Meatless Monday(which I’ve spoken about before) has gotten quite a bit of unexpected press this week. On page three of an internal newsletter, the USDA stated that “one simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative.” The paragraph went on to discuss several of the environmental benefits of eating less meat.
One would expect nothing to come from this 214-word “endorsement” of Meatless Monday, right?
Nope. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association released a strongly-worded statement titled “NCBA Question’s USDA’s Commitment to US Cattlemen.” (The incorrect apostrophe in there is theirs, not mine.) They refer to Meatless Monday as “an animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption” and say that the “USDA does not understand the efforts being made in rural America to produce food and fiber for a growing global population.” The statement continues to say that this move “should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet” and “simply spout[ed] statistics and rhetoric generated by anti-animal agriculture organizations.” Lastly, NCBA President J.D. Alexander said that the “NCBA will not remain silent as USDA turns its back on cattlemen and consumers.” And according to AgWired, “This is animal activism in a government agency that should be supporting all of agriculture and it is unacceptable.”
First of all, I think we can all agree that the USDA mentioning Meatless Monday (intended to reduce consumption of meat on one day) does not mean that they’re “turning their back on cattlemen.” It was not widely publicized. There was no press release. The USDA did not drastically change their position of vigorously supporting the beef industry. They simply mentioned that their employees could consider taking a Meatless Monday and enjoy some of the non-meat items in their cafeteria. Meatless Monday is a campaign that’s active in 23 countries. Big companies like Toyota, dozens of hospitals and restaurants and schools, and a whole lot of other famous people use Meatless Monday.
So what did the USDA do? Hold strong to its original message against the force of the powerful beef lobby. No, of course not.
The USDA responded by tweeting: “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. Statement on USDA site posted w/o proper clearance. It has been removed.” (They tagged the American Farm Bureau in the tweet, which responded with “Thank you. Will share the info with concerned members.”) To quote Philip Bump on Grist, “Proper clearance presumably involves presenting internal newsletters to all major lobbying groups for sign-off before being issued internally.”
This whole debacle highlights a terrible problem with our food and food policy system. How is the USDA supposed to fulfill its often-contradicting goals of supporting all agriculture in this country and providing health information? I’d venture a guess that nearly all nutrition and environmental advocates would whole-heartedly agree that as a whole, we need to reduce our meat consumption. But the USDA can’t say the same thing.
When the 2010 Dietary Guidelines were in the works, many people hoped that “eat less meat” would be one of the key recommendations. But the Guidelines (published by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services) made no such mention. The best they could do was recommend that we “consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids,” “consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol,” and “reduce the intake of calories from solid fats.”
Since the UDSA cannot even “encourage” Meatless Monday in an internal newsletter without violent backlash from the industry, how can we expect them to recommend eating less meat in an official and very public document? And to extrapolate, how can we therefore expect them to provide unbiased scientific information about our health? There needs to be a division between the promotion of agriculture and the distribution of health information.
But there’s a silver lining: I’m glad Meatless Monday is getting so much press!