Perhaps it’s Time the USDA Stopped Giving Us Nutrition Advice?

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Something funny happened at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week. In an online newsletter to employees, published once a quarter, the advice dispensed was to embrace Meatless Mondays in USDA cafeterias:

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.

….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.

However, within minutes of its publication, the newsletter was removed from the USDA website. The beef industry would not have any of this silliness, and issued a statement to that effect:

“Unfortunately, ‘Meatless Monday’ is an activist campaign against cattle producers and all livestock producers, so we were pretty shocked to see the one department that’s out there supposedly representing us actually being against us.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized profusely for the unauthorized publication. The USDA even tweeted this:

USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. Statement found on USDA website was posted w/o proper clearance. It has been removed.

Did we mention funny? we actually meant sad.

The USDA, celebrating 150 summers this year, is tasked with two opposing missions:

1. Supporting US agriculture

2. Providing nutrition programs and education for Americans

In the past, these two tasks aligned well with each other. Millions of Americans did not have enough food to eat, and programs were set up to aid the poor and hungry through food stamps and support for women infants and children (WIC). The USDA spent part of its budget educating consumers on nutrition, including the famous Food Pyramid (RIP), which has since been replaced by MyPlate.

While production capabilities increased dramatically, humans still need need only 2000 calories a day on average. This creates a tension, because we don’t need to eat so much. But our farms keep manufacturing more and more cheap meat, dairy, soy and corn. The USDA has to help offload all these commodities into the food system.

What to do with all the surplus? How about ignoring nutrition science that’s telling us too much red meat is unhealthy?And that’s why the USDA will never endorse Meatless Monday.

It’s simple. The National Beef Cattlemen Association want us to eat more beef. It’s understandable, that’s exactly what this organization is all about. The USDA should help them, that’s what this government office was founded for.

But please, someone take away the nutrition services and put them under the Department of Health, together with the FDA, or as a separate entity.

What do you think?

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  • Homer J

    Excellent points. One solution the gov’t should consider is getting out of that work altogether. Is it possible — just possible — that part of the agency has outlived its usefulness? Maybe the beef industry can stand on its own. And is anyone going to argue that we’d be even more obese and out of shape as a country if not for the work of this agency?

    • Mary

      Maybe just maybe we are more out of shape and obese because this agency has promoted foods to the benefit of the producers and not to the benefit of consumers. The new my plate is still heavily weighed to benefit agriculture’s need to sell ever more calories.

  • Brian

    Is science really telling us meat is bad for us? Epidemiological studies are not good science, (they are good at telling us what we should further study) and every time I see a study saying meat is bad for us, they are epidemiological. In these studies, the same people that eat red meat are not health conscious in general. They smoke, exercise less, eat out more, etc. Correlation is not causation. There are plenty of traditional societies that consume red meat that are very healthy and not riddled with heart disease. There is something else at play here… (like CAFO operations, and sugar, and processed food.) That’s what is causing heart disease and disease in general, not red meat, per se.

    But yes, I agree with you, the USDA should get out of the nutrition advisory role. Look at how unhealthy America is as a result of their nutrition advice. They have conflicting roles and they should just be in the business of supporting and regulating agriculture.

    • Sgarr

      As you’ve alluded to with CAFO operations (and all that represents), it’s the “corn fed” cattle housed in CAFO’s, not the “grass-fed” cattle on pastures that are most implicated in “western” illnesses.

    • Sgarr

      And unfortunately corn-fed cattle represent almost all the beef served in the U.S. – even in upscale restaurants.

      • benjamincgessel

        Yes, I think a HUGE reason why beef isn’t considered very healthy (and the REAL reason seems to be hiding behind some agricultural plot in the U.S., etc.) is because of the GMO corn-fed cattle thing, same thing for what most pigs and chicken eat in big commercial farms, etc. I think its evil and WRONG! I would get as mad as Alex Jones, but its getting late and I’m tired…

    • benjamincgessel

      Totally agree with you. See my above post. It might seem like Joel Fuhrman and Mark Sisson (for instance) disagree somewhat about ideal diets, etc. And it is VERY true that individuals differ a bit from person to person, and some folks would benefit from certain foods a bit more than others, or frequency of meals, meal size, allergies, and so on. But, look. Mark works out. He surfs. He isn’t a chain smoker. He DOESN’T sit around all day. He definitely does NOT eat much highly manufactured foods, in fact, his diet is VERY natural. Did you notice how MUCH vegetables AND fruits the guy eats? Yeah, I think Mark is doing just fine. Only difference between Joel and Mark is meat intake, pretty much-that, and Joel probably eats more mushrooms, etc. (GOMBBS). Who is going to live longer? I dunno, genes play a role here, as well as other factors, the environment, etc. But, if I was a betting man, I’d bet that Joel would outlive Mark. Meat doesn’t exactly extend the life of your body, it shortens it, at LEAST a bit (ESPECIALLY the more the meat is processed, GMO-fed grains, etc., cooked in unhealthy ways, etc.). Plants do the OPPOSITE. They LENGTHEN your life. Key difference there.

