WASHINGTON, July 26 - USDA’s Office of Communications wasted no time Wednesday knocking down a report that the department had endorsed the “Meatless Monday” campaign.

The flap was touched off by an on-line “Greening Headquarters Update” for employees posted July 23 by the Office of Operations, a housekeeping agency, describing plans to make USDA’s cafeteria a model for “healthy” eating. “One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the “Meatless Monday” initiative,” it said.

The story played out in a little over two hours Wednesday afternoon (all times EDT):

3:14 p.m. -- The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association got wind of the admonition and emailed a statement to reporters, saying that USDA’s embrace of the campaign “calls into question USDA’s commitment to U.S. farmers and ranchers. 

– Agri-Pulse emailed USDA asking if it indeed had endorsed the concept.

– USDA Press Secretary Courtney Rowe emailed back, saying, “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. The statement found on the USDA website was posted without proper clearance and it has been removed.”

– Rowe emailed the same statement to a larger list of news media.

– NCBA emailed a second press release that said, “We appreciate USDA’s swift action in pulling this disparaging statement off its website. USDA publicly stated today that it does not support this campaign.”

By evening, the story had spread widely among bloggers, internet-based news sites that pay attention to agriculture and some mainstream news media outlets.

No doubt the responsibility lies with a low- to mid-level career civil servant who had read the propaganda from extremist groups and wrote about a topic well above his or her pay grade. But USDA is at fault because there was no procedure that caught the error before publication.

The offending passage correctly identified the campaign as an “initiative of The Monday Campaign Inc. in association with the John Hopkins School of Public Health,” which often appears less of an academic institution than a propaganda mill for vegetarianism.

The now-removed USDA missive went on, “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!”

The study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization cited for the claims of environmental impact has been discredited by animal scientists and air quality experts for flawed conclusions.

It’s not the first time that a non-political civil servant at USDA has written something politically embarrassing to the administration in office. In 1980, an employee of the old Office of Personnel (now the Office of Human Resources Management) wrote a citation for a Presidential Rank Award certificate for a top USDA policy official, crediting him for turning USDA into a department for consumers. The late Richard E. Lyng, who later would become secretary of agriculture, but who then had managed the Reagan rural area campaign committee, said following the 1980 election that the “consumer department” citation was more effective than the unpopular Soviet grain embargo in the campaign against former President Carter.


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