way to California to a food-technology conference. I reached him while he waited to board a plane at Sea-Tac.

He said he didn’t think WSU was reacting to outside pressure: “I said this isn’t something they would do, Floyd and the board. I was on the board for 10 years.”

WSU said it was a matter of money, so “I said, let me just cover the cost and let’s move forward,” Marler said.

“We have to rethink how we produce food,” he said. That’s why he wanted to support a discussion of Pollan’s book, which deals with issues of safety, environmental impact, sustainability.

“I don’t necessarily agree with everything Michael (Pollan) says. It’s hard to feed several billion people from farmers markets. We have to look at big agriculture, how to do it more efficiently, with fewer environmental problems, and safer.

“In 16 years of doing this, I can count on one hand how many times (food-poisoning cases) have been linked to foreign products and I can count on the other hand how many times it’s been linked to locally produced food,” Marler said.

“Most of the cases are from mass-produced food shipped across state lines.”

Food has gotten entirely too complicated, something to worry about rather than to enjoy.

We have to be wary of harmful additives, bacterial contamination, excess fat, salt, sugar, preparation that is unhealthful.

Marler’s work focuses on contaminated foods. He was five years out of Seattle University law school when the Jack in the Box E. coli case happened in 1993.

“I got a lot of the first cases,” he said, then “pushing myself to the front and hard work got me a sort of reputation as knowing what I was doing.”

“Then Odwalla (E. coli-tainted apple juice) happened just as Jack in the Box was winding up.” He’s been doing food cases since.

“I have not had a hamburger since 1993, and I’m fairly confident my children, who are 17, 14 and 10, have not had a hamburger.”

Kim Kidwell, associate dean of academic programs in the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, said she hadn’t heard of any stakeholders pressuring the school, but there are plenty of disagreements within the college over issues raised in the book.

“What I loved about this book in some ways is how much conversation it has stirred. People are talking about food and agriculture,” she said, adding that WSU is an ideal place for those conversations.

“That’s what going to college is about. If we can’t have these conversations here, I don’t know where we can have them.”

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.