Meatless Mondays, a movement that has legs

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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's probably no surprise that Sir Paul McCartney, a longtime vegetarian, banned all meat from staff meals on his current world tour. But when Mario Batali starts to push people to eat their vegetables, you know something is happening.

The famously rotund and infamously gluttonous chef-restaurateur is to pig what the Beatles are to rock-and-roll. Batali, a rock-star chef if there ever was one, has changed the way Americans eat pork, introducing us to cured lonza, guanciale and lardo, which he once described to the New Yorker magazine as "the best song sung in the key of pig."

And yet this month, Batali announced that he would join the Meatless Monday campaign, a movement backed by a broad array of public-health advocates, animal welfare activists and environmentalists that asks carnivores to give up meat one day a week. Each of Batali's 14 restaurants, which include the meatily named Bar Jamon in New York and Carnevino in Las Vegas, offers two vegetarian entrees on Mondays, highlighted with an "MM" logo.

Batali is one of the movement's latest and most high-profile supporters. But on the vegetable front, he is hardly a pioneer. Baltimore City Public Schools launched meatless Mondays for its 82,000 students in October. Thirty-two U.S. hospitals have signed on to the Balanced Menu Challenge, a commitment to reduce meat purchases by 20 percent. This spring, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors approved a resolution calling on schools, restaurants and stores to offer meatless options, and the state of Michigan held a one-day "Meatout" during which residents were encouraged not to eat meat. A host of cookbooks that feature meatless or nearly meatless meals are either in bookstores ("The Conscious Cook," by Tal Ronnen) or headed for the shelves ("The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook," by former Washington Post blogger Kim O'Donnel).

It's enough to make the meat industry nervous. Over the past year, lobbying groups including the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Board and the Farm Bureau have launched a quiet campaign to try to reverse the momentum. They have fired off missives to institutions that embrace the call to reduce meat consumption, and they have posted talking points for meat producers on the Internet. They are also making a final push to ensure that the government recommendation of two servings of meat per day remains enshrined in the new dietary guidelines that the Department of Agriculture will release this fall.

"When you start talking about this kind of stuff at institutions, it sends a panic through the industry," said Tony Geraci, the director of food service for Baltimore City Public Schools, who received a raft of what he calls "cease and desist" letters from meat industry lobbyists. "If Baltimore does it, then what happens? The goal is to cut meat consumption by 15 percent."

This is not the first time the meat industry has faced a meatless-day movement. The concept has its roots in World War I, when the U.S. Food Administration told Americans that "Food Will Win the War" and proclaimed Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays. The New York-based nonprofit group Healthy Monday relaunched the idea in 2003 in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It really began to take off in 2009, said the organization's president, Peggy Neu, when institutions and restaurants started to embrace the idea. The scheme has spread overseas. Last year, the city of Ghent in Belgium became the first European city to endorse a meat-free day.

In response, the meat industry has stressed science. To public-health advocates, they explain that meat is a complete protein with essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Beans, they note, are not. To environmentalists, they point to new research that challenges widely publicized statistics that livestock production creates more greenhouse gases than forms of automated transportation. To everyone, they underscore that Americans simply do not eat too much meat: According to government figures, Americans consume an average 5.3 ounces of meat per day. The current U.S. dietary guidelines, released in 2005, recommend eating between 5.5 and 6 ounces of meat per day.

"We're scientists here. We're not going to step out of line on the facts," said Ceci Snyder, a registered dietitian and vice president of marketing for the National Pork Board.

With the pressure on, you might expect a multimillion-dollar "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" kind of campaign. But although the various lobbies have produced some consumer education materials -- the American Meat Institute has filmed a new video about portion size for its YouTube channel, the Meat News Network, for example -- the industry is instead targeting institutional purchasers and policymakers. Baltimore City Public Schools and Healthcare Without Harm, the nonprofit group that is urging hospitals to serve less meat, have received stern letters from industry officials. The National Pork Board is funding a new study that maps hog producers' carbon footprints, with numbers they hope will prove to retailers such as Wal-Mart that pork is an environmentally friendly choice.

Lobbying for the upcoming dietary guidelines is among the most urgent efforts. The guidelines are the basis for the USDA's food pyramid, which recommends daily intakes for food groups including meat, grain and dairy products. The sixth and final meeting of the advisory committee proposing the guidelines took place May 12.

In a letter to the committee, the American Meat Institute voiced concern that policymakers were overemphasizing plant-based food as the foundation of a "healthy" diet for Americans. "The Carbohydrate and Protein subcommittee appears to be actively seeking a link between adverse health outcomes and animal proteins," the letter stated. "AMI strongly recommends that the Committee evaluate its data based on sound science and a scientifically based risk assessment, not nutrition publication bias."

" 'Science or 'science-based' are code words for 'there's something at stake here,' " said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and a frequent critic of industrial food producers. "People eat very complicated diets. And they know the science will never be strong enough to make unequivocal recommendations about what people should eat."

Nestle, who served on the advisory committee in 1995, said that the language in industry letters suggests a level of concern about the Meatless Monday campaign, but that the industry is not truly threatened: "There's no reason for them to raise their voice. They've always gotten what they wanted from Washington."

In case after case, she said, policymakers have refrained from suggesting that Americans eat less meat. A 1977 Senate select committee led by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) was forced to beat a hasty retreat after it initially recommended that Americans could cut their intake of saturated fat by reducing their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Its revised guidelines suggested choosing "meat, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake." (McGovern, whose constituents included many cattle ranchers, lost his seat in 1980.)

In 1992, when the USDA planned to recommend reduced meat intake in its new Food Pyramid, the industry howled again. It created a public-relations nightmare for the agency. Under intense media scrutiny, the USDA could not change its recommendations. It did, however, redesign the chart so that the two to three servings of meat that it had suggested as a maximum serving looked like a recommended amount.

Consumers have continued to deliver what the meat industry wants: sales. Per-capita meat consumption in the United States has increased by 8 percent since 1970. Even health crises, such as the mad-cow scare, hardly affected U.S. consumption: In 1997, the year after the disease erupted in Britain, U.S. beef consumption fell about 2 percent. The next year, consumption returned to its previous level. Americans remain firmly resistant to giving up meat. An AP-NBC Universal telephone poll of 1,006 adults last November reported that 23 percent said they would be likely to make a special effort to give up meat as a way to protect the environment -- well below the numbers who said they might recycle bottles and cans or take their own shopping bags to stores. Some 46 percent of respondents said they were not likely to give up meat at all.

Still, proponents of Meatless Monday say they are hopeful that institutions can help lessen demand. Healthcare Without Harm, which wants hospitals to reduce meat purchasing by 20 percent over a 12-month period, reports an average drop of 28 percent in its four-hospital San Francisco pilot project. Baltimore City Public Schools estimates it will buy 120,000 fewer pounds of meat per school year by eliminating it from Monday menus.

And now there's Batali, who recently lost 45 pounds, flying the flag for meatless Mondays. "Mario still loves meat," said Elizabeth Meltz, the chef's director of sustainability. "But even he believes everything should be eaten in moderation."


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