      • Brian

        I’ve read thought *most* of your posts… man, this article must’ve struck a nerve!! :)

        I’m on the same page as you. More of my calories come from vegetables than from meat. I just get tired of the same old rhetoric that meat is bad for you. If you’re eating 1lb steaks every day, maybe you should cut back a bit, depending on what your goals are. But you just don’t hear about breadless Mondays. Or sugarless Mondays. Or fake oil-less Monday’s. It’s always the meat and saturated fat that is giving people disease, not the things that have absolutely no nutritional value compared to meats and veggies. (The nutrients in bread are added back in after they have processed them out, and because wheat contains phytic acid, those nutrients aren’t available anyway unless you prepare bread correctly – soaking and sprouting. Get your fiber from veggies.)

        • benjamincgessel

          Yeah… I wish more folks would understand or seek to understand the complexities of the food industry (the responsibility falls especially on parents and adults in general), that there are things going on “behind the scenes” that we don’t know about, etc. with the food we buy and eat. When I was younger, I knew some folks who were extremely passionate about the food industry, and it seemed a bit extreme to me. I suppose the thought never really occurred to me that many folks in the food industry are less than 100% honest, ethical, benevolent, thoroughly scientific/rational, etc. It wasn’t in my nature to be skeptical, etc., until sometime in my 20′s.

          This all being said, I am all FOR Breadless Mondays, Sugarless Saturdays and Sugarless Sundays (going with some alliteration), Fake Oil-less Fridays, Whole Food Wednesdays, etc. As it is, I don’t buy bread or anything with gluten or casein (protein found in dairy) and if I do eat something with either or both proteins, I take enzyme pills beforehand to help me digest the protein (I have Aspergers Syndrome to a mild extent, learned this in my early 20′s-so this is basically the reason why I have a bit of trouble digesting these two proteins completely).

          Last thing. Yeah, I think the anti-meat thing is kinda, well… Lots of different folks/organizations say similar things, but their desires, intent, etc. might vary QUITE a bit. I’m no hippie, environmental “wacko”, etc., I’m a fairly moderate conservative, for sure. However, I think, the older I’ve gotten, the more I see the silliness in political thinking/labeling, esp. extreme political thinking. I’ve realized that I have more in common-and get along better with many liberals than many conservatives, for instance. I think it comes down to discerning hypocrisy/hidden, selfish desires, “weird” ideas, etc. in organizations, certain individuals, and seeking wisdom and good, common sense. And much of the anti-meat rhetoric does seem to come from folks I would deem “weird”… So, i don’t pay attention to fads, just more scrutiny with regard to food science and getting more natural foods/less processed foods in my diet. I also wish schools would have taught more of this stuff when I was younger. I wouldn’t have have craved candy, etc. NEARLY as much… :)

          • Brian

            Well, it schools would have taught more of this stuff, there’s no saying that it wouldn’t have been the wrong advice. The advice would have likely been to eat 9 servings of grains a day, and to stay away from fat. Which I think circles back to the point of the article… the same people that are supporting agriculture are the ones telling us the “best” way to eat. Conflict of interest there.

  • Ralph

    Wether red meat is as bad as people think is debatable. Is it the way it’s cooked? Is it the diet as a whole? Is it a lack of a healthy lifestyle? That’s a whole different story. BUT, we should never listen to just one source of nutritional advice for the exact reason the meatless Monday article was removed from the USDA site. Money overrules science. Unfortunately even some ‘nutrition’ expert’s education is influenced by money and big pharm/big ag (ex: Academy of Dieteics & Nutrition is supported by PepsiCo, Gen Mills, milk/meat industry). I am content that this article was written because it exhibits independent thinking.

  • Jeff Dege

    Given the large proportion of the population who are carbohydrate intolerant, the idea that we should be advocating vegetarianism for the general population is simply absurd.

    A great many of us would be healthier if we ate less carbs and more saturated fat. And it’s hard to do that as a vegan.

    • swalach

      Meat is much healthier when the beef are grass fed and not fattened up on all of that GMO grain.

      • Jeff Dege

        One of these days, the public health community is going to wake up to the unavoidable fact that there is no single set of dietary recommendations they could make that would be appropriate for the general population.

        People differ widely in how they respond to identical diets. Advice that ignores these differences isn’t just worthless, it’s actively harmful.

        • benjamincgessel

          Very true. But, I still do believe that there are some things that do apply to everyone. And some things are bad… for everyone.

