Faced With Industry Pressure, USDA Butchers Meatless Monday

Many businesses, schools and other institutions, out of concern for the people they serve, and for the planet, have adapted a “Meatless Monday” program. Meatless Monday was established in 2003 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to both raise awareness about, and take action against, the adverse impact of excessive meat consumption, both on personal health and the environment. The program’s website claims that, “Going meatless once a week may reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help reduce your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel.”

When the US Department of Agriculture’s internal sustainability newsletter, The Greening Headquarters Update, suggested that the Department’s own cafeteria join the program, they were surprised to receive a stern rebuke from the beef industry.

The article raised the question, “How will going meatless one day of the week help the environment? The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources. It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef.”

A swift, self-serving and somewhat muddled response came from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) President, J.D. Alexander, who said, “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. USDA was created to provide a platform to promote and sustain rural America in order to feed the world. This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet.”

First of all, the USDA’s stated mission is to “provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.” There is nothing in there about promoting anything. Alexander is apparently confusing USDA’s mission with his own.

Secondly, there is plenty of available science that supports the fact the beef production is disastrous to the environment (though it has improved slightly in the past 35 years), and that beef consumption is hazardous to one’s health.

Third, the Meatless Monday program is directed specifically at meat, not at agriculture in general nor at beef in particular.

And finally, there are plenty of vegetarians and vegans around the world who can attest to the fact that their lives are being sustained just fine without meat. In fact, this paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that they are likely to live longer than their carnivorous counterparts.

Unconstrained by these facts, Alexander goes on to call Meatless Monday, “an animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption.” This overstatement with its give-em-an-inch-and-they’ll-take-a-mile mentality, is reminiscent of the NRA, a group that would reflexively attack any initiative attempting to keep bazookas and machine guns away from gangsters as an attack on gun rights that would ultimately lead to every gun being taken away by the government.

But the sad truth is that bullying seems to work, because no sooner had Alexander posted his comments, than the USDA removed the article and scuttled any plans for a Meatless Monday, saying that this was never official Department policy. They were promptly thanked by the Beef Association for its “swift action in pulling this disparaging statement off its website.”

In a response to this non-event, Michael Klag, Dean of the Bloomberg School, wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, with a copy to President Obama, berating Vilsack for failing in his responsibility to “represent all sectors of agriculture and to fulfill their mission to promote a healthy diet complete with less saturated fat and more fruits and vegetables.”

It’s good to know who the boss is, isn’t it? Good to know that our planet and our lives are being protected by those we’ve entrusted to protect them. But then again, the fact that our interests pale in comparison to big lobbies like the Cattlemen’s Beef Association and others is becoming a familiar story. USDA is, after all, the same agency that has rubber-stamped every application Monsanto has ever made for genetically modified seeds, regardless of any concerns that may have been raised by scientists or laymen about health or environmental hazards. But they are far from the only agency guilty of this kind of deliberate ineffectiveness.

Ironically, the NCBA has almost surely given Meatless Monday more publicity than it could ever have hoped to buy, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the program really take off from here.


[Image Credit: borkazoid: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, which focuses on sustainability issues involving energy. Follow-up volumes addressing food and water-related issues are in progress.

Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

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