Imagine the Department of Education pushing an idea called “Teacherless Tuesday,” or the Department of Homeland Security suggesting “Fenceless Friday.” The Department of Agriculture, promoter of all things edible, had a plan this week in an in-house newsletter to promote “Meatless Mondays” in the vast bureaucracy’s employee cafeterias.
Meatless Monday is a global campaign backed by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and others to reduce the possible health risks of eating too much meat. The USDA plan was among efforts to “green” its headquarters by turning the cafeterias into “models for healthy eating” featuring locally grown foods.
“The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well) has a large environmental impact,” the newsletter said. Greenhouse gases and climate change were byproducts, it said, as well as wasted energy resources.
By the next day, the meat industry and its allies had herded the idea back into its pen, and before a single legume or piece of tofu could get a spritz of olive oil and a dusting of parsley and be labeled “entree,” the notion was history.
“USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday,” the department said in a statement. The information on its website “was posted without proper clearance and it has been removed.”
But not before the blogosphere and Twitterverse became thick with indignation.
“Heresy!” tweeted Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa. “I will have the double rib-eye Mondays instead.”
On the Senate floor, Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the No. 3 cattle state in the country, proclaimed himself amazed.
“Our own Department of Agriculture is encouraging people not to eat meat,” he said.
“They’re the only agency that’s there to protect us,” said Sami Jo Freeman, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, an industry trade group. “They let us down.”
Indeed, as ample a cut of steak as King expects to enjoy, the irony in all the fuss was thicker still.
The USDA is tasked with promoting the meat industry, from pigs to poultry and just about everything else edible on four legs or two wings and federally inspected in between. The industry adds nearly $1 trillion to the economy.
But there’s been a food fight waging inside the USDA, involving Capitol Hill as well, over an effort called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” which promotes small farms, farmers markets and sustainable agriculture. About 40,000 midsize farms disappeared from 2002 to 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There are two USDAs over there,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that promotes safe food and water.
The Meatless Monday flap, he said, was “just another example of promoting the little guy, then we’ve got policies coming out of USDA fostering greater concentration and helping out the big producers and meatpackers.”
Research has pointed to health risk factors in red meat, such as saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. A recent Harvard University study, backed by the National Institutes of Health, found that red meat was linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer. It said that substituting healthier sources of protein reduced the risk.
The American Meat Institute, a trade association that represents meatpackers in the red meat and poultry industries, notes that Americans’ consumption of meat and poultry is within the recommended U.S. dietary guidelines. Its website also points out that various cuts of meat qualify as “lean” under federal standards.
“Moderation in the diet is likely the most prudent approach to a healthy lifestyle,” the website says.
And possibly to maintaining peace on the farm and in the USDA cafeterias.