      • benjamincgessel

        I TOTALLY agree. See, here’s the thing…

        If someone is able to detox/get their body the way it SHOULD be through regular exercise, regular/sufficient rest, plenty of PURE water, eating pretty much only natural/non-processed, high-very high percentage plant-based, nutrient-dense foods, eat only wild caught fish, etc., no GMO’s, heavy on the organics/non-organic produce washed THOROUGHLY, etc., after a while, THEN that person can MUCH more readily sense what different foods do to them-to their emotions, energy level, mental abilities, strength, etc. Heck, most folks can even sense to a certain extent these things even if their health is only mediocre, even fairly poor, but it starts to become PAINFULLY obvious what foods (as well as exercise and sleeping patterns) do to a person for the most healthy and active of folks. But, its also a sensitivity thing. Thing is, there is a LOT of poultry, ESPECIALLY poultry-ESPECIALLY dark meat poultry-cheap stuff from Foster Farms, etc., but also most red meats, (processed red meats are pretty much EVIL), dairy (dairy is just whack anyway-I don’t do dairy) and to a certain extent fish/shellfish, that is just way too fatty, etc. I know, I’ve subsisted to a good deal, regarding my animal protein sources, on cheap, dark meat chicken, which is changing the very next shopping trip, ESPECIALLY after considering GMO’s that are being fed to animals, etc. Which is why (as I am striving to be a nutritarian), I’m doing my shopping at the Everett Sno-Isle Co-op, occasionally Trader Joes, (mixed feelings about Whole Foods) and for just a few other things, Winco/Fred Meyer. Its also about prices, sure. But, if it is going to be better in the long run to eat grass-fed beef, organic eggs, free range chicken, etc., and just eat less of it as its expensive and not that much is needed/hardly any, really (I’ve been scaling down my meat etc. intake for quite some time), then I guess its time to give up the cheap chicken and go with the stuff that I know is going to not ” bog me down”, etc.

    • benjamincgessel

      Kinda depends. On fitness level/amount of exercise. Also, food intolerances/sensitivities, etc. Also the KIND of carbs that are being eaten/when/how often/how much. (Because doughnuts, top ramen, cinnamon rolls, white bread, cake, cupcakes, and all that baked junk is NOT what ANYONE should be eating-and if it is ever eaten, it should be like, RARELY.) Also natural vs. processed foods, and degree of processing/what ACTUALLY happens to the food, etc.

      …Saturated fat is not exactly a GOOD thing, I know its not in the same category as trans fat (shudder). However, I don’t think you have quite the right outlook here. We’re not tigers… the human body is designed to benefit the most from plant foods, with animal foods being a secondary source of nutrients/energy. SECONDARY. I’ve heard of the Atkins diet, all kinds of diets before, the glycemic index, believe me, I’ve heard a LOT of stuff. But NONE of this holds a candle to Nutritarianism/research done by Dr. Fuhrman, etc., or just plain old “Eat your green veggies”, or “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, kinds of sayings, the LDS Word of Wisdom, Hindu abstinence from beef and pork, Kosher diets, etc. They stick around, because they are true, and they benefit those who live by them, sometimes immensely.

      Vegetarianism is… Not exactly the best way to go-you REALLY have to make sure you’re getting certain nutrients that would otherwise be more in abundance in meats, etc.

      So basically, eat nuts, seeds, avocadoes, bananas, coconuts, olives, fish, eggs, a DIVERSE diet, FULL of healthy fats. But get a lot of fats from plant foods, not just animal foods. You don’t really NEED that steak or that fried chicken EVERY night. Its just not necessary. But it tastes good, and it fills you up, sure. Then, after a heavy meal, what do you want to do (what do trytophans in turkey do-I know they are good for you, but what do you do?)? You want to sleep. Or loaf around, while your stomach takes more than a few hours digesting all the stuff in those heavier foods. Let the fiber, water, and minerals in plant foods, etc. let your brain and stomach know that you are indeed full, and don’t need to keep eating. And if you are burning through 3000+ calories a day, keep the plant foods coming-don’t just eat more animal foods because they can get the job done quicker. That is just… Not… Good.

  • TwinToddlersDad

    I checked USDA’s mission statement (hopefully the approved version!):

    “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.”

    I don’t think the USDA is claiming to be an authority on nutrition or public health.

    Meatless Monday, on the other hand, is a non-profit organization with a goal of reducing our meat consumption (for a variety of sound reasons).

    I think USDA did the right thing by pulling the unauthorized newsletter because they should not be endorsing individual programs.

