Jolley: Mark Bittman opines that meat is bad, USDA is worse

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Mark Bittman Mark Bittman, The New York Times’ vegetarian-in-chief and a reputed ex-farm boy, kicked over another of his sun-baked cow patties when he attacked the USDA for reversing its Meatless Monday half-stance.

For those few who weren’t paying attention, USDA published a newsletter for its employees suggesting they reduce their environmental impact by participating in ‘Meatless Mondays,’ a vegetarian-driven program that’s been gaining some traction among a few urban foodies.  Out here in what those coastal-types call flyover or cow country, the idea didn’t go over so well.

The newsletter noted that the “production of meat (especially beef) plays a role in climate change, wastes water, and requires disproportionate amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels.”

There also was a suggestion that eating too much beef might make you sick.

Now isn’t that enough for any self respecting cattleman to man the ramparts?  All of those points are tenuous at best - except for the eating too much part.  Eating too much of anything might make you sick.  Eating too much of everything is probably the major cause of our ‘growing’ national weight problem. 

Of course, when folks at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association caught wind of the story they reacted much like city folk do when they move out into the countryside and buy a house next to a feedyard.  They wrinkled up their noses and wondered where the hell that stench was coming from.

J.D. Alexander, NCBA’s Daniel Boone-style president, picked up his trusty rifle and did a ready-aim-fire thing when he sent this little bullet across the federal bow: “This is truly an awakening statement by USDA, which strongly indicates that USDA does not understand the efforts being made in rural America to produce food and fiber for a growing global population in a very sustainable way. USDA was created to provide a platform to promote and sustain rural America in order to feed the world. This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet.”

The USDA quickly backed down.  Recanted.  Removed the offending item from their files.

An embittered Bittman doubled down, writing about “an amusing footnote in the annals of food progress, and further evidence of government cowardice.”

Hopping up and down a bit more – I won’t say he was hopping mad because I didn’t actually see him dance around his desk – he wrote, “The Department of Agriculture, however, has multiple missions. One is ‘to keep America’s farmers and ranchers in business.’ Sadly, although the statement doesn’t say which farmers and ranchers, in practice this has meant those who produce commodity crops: wheat, rice, cotton, corn and soybeans, and the animals and junk food whose production relies on the last two. The second is ‘to end hunger and improve health in the United States.’ Last week, the U.S.D.A. betrayed its mission to improve health, acting in a cowardly fashion. For that it should be taken to task.”

May I take Bittman to task, instead?

He demonstrated his vegetarian bias when he wrote the USDA “should be saying loud and clear to every citizen of the United States. You want to improve health, you discourage the overconsumption of meat."

No you don’t.  You discourage overconsumption period.  The USDA cannot single out one agricultural product for that kind of condemnation.

Bittman tossed another iron in the fire when he continued his commentary by writing, “Forget that meat is not fiber, that its industrial-style production is not sustainable by any normal definition, and that — guess what? — ‘agriculture’ produces the food ‘Meatless Monday’ advocates eat, too.”

Methinks Bittman has been off the farm a bit too long.  Maybe he misspent his youth on one of those picket-fenced small family farms with a few chickens pecking around in the front yard and a pig or two back in that stylish, red-painted barn. I wonder if they painted “See Rock City” on the sides of barns that far West? All of those beasties, as well as little Timmy, were probably kept in check by an unbelievably intelligent Collie named Lassie.

Bittman certainly doesn’t understand modern farming or what’s sustainable.

He did give a grudging tip of the hat to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley who tweeted, “I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday.”   No, wait, that was a cheap shot from the big city.  My mistake.

Bittman really steered his personal ship, the S. S. Asparagus, onto the reef when he claimed that “The ship had torpedoed itself. The U.S.D.A. had made a forward-thinking and factually sound recommendation about meat consumption. (Forward-thinking for them; the rest of us are already eating less meat, and half of us already know about Meatless Mondays.)”

“The rest of us?”  Who is “us?”  Is he claiming the vast majority of the American public follows his East-of-the-Hudson, West-of-U.C. Berkeley fanatical foodie regimen? I don’t think so. His veggie cabal measures a bare 2% of the U.S. population, part-time veggie folk who sneak a bite of meat now and then are a bit more.

Bittman was ruing the fact that a trade association could go to the USDA and say, “Excuse me, did you really mean to say that about the things that we produce?” and get a satisfactory response.  He called it caving in, knuckling under, bowing to the meat master.  Of course, he wanted to go to the same government agency and ask them to cave in, knuckle under, bow to the vegetarian master.  Bottom line, here, is that USDA accidently went where they weren’t supposed to go and, when it was pointed out to them, wisely backed up.

