Much Ado About Meatless Monday: Why the USDA Retraction Matters

I came back to work after a two-week vacation last Thursday and couldn't miss the story about the USDA's internal endorsement for Meatless Mondays, then rapid reversal and resultant fallout, most of which read like an Onion article.
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I came back to work after a two-week vacation last Thursday and couldn't miss the story about the USDA's internal endorsement for Meatless Mondays, then rapid reversal and resultant fallout, most of which read like an Onion article.

In case you missed it, here's what went down:
  • Some poor USDA employee sent out this internal newsletter (thanks to Marion Nestle for posting -- the USDA has scrubbed its site of it), which, on page 3, suggests USDA employees could take a lighter toll on the environment by abstaining from meat one day a week.
  • A few hours later, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association issued a strongly worded criticism of the agency's proposition ("This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet") and the Farm Bureau re-tweeted a similarly sensitive message about it on Twitter ("RT @chrischinn: Does USDA really think meat is bad for the environment? According to this they do. see page 3").
  • Within minutes, the USDA had pulled the newsletter and tweeted back at the Farm Bureau that the newsletter had been posted "without proper clearance."
Reactions to the situation ranged from indifference to outrage:
  • Marion Nestle basically shrugged and said she'd have been more surprised if the USDA had actually dared to spurn the beef industry, even in this small way.
  • Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) went ballistic, first condemning the USDA ("I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday") and then, seeming to miss the memo that the agency had backpedaled, continued to tweet about all the meat he was eating. ("PETA : I'm at the CedarFalls Bible Conferennce91stAnnual banquet eating meat Pass along to USDA meatless Monday campaign.")
  • Never one to miss an opportunity for cheap publicity, PETA swiftly launched an attack campaign of questionable taste, taking bets on when the senator's meat-heavy diet would catch up with him.
As for
*, as one might imagine, they were disappointed.

We are naturally disappointed that the USDA does not wish to endorse Meatless Monday, particularly since cutting out meat once a week helps achieve two key recommendations in the USDA Dietary Guidelines -- reducing saturated fat intake and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables.

It's worth noting here that although the Meatless Monday campaign mentions the environmental aspects of meat consumption, its primary focus here -- and always -- is on the personal health benefits of meat reduction, in accordance with USDA recommendations. But meat production -- particularly industrial-scale meat production -- takes a major toll on the environment, from its massive resource draw on water and energy to its massive output of waste. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association was quick to insist that American ranchers are much more sustainable now than ever before:

Today's cattlemen are significantly more environmentally sustainable then they were 30 years ago. A study by Washington State University found that today's farmers and ranchers raise 13 percent more beef from 13 percent fewer cattle. When compared with beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced today produces 18 percent less carbon emissions; takes 30 percent less land; and requires 14 percent less water," Alexander said.

But meat's significant environmental impact has loomed large in recent years, most notably in the 2006 U.N. report, Livestock's Long Shadow, which estimated that 18 percent of greenhouse gases (worldwide) were created by the livestock industry. A lesser known 2001 World Bank report put the environmental impacts lower, but even at that, ended with a stronger recommendation, that institutions should "avoid funding large-scale commercial, grain-fed feedlot systems and industrial milk, pork and poultry production."

Then -- and here's where things get a little egregious -- the Cattlemen's Association went on to suggest that the memo mishap was evidence that the USDA doesn't understand its own role:

"This is truly an awakening statement by USDA, which strongly indicates that USDA does not understand the efforts being made in rural America to produce food and fiber for a growing global population in a very sustainable way," Alexander said. "USDA was created to provide a platform to promote and sustain rural America in order to feed the world."

Two days ago, Michael Klag, the dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in which he suggested that the agency also misunderstands the Meatless Monday campaign, and also took issue with the Cattlemen's contention that the campaign is "anti-agriculture," gently reminding the Secretary that the USDA serves producers of other agricultural products, as well.

America's farmers have been struggling for years, and this summer's devastating droughts are hurting them badly. But the Cattlemen's implication that the USDA's primary duty is to fall in line and promote its products, no matter the cost, is troubling, and the organization's all-or-nothing attitude is a gross oversimplification of language, let alone politics. Certainly, one of the agency's duties is to promote American-raised beef -- but it is also tasked with similar promotion of other agricultural products, including fruits, vegetables and grains, the regulation of much of the food industry, the enforcement of existing regulations, encouraging conservation in agriculture and lending guidance to a nation full of people who are increasingly confused by the foods they find in their markets. Here, the Cattlemen seem to suggest that the USDA should act like a defense attorney, standing behind its client to the point that it willfully ignores information that would call its practices (or at least, size) into question.

I can't think of another industry that would dare to react with such misplaced self-righteous indignation as the beef industry did last week. What if the energy lobby freaked out every time the Department of Energy told consumers how to cut back on their consumption?

Lastly, it's also worth noting that nobody was surprised by how this went down. The only shocked responses came from the beef lobby and the Farm Bureau, and bearing in mind that evidence of meat production's environmental impacts has been building for years, one can only call their astonishment shrill, and likely feigned. That the USDA's rapid reversal was no big surprise to anyone is not evidence of a politically savvy citizenry, it's evidence that people have resigned themselves to government agencies that serve corporations over people.

What say you, readers? Should the USDA have reversed course? Doth the beef industry protest too much? Sound off in the comment section.

(*In the interest of full disclosure, GRACE works closely with Meatless Monday.)

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