    • benjamincgessel

      Yes, very true. But it just makes them look more like a “tool”, like we all know they already are anyway… No offense, I respect the folks in the cattle industry as well as the USDA, etc. But everybody needs to make money. And that is where you have the crux of the issue, right there. And goodness knows, when business and education are mixed together, be it medicine, red meat, the arts, whatever, quite often, the vast majority of the time, there will be negative impacts on the impartiality of the institution that is doing the educating. Non-profit, knowledgeable, ethical, competent volunteer organizations are the folks that should be trusted the most, the vast majority of the time…

      • benjamincgessel

        By non-profit, I also want to make it clear that I DON’T include “lobbyists” in this category, and am DEEPLY suspicious of powerful organizations that rake in SERIOUS money from donations, fund raisers, etc.

  • Nancy- The Frugal Dietitian

    But it is also a money saving tip. I just saw where, due to the drought, one of the biggest increases in food costs will be meat!! This should be considered when discussing SNAP (Food stamps).

    • benjamincgessel

      I think beef is going to become a luxury food one of these days, like caviar. I’m probably exaggerating, but its probably a good idea to start developing tastes for other meats like wild game (hunting, anyone?), buffalo (if it gets cheaper in the future, etc.), pork (but it is kinda unhealthy), etc., or just try try try to curb the taste for red meat-replace that hunger for BEEF with lean/healthy poultry/fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, grains, etc. All I can say is, I hope salmon and shrimp don’t get any more expensive than they already are. And then there’s tuna and the back-and-forth mercury is in in what fish? ongoing debate, etc. Animal food lovers (like me) are just gonna have to suck it up and kiss that red meat good-bye, pretty much. Hopefully not to the extent that a person with extreme diabetes would not eat candy ever again… Goodness knows I LOVE a good steak…

  • Christopher

    There is a clear conflict of interest. It is almost beyond comprehension that this task wasn’t taken away from the USDA years ago and given to a more objective organization.

    In fact, every 5 years there is a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) that provides “advice” to the USDA as to what the guidelines should state and how they should be revised from the previously issued set of guidelines. It is well known (and described in detail in Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics”) that the USDA often takes the advice of the DGAC and modifies it before releasing it to the public. For example, “Eat Less Meat” as recommended by the DGAC gets modified to “Choose Lean Cuts of Meat” for the Dietary Guidelines.

    At some point, the absurdity of this conflict of interest will achieve a transition of responsibility away from the USDA. Apparently we haven’t yet reached the tipping point of American awareness of this outdated and now detrimental assignment of responsibility.

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  • pat

    Really, you think we should put “Food education” in the hands of the government? Those who are so influenced by big business that they would like to allow GMOs to qualify as organic and those who ardently fight any form of treatment that doesn’t somehow add to the coffers of big pharmaceutical companies? If you believe the USDA has conflicts of interest I would argue that the FDA has more and these conflicts extend to all government entities. We should be using groups of professionals in nutrition and dietetics to teach sensible eating.

  • Peter K


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  • Sharyn Guthrie

    “Unfortunately, ‘Meatless Monday’ is an activist campaign against
    cattle producers and all livestock producers, so we were pretty shocked
    to see the one department that’s out there supposedly representing us
    actually being against us.”

    Why are they ‘representing’ anyone besides the American people? Why are they ‘representing’ the industries they are supposed to be regulating? For me that is the real question here. In addition, one of the main objectives of Meatless Monday is to bring awareness and reduce the carbon footprint created by the grain-fed meat industry. Apparently the cattlemen aren’t interested in doing that either. I’ll stick to my Meatless Monday’s, and enjoy grass-fed / pastured / humanely-raised meats, dairy, and eggs other days of the week :)

  • benjamincgessel

    One more thing about beef. Its ok to eat. Its just, how much, how often, what is your fitness level/how much calories are you burning a day, protein requirements etc., what is the quality, what did the cow eat, etc. And really, to be frank, beef should be eaten like, once a month. If that. And if you LOVE that beefy taste (like I DO), two to three times a month is O.K-even four, five, six, seven, or eight times a month (but don’t push it to like even every other day-even shrewd weightlifters know not to eat beef ALL the time-they eat a WIDE variety of foods-especially the more healthy foods and LEANER, more NATURAL/higher QUALITY animal foods). You get the idea-its more about just USING the meat you ate a few hours ago when you work out, etc., (don’t want to eat that heavy stuff RIGHT before a workout-better to keep it to lighter sources of protein right before workouts, etc.) instead of having it just sit in your gut, etc. But again, how MUCH, what is the QUALITY, WHEN in the day are you eating such a heavy food, its just kind of complex, but in another way, really rather simple.

    Mark’s Daily Apple can shed some light here, you know, he has a LOT of good ideas about the minimizing carbs thing and eating tons of fruits and veggies, plus the meat/seafood/poultry. Only thing is, unless you are getting as much exercise as Mark, or MORE, you probably don’t need to eat as much meat as he does. But, you know, beef is so good… I guess its kind of like, well, have fun while you exercise, and then, go have that steak, but make sure that if you are gonna be eating steak on a fairly frequent basis, that you are NOT being a couch potato…