Republicans and Other Carnivores Have a Hissy Fit Over “Meatless Mondays”

I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times it’s a wonder I don’t have diabetes. Jake La Motta, age 90 in the Broadway play The Lady and the Champ.

Introduction: Eating Veggies on Monday

I favor a diet pattern of mostly plants, fruits, grains, legumes and other foods not in the dairy, meat or seafood categories. Given the obesity crisis in America, I think this is a pattern that would serve others, as well. Something dramatic needs to be done to convince the public to make healthier food choices. Much is being done to promote vegetarian diets by health organizations and public interest groups. One effort is advanced by an organization called Monday Campaign Inc. in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. It is called Meatless Mondays. The idea is that at least this one day be set aside for vegetarian options. The simple goals are to promote sustainable agriculture and boost dietary health. 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.

The USDA Mentions Meatless Mondays

In a short period of time, the meatless Mondays idea has been promoted in thousands of corporate cafeterias, restaurants and schools.

The other day, the United States Department of Agriculture mentioned the campaign in its “Greening Headquarters Update,” a newsletter posted at the agency website. A suggestion was made that employees might want to participate in the Meatless Monday initiative as “one simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias.”

Here are excerpts:

In addition to the many USDA employees who come to our cafeterias, thousands of tourists and visitors also come to our cafeterias each month…our cafeterias (will become) models for healthy eating and “sustainable” operations…encourage the use of food and beverage items that are fresh and locally grown or otherwise made or procured in the closest possible proximity to Washington D.C., and the preparation of meals that contribute to a balanced diet and contain the fewest possible additives…

One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the Meatless Monday initiative. This international effort, as the name implies, encourages people not to eat meat on Mondays…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. Did you notice that our cafeterias have tasty meatless options? So you can really help yourself and the environment while having a good vegetarian meal!

Who could object? The little campaign seemed perfectly non-denominational, neither Republican nor Democratic, nor it did it take a stand on gay marriage, access to contraception, immigration reform or better enforcement of the Constitutional requirement for the  separation of church and steak.

Well, guess again.

A Vigorous Protest

Within 24 hours, a doo doo storm erupted. You might think the Department had called for a restriction on the sanctified rights of high school students to bring  automatic weapons or hand grenades to class. As reported in the New York Times, livestock producers and some members of Congress pitched hissy fits.

Among the brave stalwarts standing tall for the meat and other dead creatures industry were the following Republicans:

  • Steve King, Congressman from Iowa – USDA HQ meatless Mondays!! At the Dept. of Agriculture? Heresy! I’m not grazing there. I will have the double rib-eye Mondays instead.
  • John Cornyn, Senator from Texas – In some of the toughest times they’ve seen in recent memory, Texas cattle ranchers and farmers deserve an Administration who works with them, not one who undermines them with boneheaded decisions from bureaucrats in Washington.
  • Chuck Grassley, Senator from Iowa: This is a reminder to USDA that it’s supposed to advocate for American agriculture, not against it.

Grassley aide Jill Kozeny later told the Des Moines Register that the senator was eating meat throughout the day, including a beef sandwich at lunch. “Sen. Grassley didn’t have meat for breakfast but he had some beef jerky after lunch, for good measure, and he’s planning on a steak tonight,” she said.

A spokesperson for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association called the USDA support for Meatless Mondays “a slap in the face of the people who every day are working to make sure we have food on the table.”

The Outcome

In less than 24 hours after the protests were expressed, a spokesperson for the USDA declared that the offending newsletter item was not approved at the highest level of the Department. The clarification noted that the USDA does not endorse “Meatless Monday.” (Source: Amy Harmon, “Retracting a Plug for Meatless Mondays,” New York Times, July 25, 2012.)

ABC News quoted Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health to the effect that the USDA has a history of caving to special interests. “There’s a lot of schizophrenia within the department,” Willett said. He mentioned USDA’s promotion of cheese and beef consumption despite its own warnings about saturated fats. “If you really believed in the USDA dietary guidelines…Meatless Monday is a great thing to do.” He said the offending newsletter rightfully depicted red meat as environmentally taxing, inasmuch as cows take two to three years to mature before they can be sold, they use a considerable amount of resources and they produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. “Without question, the 1,000-pound steer in the room in terms of environmental impact is beef.” (Source: Sydney Lupkin, “Meat Industry Has Beef with Meatless Monday, Forces USDA to Retract Newsletter,” July 26, 2012.)

In response to the craven capitulation of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to the meat industry, and to address the misinformation campaign by the Right-Wing politicians who pitched a fit about Meatless Mondays, the dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wrote a letter to Secretary Vilsack explaining the merits of Meatless Mondays. Dean Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH explained why an endorsement of Meatless Monday is actually pro-agriculture. He outlined how the meatless day could in fact benefit the health of Americans. He offered three specific ways that the campaign deserves USDA support:

  1.  “… Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in a weekly diet conforms to the USDA’s own Dietary Guidelines designed to improve public health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. As USDA recommends, people should reduce saturated fat in their diet, eat more lean protein in the form of fish and seafood and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables.”
  2. The Meatless Monday campaign is pro-agriculture and inclusive of all agricultural producers, not just beef producers.
  3. With meat and dairy price hikes resulting from the recent drought, a reduction in these foods will help the bottom lines of Americans’ household budgets.

The full text of the letter to Secretary Vilsack is available here.

If you are not under the influence of these and other Republican politicians or the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association or other such groups, enjoy meatless Mondays—and as many other vegetarian days throughout the week as your tastes and health status permit.

Be well and look on the bright side.

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