The concept of Meatless Monday symbolized the chasm between politics and reality this week. Observing Meatless Monday was mentioned in a newsletter article from the Department of Agriculture about ways a person can reduce their environmental impact. The cattle industry was outraged, Republican lawmakers swore to eat more meat on Mondays and the USDA retracted its support of Meatless Monday.
Meat health risks
The health risks associated with meat are well documented. In addition to cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity, industrial meat production is damaging the planet in numerous ways, from destroying land to pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
Reducing meat consumption
When it comes to meat, the Department of Agriculture is caught between a cow pie and a hard place. The agency represents the meat industry while at the same time its charged with promoting guidelines for a healthier American diet. The USDA’s most recent dietary guidelines were issued in 2011. In a chapter titled “Foods and Food Components to Reduce,” beef is mentioned 14 times and meat nine times.
Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. The initiative provides information and recipes for making Monday healthy, environmentally friendly and meat-free. Meatless Monday’s goal is to help people improve both their health and the health of the planet by reducing meat consumption by 15 percent.
Reducing environmental impact
The endorsement for Meatless Monday surfaced in “Greening Headquarters Update, a USDA employee newsletter. The update called Meatless Monday a “simple way to reduce your environmental impact.” It went on to mention how meat production wastes water, fertilizer, fossil fuels and other resources while contributing to global climate change. It also asked, “Did you notice that our cafeterias have tasty meatless options?”
Let the outrage begin
Politicians and the cattle industry immediately saw an opportunity to manufacture outrage. In a statement, the National Cattlemen’s Association called the newsletter “a slap in the face of the people who every day are working to make sure we have food on the table to say ‘Don’t eat their product once a week.’ ”
Rep. Steve King, Republican of Iowa, tweeted: “USDA HQ meatless Mondays!! At the Dept. of Agriculture? Heresy! I’m not grazing there. I will have the double rib-eye Mondays instead.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, another Iowa Republican, tweeted that he would “eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation.”
In an indignant speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, said, “Never in my life would I have expected USDA to be opposed to farmers and ranchers.”
USDA caves in
The Greening Headquarters Update was published online Monday, July 23. By Tuesday afternoon, the newsletter disappeared from the web. In a statement, the agency said, “U.S.D.A. does not endorse Meatless Monday.”
PETA seeks headlines
What would a political circus be without an organization like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals jumping into the ring? Later in the week on its website, PETA accused Grassley of fighting for Americans’ right to be “sick and fat.” The organization also started taking “bets” on its website over when Sen. Grassley will die from eating meat.
One day a week
A cooler head, Peggy Nue, President of The Monday Campaigns, told the New York Times she was pleased when the USDA endorsed Meatless Mondays this week, and surprised at how fast the agency reversed its position.
“It shouldn’t be considered a threatening idea,” she said. “We’re not saying give up meat entirely — just one day a week.”
It would certainly leave more meat available on Monday for people of Grassley’s ilk.