Damage from "Meatless Monday" plug not retractable

Jul 27, 2012

USDA was under fire last week from both ranchers and politicians on Capitol Hill after encouraging employees to go vegetarian one day a week to improve both their health and the climate. While the department retracted the statement, claiming it was unauthorized, some believe the damage was already done with a little help from social media.

Within an hour after a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NC- BA) press release statement came out, USDA had pulled the newsletter and sent out a statement from press secretary Courtney Rowe. “Today, we have received a number of inquiries regarding a rumor that USDA is encouraging “Meatless Mondays,” she wrote, adding that “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. The statement found on the USDA website was posted without proper clearance and it has been removed.”

On Wednesday, Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran asked USDA’s Tom Vilsack to explain why the agency’s employee newsletter encouraged them to not eat meat and participate in the “Meat less Monday” initiative for the environment.

“One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative http://www.meatlessmonday.com/ ,” USDA’s July 23, 2012, “Greening Headquarters Update” read. “This international effort, as the name implies, encourages people not to eat meat on Mondays. Meatless Monday is an initiative of The Monday Campaign Inc. in association with the John Hopkins School of Public Health.”

Crediting the United Nations for the information, USDA’s newsletter said that going meatless is good for your health and also for the environment because “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. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides.”

NCBA President J.D. Alexander said the USDA announcement that the agency embraces the “Meatless Monday” concept calls into question USDA’s commitment to U.S. farmers and ranchers.

USDA’s statement went one step further in its quest to reduce meat consumption, according to Alexander, by specifically calling out beef and dairy production as harmful to the environment. Additionally, USDA cited health concerns related to the consumption of meat. These concerns are not at all based in fact, according to Alexander, but simply spout statistics and rhetoric generated by anti-animal agriculture organizations.

The fact is the consumption of beef is not only healthy, but the carbon footprint of the production of beef has dramatically decreased as a result of innovative environmental stewardship implemented by America’s farm and ranch families throughout the country, NC- BA said in a release.

“Today’s cattlemen are significantly more environmentally sustainable than 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,” said Alexander. “When it comes to health, beef has an amazing story to tell. Beef is a naturally nutrient-rich food, helping you get more nutrition from the calories you take in.”

Alexander issued the following statement regarding USDA’s follow up.

“We appreciate USDA’s swift action in pulling this disparaging statement off its website. USDA publicly stated today that it does not support this campaign. We appreciate USDA making this right. The agency is important to all cattlemen and women, especially as we face unprecedented challenges, including drought and animal rights extremist groups spreading fiction to consumers who need to know the importance of beef in a healthy diet.”

Political ag supporters were also quick to jump to producers rescue following USDA’s slip.

Moran shared his thoughts at a Senate hearing. “We ought to look at the mission of what the Department of Agriculture is—to promote agriculture, to help those who every day go to work to produce food, fiber and fuel for this world. And yet our own Department of Agriculture is encouraging people not to eat meat,” he said.

Rep. Steve King, R-IA, tweeted: “USDA HQ meatless Mondays!!! At the Dept. Of Agriculture? Heresy! I’m not grazing there. I will have double rib-eye Mondays instead.”

And Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, also tweeted his thoughts: “I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday.”

“Meatless Mondays” was started in 2003 by the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. The campaign aims to reduce meat consumption 15 percent “to improve your personal health and the health of the planet.”

While USDA’s retraction was a step in the right direction, the original newsletter is still floating around cyberspace and so the question remains, Is the damage already done? — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor