In what may be the most obnoxious, suck-up news I’ve ever heard, the USDA retracted support of both Meatless Monday and environmental protection this week after the beef industry freaked out on them for supporting both. On July 23, the USDA sent out their USDA Greening Update newsletter which encouraged USDA employees to participate in Meatless Monday, noting, “One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the “Meatless Monday” initiative”  The newsletter goes on to point out that going meatless one day a week can help the environment because, “The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides.” The USDA also points out the health implications of eating meat stating, “There are many health concerns related to the excessive consumption of meat. While a vegetarian diet could have a beneficial impact on a person’s health and the environment, many people are not ready to make that commitment. Because Meatless Monday involves only one day a week, it is a small change that could produce big results.” Lastly the USDA reminded their employees that their cafeterias have some “tasty meatless options” meaning employees can “Really help [themselves] and the environment while having a good vegetarian meal!” After seeing this newsletter, the meat industry decided to freak out…

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The tweet insanity

Right away the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) sent out a press release questioning USDA’s commitment to the livestock industry while at the same time spouting off about the health and eco-benefits of beef. NCBA President J.D. Alexander called Meatless Monday, “An animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption,” and further said, “This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet.” The NCBA press release sums up their hurt feelings, saying, “NCBA will not remain silent as USDA turns its back on cattlemen and consumers.” Within an hour of the meat industry slamming Meatless Monday, the USDA pulled the newsletter and USDA press secretary Courtney Rowe sent out a statement saying, “Today, we have received a number of inquiries regarding a rumor that USDA is encouraging “Meatless Mondays… USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. The statement found on the USDA website was posted without proper clearance and it has been removed.

Seriously? I’ve been disappointed before, but this is a new low, even by American government standards. Plus, this fight just got worse as the week went on.

As the debate grew, the dairy industry jumped on board the pro-meat side, and the pro-meat tweets got a little out of hand. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) tweeted, “I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday” while Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said he advocates “Double rib-eye Mondays instead.” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) tweetedWho at USDA thought ‘Meatless Mondays’ was good idea? Anti-[agriculture] agenda at USDA is irresponsible, even for a day.” On the other side, health and eco-advocates highlight the spineless USDA move with folks like Michael Pollen tweeting, “USDA’s brief “unauthorized” flirtation with “meatless monday” quashed by meat industry.Vegan Capitalist tweets, “The #USDA is nothing more than the tax-payer funded marketing arm of the meat industry.” The USDA Press Team has joined in, tweeting, “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. Statement found on USDA website was posted w/o proper clearance. It has been removed.” Honestly, I’m not even going to justify claims by the USDA and the beef industry that meat is sustainable and healthy by debating the issue here. We all know this country has a major obesity problem, caused, in part by high calorie, high fat foods like meat. We also are well aware that no matter how you sling it, meat causes environmental damage. Obviously, meat is not the root of all evil in the USA, but neither is supporting a cause like Meatless Monday.

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Image via UDSA My Plate

The USDA’s history of supporting meatless meals

What’s most confusing about this uproar is that the USDA support of healthy meatless meals is far from new. Back at a 2009 USDA news conference, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, when questioned about Meatless Mondays in schools, apparently supported school efforts in this direction because, “We’ve got far too much sodium, far too much saturated fat in the diets of children and far too many discretionary calories. The result is that youngsters are not getting the nutrition they need and we need to do a better job.” In fact, if you check out USDA MyPlate & Food Pyramid Resources, you’ll see that the USDA does not support meat such as pork, beef or chicken daily. The USDA actually recommends the following:

  • Choose seafood at least twice a week as the main protein food. Look for seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, trout, and herring.
  • Choose beans, peas, or soy products as a main dish or part of a meal often. Some choices are: Chili with kidney or pinto beans; Stir- fried tofu; Split pea, lentil, minestrone, or white bean soups; Black bean enchiladas; Rice and beans; Veggie burgers; Hummus (chickpeas) spread on pita bread.

The USDA has a consumer brochure about protein that even points out how some Americans eat too much protein and should cut back. This same brochure suggests multiple protein sources beyond meat for a healthy diet. Furthermore, the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans which provide the basis for the Food Guide Pyramid and the nutrition requirements for the National School Lunch Program recommends eating “Eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and seafood more often” while cutting back on fatty meats. On top of this the newest USDA nutrition recommendations actually praise vegetarian diets, noting, “Vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes — lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality. Several clinical trials have documented that vegetarian eating patterns lower blood pressure.Going meatless and cutting back on meat is not a new issue for the USDA. The fact that they’d renounce any and all support of Meatless Monday is beyond me. Who knows, maybe with a little pressure the USDA will change all of the above and start telling everyone to eat meat all day long. What do you think of this USDA move? Tell us in the comments.

Lead image by Flickr User TheDeliciousLife