Meatless Monday, Mark Bittman and the USDA

USDA Newsletter team in hot water for trying to do the right thing.

On July 27, the USDA internal newsletter included an article about “Meatless Monday” in the office cafeteria. The article encouraged employees to participate for their health and also for the health of the planet.

I say “Bravo” for whoever wrote that memo, but by now s/he has probably been seriously reprimanded (or fired) for encouraging such a practice that would mean less business for the meat-growing segments of the agricultural industry that is served by the USDA. Directly from that newsletter:

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. Meatless Monday is an initiative of The Monday Campaign Inc. in association with the John Hopkins School of Public Health.

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. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides. In addition 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.

Mark Bittman, New York Times

Sounds good to me. So why was there an uproar from officials and members of Congress from Iowa, Kansas and Texas? What’s wrong with the USDA promoting the industries that grow food directly for humans—just one day per week?

It’s because the powerful meat and dairy industries control our United States Department of Agriculture—and those industries simply do not care about our health or the environmental harm that is being inflicted by the raising of livestock. I love what Mark Bittman said in his July 31 column about the contents of that newsletter:

None of this is news, and it’s the kind of thing that — given its mission — the U.S.D.A. should be saying loud and clear to every citizen of the United States. You want to improve health, you discourage the overconsumption of meat. This is inarguable among serious health professionals; we can take it to be true. None of this is controversial, and the newsletter’s publication appeared to ruffle no feathers at the U.S.D.A. until the cattlemen took note of it.

Then, as Mark Bittman reported, “All hell broke loose.” As reported in the Houston Chronicle:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is wiping egg off its face after encouraging employees in an internal newsletter to take a stand for the environment by not putting meat in their mouths on Mondays.

It was viewed by one beef producers’ organization, congressional leaders and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples as an outrageous statement from a department whose mission is to promote agricultural production.

So now that the battle lines were drawn, the USDA had a golden opportunity to serve the health and welfare of the people first. Once again, Mark Bittman described the situation well, pointing out that “agriculture” also produces all of the food that “Meatless Monday” advocates eat too:

The lines were drawn, and the U.S.D.A. had a chance to demonstrate that it wasn’t in bed with the meat industry. (Indeed, one of my friends termed this dispute “a lovers’ quarrel.”) Forget that meat is not fiber, that its industrial-style production is not sustainable by any normal definition, and that — guess what? — “agriculture” produces the food “Meatless Monday” advocates eat, too.

This was a chance for the U.S.D.A. to say, “We support meat production and the production and consumption of meals without meat; we support all forms of agriculture, and we actually believe that if Americans ate a bit less meat both they and American agriculture would be healthier.”

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa

But that’s not what happened. As Mark went on to report, Senator Grassley from Iowa immediately tweeted that he would eat more meat on Monday to compensate for the “stupid USDA recommendation” about a Meatless Monday.

An Iowa Congressman tweeted that “I will have double rib-eye Mondays instead.” Well, gentlemen, that’s a way to placate those big industries who get you elected, but it’s not a very good way to look after the health and welfare of your constituency.

So the infamous Meatless Monday portion of the newsletter has been removed, replacing it with this notice,  The Department of Agriculture announced that it had been posted “without proper clearance.”

I applaud Mark Bittman for having the courage to write his piece on this mess and encourage you to read his complete article (See link below.) Mark summarized this tragedy thusly:

Our health, as everyone knows (even Chuck Grassley, probably), would be sounder if we ate less meat. But as long as trade associations can push around members of Congress and government agencies, the rest of us are in trouble. The events of last week may have been comical, but the conclusions, and consequences, are tragic.

J. Morris Hicks with Tom Henderson (friend for over thirty years)—at the “Candle Cafe at 75th and Third, New York, on July 31. Oh, this place is “meatless” every single day.

The Bottom Line. This a real good example why we cannot expect our government to be of any value whatsoever when it comes to taking care of our health.

That’s because our entire “system” of food production and health care is full of professionals who truly believe that we “need” to eat animal protein to be healthy. That is the protein myth that I am fighting to dispel every single day.

For the record, our Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has yet to make a statement regarding this tragic behavior of his USDA. Does anyone in our government have the courage to stand up for what is right?

Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from

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J. Morris Hicks, working daily to promote health, hope and harmony on planet Earth.

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Blogging daily at…from the seaside village of Stonington, Connecticut – Be well and have a great day.

—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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2 Responses to Meatless Monday, Mark Bittman and the USDA

  1. Nigel Richardson says:

    Seanator Grassley is at liberty to eat twice or even thrice his usual meat consumption on Mondays. However, as an example of health promotion for his constituents that would be one of the most damaging things he could do. So, whose interests should you represent Senator Grassley – those of the people of Iowa or those of a small perceentage of them? No doubt the latter, which means you are not doing your job.
    The response would doubtless be that he is serving the health interests of his constituents, which would imply that he is not well informed about the damaging effects of animal protein on health.

  2. Denise S. says:

    This is so horrible. Just keep the gravy (!) train rolling for us (special interest groups in government) – keep us getting richer, and screw the people’s health, the animals, and the planet!
    Thank goodness for people like you Jim!

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