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Meatless Mondays, a movement that has legs

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" '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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