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Why Must the USDA Flip-Flop on Meatless Monday?

By: Robert Lawrence

This blogpost appeared in Huffington Post Food on August 2, 2012.

Last week, I watched with astonishment as a U.S. Cabinet member was intimidated by the industry his agency is charged with overseeing. Under pressure, Secretary Tom Vilsack, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture, capitulated to Big Meat. It’s nothing new to see industry’s influence on government, but when it takes the form of imposing action that holds the public’s health in disregard, it is especially  sobering.

The sad chain of events began last Monday, when a USDA employee encouraged participation in the Meatless Monday Campaign in an online newsletter circulated among its employees, as part of its “greening” effort. The newsletter said, “One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative.”

Within two days of that straightforward and well-founded message being published, a maelstrom of negative responses to that endorsement overwhelmed the USDA. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association hurled ruinous accusations at USDA, and a coterie of GOP senators, among them Jerry Moran (R–Kansas), Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa), and John Thune (R–S.D.), made petulant and divisive criticisms questioning the secretary’s dedication to farmers and ranchers. The newsletter was removed, and Secretary Vilsack apologized to industry.

Certainly, there’s much to rue in this drama. One element is the way in which damning statements are lobbed like so many fuzzy tennis balls—not only by industry, which we might expect, but also by the senators we’ve elected to be the cool heads in the face of difficult decisions.

But the really sobering piece is the hypocrisy. Within the last two years, USDA issued a very clear set of recommendations for a healthy diet. These dietary guidelines suggest increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in a weekly diet, and the guidelines are designed to improve public health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. The guidelines urge us to reduce saturated fat in their diet, eat more lean protein in the form of fish and seafood, and increase our intake of fruits and vegetables. Meatless Monday embraces those guidelines by encouraging a meat-free diet for one day each week.

Given the dietary guidelines, and our nation’s escalating chronic disease epidemic, I believe that USDA is obligated to recommend a reduction in meat consumption, as it has done. And so now, by apologizing to Big Meat and backpedaling on its guidelines, the agency sends a mixed message.

But there is at least one voice of reason in this discourse, and that is Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. On Friday, Dean Klag wrote to Secretary Vilsack and offered solid explanations for how an endorsement of Meatless Monday is in fact pro-agriculture, and how it would benefit the health—and budgets—of Americans.

His points are well made. A reduction in meat consumption—and increase in fruit and vegetable consumption—is certainly pro-agriculture, because it is more inclusive of all agricultural producers, not only beef producers. And with food price hikes resulting from the recent drought, a reduction in meat consumption will also help the bottom lines of Americans’ household budgets.

I hope that the voice of reason can be heard above the peevish cries—from senators and corporations alike—that take stabs at honest efforts to improve health.

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