Meat Industry Has Beef with Meatless Monday, Forces USDA to Retract Newsletter

Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The USDA has retracted its support for an initiative to cut meat from Americans' Monday diets, caving in to pressure from livestock producers and complaints from a Kansas Senator.

The original plug appeared in the USDA's internal "Greening Headquarters Update" on Monday, where three paragraphs on the third page mentioned Meatless Mondays, an initiative by Monday Campaigns, Inc. The update called them a "simple way to reduce your environmental impact."

The memo went on to say that animal agriculture - beef production in particular - wastes water, fertilizer, fossil fuels and other resources. It also contributes to global climate change, the memo said.

"Because Meatless Monday involves only one day a week, it is a small change that could produce big results," the newsletter said. "Did you notice that our cafeterias have tasty meatless options?"

Well, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association noticed.

The association's president, J.D. Alexander, said the newsletter called into question the USDA's "commitment" to farmers and ranchers. He called the newsletter "awakening," and condemned the agency for failing to understand efforts made to produce food sustainably. He cited progress the industry has made over the last 30 years to produce more meat with fewer environmental costs.

"This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet," Alexander said.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) noticed, too. Once he saw Twitter responses to the USDA's promotion of Meatless Mondays, he immediately printed out the USDA's newsletter and headed down to the Senate floor, his aide, Garrette Silverman told Kansas is the third-largest beef producer in the country.

"We are a beef-producing state and it is one of the items that improves our balance of trade as we export meat and beef around the world," Moran concluded his three-minute speech on the Senate floor. "And, yet, our own Department of Agriculture encourages people not to consume meat."

A press release from Moran's office called the newsletter "demonizing" to the meat industry and meat consumers. He said the letter "attacks" meat production and fails to acknowledge livestock's role in the economy.

"Never in my life would I have expected USDA to be opposed to farmers and ranchers," Sen. Moran said.

By Wednesday afternoon, the memo was offline and a USDA tweet said it was posted in error.

"USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday," the USDA tweeted.

Peggy Nue, President of Monday Campaigns, said she was initially pleased the USDA plugged Meatless Mondays this week, and she was surprised at how fast the USDA reversed its position.

"It shouldn't be considered a threatening idea," she said. "We're not saying give up meat entirely - just one day a week."

Nue pointed toward the USDA's most recent dietary guidelines, which came out in early 2011 and urge people to reduce solid fats and salts.

Indeed, chapter three of the USDA document, titled "Foods and Food Components to Reduce," includes 14 mentions of the word "beef" and nine mentions of the word "meat."

"There really is a conflict in their mission," Nue said. "On one hand, they represent the meat industry, and on the other, they're putting out dietary guidelines to make America healthier."

It's all too familiar to Professor Walter Willett, who chairs the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. When the USDA replaced its food pyramid with the "Healthy Eating Plate" last year, he told the Wall Street Journal it was "pretty useless" and designed his own.

"There's a lot of schizophrenia within the department," Willett said, citing the USDA's promotion of cheese and beef consumption despite its warnings about saturated fats. "If you really believed in the dietary guidelines and you're really promoting the dietary guidelines, Meatless Monday is a great thing to do."

Willett said the newsletter also rightfully depicted red meat as environmentally taxing. 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," he said.