Why It Was Silly for the Beef Industry to Freak Out Over USDA’s “Meatless Monday” Newsletter

A USDA newsletter mentions Meatless Mondays. The beef industry gets upset. Why this is all a bit ridiculous.

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Beef. It's what's for dinner. Except possibly on Mondays.

The interoffice newsletter of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not generally a place one would expect to find controversy. Updates on office recycling targets, maybe, the office cleaning schedule, sure. But not controversy.

Yet the July 23 edition of the USDA interoffice newsletter managed to do just that with a brief item about “Meatless Mondays.” I’ll quote it in full here, taken from the home page of Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, because the newsletter itself has been pulled from the agency’s website for reasons that will soon be clear:

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.

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!

That brief passage might seem innocuous. After all, the Meatless Monday initiative has been embraced by thousands of corporate cafeterias, restaurants and colleges. It doesn’t call for a ban on meat-eating, just the setting aside of a single vegetarian day as a way to moderate meat consumption. And of course, nothing is mandatory—all the USDA newsletter does is note the environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption, and the fact that the agency cafeteria includes vegetarian options.

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But the beef industry in the U.S. can be as powerful as it is easily angered, and a stream of outraged Twitter messages by livestock producers and Midwestern members of Congress was unleashed on Tuesday after the newsletter went public. Here’s a statement from J.D. Alexander, the president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), who has called the Meatless Monday initiative an animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption:

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.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa made the same point on Twitter, albeit more concisely:

I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday

For its part, the USDA couldn’t have jumped quicker in response to the beef industry’s complaints. The newsletter was scrubbed from the USDA website, and a spokesperson reiterated that the USDA “does not endorse Meatless Mondays.” The newsletter, it seemed, had been “posted without proper clearance.”

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I won’t go too deeply into the back and forth over the true environmental impact of the production of beef and other forms of meat, other than to note that it’s pretty clear that a calorie of beef requires more input in terms of feed, land and water than an equivalent vegetarian calorie. (It is interesting that the USDA newsletter focused so much on the environmental impact of meat—the actual Meatless Monday campaign stresses the health benefits of reducing meat consumption and increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables.) In a story I wrote earlier about research on sustainable agriculture by the University of Minnesota professor Jon Foley, I noted that the global habit of meat-eating is putting stress on the planet:

Much of the grain grown in developed nations goes to feed not human beings but domesticated animals, and inefficiently too — one filet mignon requires 32 lbs. of corn, and converts that grain into calories at just 3% efficiency. Globally we’ll likely need to eat less meat — if only to give parts of the growing developing world space to eat a little meat — and, at least in much of the unhealthily overfed West, eat fewer calories overall. That might help reduce global food waste — one out of every three calories produced globally are never eaten, which isn’t just a waste of food but of water, land and energy.

But here’s what’s really interesting: whatever the USDA is or isn’t recommending, Americans are actually eating less meat. The USDA projects that meat and poultry consumption will fall again this year, down 12.2% from 2007. Beef consumption has been in decline for two decades, and lately pork and chicken have fallen suit. Why? To some degree that may reflect a rise in price, as the growth of ethanol and exports have raised the costs of feed corn producers, which in turn raises the costs for consumers. Meat in the U.S. is still fairly cheap, but it’s been getting more expensive—and thanks to the ongoing drought, which will make corn feed even more costly, it could get considerably more expensive this fall.

But as Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, the main reason we may be eating less meat is because we want to eat less meat:

Some are choosing to eat less meat for all the right reasons. The Values Institute at DGWB Advertising and Communications just named the rise of “flexitarianism” — an eating style that reduces the amount of meat without “going vegetarian” — as one of its top five consumer health trends for 2012. In an survey of 1,400 members, more than one-third of home cooks said they ate less meat in 2011 than in 2010. Back in June, a survey found that 50 percent of American adults said they were aware of the Meatless Monday campaign, with 27 percent of those aware reporting that they were actively reducing their meat consumption.

That 12.2% decline aside, though, the beef industry shouldn’t be that worried. Americans still eat more meat per capita than almost any other country in the world. And as global incomes rise in developing nations like India and China, meat production and consumption grows as well. Rest easy, cattlemen. You’ll still have plenty of customers. Not even a quickly retracted interoffice newsletter from the industry-friendly USDA will change that.

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