I’ll make my dinner tonight a medium-rare steak with a baked potato on the side.  If Bittman wants to just eat small potatoes, that’s fine with me – just stay away from my plate, I like to top my potato with bacon bits and real butter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Indiana  |  August, 04, 2012 at 08:17 AM

I was right there with you every step of the way until you made fun of those of us who grew up on and still believe in small family farms! Methinks you betray your bias toward the collectivization of farms that has occurred over the last 60 years. There are many of us old "Farm Boys" that love our 'meat and potatoes' but are concerned about the centralization of food production in a few corporate hands. Your condescending attitude toward small or part-time operators works to divide us!

Kansas  |  August, 04, 2012 at 12:37 PM

Dave, my comment wasn't to demean small family farms. It was meant as an observation about urbanites who warn to romanticize farming in a Disney mode. No work, lots of play, zippadeedoodah all day.

Misssouri  |  August, 04, 2012 at 09:12 AM

I have no respect for liberals from the New York Times. They are not journalist, rather political hacks with an agenda. I recommend you don't read or support them if you want "real news". Everyone knows what they are up to.

32431  |  August, 04, 2012 at 10:12 AM

What this clown needs is a couple of "foodless" months!!!

Colo  |  August, 04, 2012 at 11:32 AM

It should be obvious that this retracted statement was the brainchild of HSUS. They were the ones who invented the Meatless Monday stupidity which was based on "facts" that their creative writers came up with. Besides ballot measures, influencing state lawmakers, and deceptive commercials, they are now infiltrating the USDA - nose of the camel.

Kansas  |  August, 04, 2012 at 12:40 PM

Dan, I don't have a quarrel with the few journalist still employed by the New York Times. I do have a problem with many of their commentators. They really need to get more balance on their op/ed pages.

Stan Marsh    
Kansas  |  August, 04, 2012 at 02:20 PM

Actually, Sid Lerner came up with Meatless Mondays to help people cut back on saturated fat. See Deceptive commercials? I've lost count of the deceptive commercials put out by the beef and dairy industries. Happy cows, indeed. As for the USDA, it is tasked with both promoting agriculture and promoting health. But animal agriculture demands override health demands 10:1, so your claim that the HSUS is "infiltrating the USDA" is reminds me of the pot calling the kettle black.

rural America  |  August, 04, 2012 at 03:22 PM

Seriously?!! You guys pulled the ChickfilA commentary piece by Greg Henderson from yesterday? hahahhahah too funny!

Kansas Meat Guy    
August, 05, 2012 at 12:19 AM

I'm curious why meat eaters let the non-meat eaters try to set the agenda for meat eaters. Seems to me the ones who might be most concerned should be those who use the product. We're now a country where a lot of people have opinions on how somebody else ought to act, but likely have several personal proclivities others of us would dislike if brought to public light. Unless it costs unnecessary tax money or harms someone else, what's the bother? Guess somebody needs to speak for animals who can't speak for themselves, huh?

August, 05, 2012 at 12:44 PM

mark opines women are bad, i thinks

Montana  |  August, 05, 2012 at 04:12 PM

Most unfortunate the USDA is increasingly staffed by anti-agriculture scabs. This begs a good old fashioned house cleaning to purge the dead wood and the poison ivy from the sheltered corridors of USDA. Maybe payless Mondays at USDA would be a start. The skulking scabs won't take that lying down for very long. Their selfish protests will smoke them out into the open where they can be strategically culled from the herd.

SD  |  August, 06, 2012 at 12:23 PM

USDA does need to get back to basics, promoting the nutrient density of ALL foods would be a good beginning. Beef in one of the best in density of our most needed nutrients in comparison to the calories. There are more than 29 cuts of beef that have less saturated fat than poultry which is often uplifted as superior nutrition, but doesn't live up to the claim. The beef people DO promote balanced diets, not 'eat all the beef you can hold' idiocy. FACT: beef is one of few foods consumed at dietician recommended levels of approximately five to seven ounces PER DAY. I see NO condescension of attitude toward small or part-time producers in the article. It would take quite a misplaced 'leap of faith' for that to surface!

SD  |  August, 14, 2012 at 10:32 AM

Re-reading this story, and the comments, I noticed a serious error of fact from 'Dave'. That being his apparent belief that US farms are dangerously "collectivized" and/or "concentrated in a few corporate hands" (food production, that is)/ I beg to differ: over 98% of farms remain in FAMILY ownership and management. There is NO condescension of small operators by the author, but may well be by the columnist he quoted. We ARE producing more pounds of beef than ever, even though the cow herd is smaller. We manage better, we select better genetics, and we waste less muscle meat in processing those cattle into beef.

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