Ed Murtagh, Sustainable Operations Manager at the USDA, had no idea what was coming one afternoon in late July 2012. He had just emailed to some colleagues a link to the latest “Greening Headquarters Update,” a monthly internal USDA newsletter about what fellow employees can do to reduce their impact on the environment.
Soon after, he was lauded by a colleague named Nancy: “I love getting this, Ed, and knowing it’s from you. Very cool!!!”
But half an hour later he received a much more ominous message. “Please call me regarding the July 23rd issuance of the Greening Hdqtrs,” read the email from Curtis Wilburn, Jr., Director of Operations.
Murtagh had hardly posted the newsletter before complaints poured in from outside the USDA. And understandably so: this issue of the Greening Headquarters Update encouraged USDA employees to go meat-free one day a week by giving Meatless Monday a try. The following is the offending material in its entirety:
Innocent enough—that is, unless you’re the beef industry.
The USDA caved to the pressure: at 3:31pm, Peter Rhee, Digital Media Director, emailed Steven Schatz in the USDA’s IT department. “Getting some heavy traffic regarding a newsletter posted on greening.usda.gov. We need this pulled offline ASAP. The statements regarding Meatless Mondays have not been cleared by [Office of Communications] and we’re getting a lot of heat for it.” 11 minutes later, he emails again: “It looks like July 2012 has been pulled. We also need this one pulled,” followed by a link to a December 2009 edition of the newsletter which advocated vegetarianism.
Less than three hours after Murtagh’s email announcing the new issue of the newsletter, Mike Deering of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association emailed the industry’s statement to the USDA’s spokespeople.
Subsequent to a news release by the [NCBA] condemning a statement by the [USDA] supporting the “Meatless Monday” campaign, USDA publicly stated it does not support the extremist “Meatless Monday” campaign,” began the news release. “We appreciate USDA’s swift action in pulling this disparaging statement off its website. … The agency is important to all cattlemen and women, especially as we face unprecedented challenges, including drought and animal rights extremist groups spreading fiction to consumers who need to know the importance of beef in a healthy diet.
The email was forwarded to Thomas Vilsack, then-Secretary of Agriculture, who was keeping tabs on the unfolding situation. “Sir, see NCBA’s statement below. Mr. Alexander called me and I told him you would try to reach him tonight or tomorrow,” wrote Office of the Secretary spokeswoman Krysta Harden. Thomas DeJong, Deputy Director of the Office of Communications, provided Secretary Vilsack an update of “the quick action we took in response to the Meatless Monday claim this afternoon,” which included reaching out to Senate and House committees on agriculture, Ag Communicators Network, NCBA communications staff, and reporters. The message to the public was unequivocal: the USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday and the statement was posted “without proper clearance.”
Yet a FOIA request submitted by this reporter for any guidelines or other documentation regarding the process of obtaining “proper clearance” for the Greening Headquarters Update produced nothing.
In other words, the USDA opted to sacrifice an employee—whose job title involves educating his coworkers on how to be more environmentally sustainable, mind you—by claiming he did not follow a nonexistent procedure in order to put at ease a beef industry on a rampage. Indeed, the industry had apparently swiftly contacted Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who promptly took to Twitter to complain. Iowa Rep. Steve King, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, also got word of the newsletter, tweeting his plan to double-up on meat consumption to compensate for the USDA’s “heresy.” And perhaps most tellingly, the USDA neither pushed back on the beef industry’s suggestion that the Meatless Monday campaign is spread by “animal rights extremist groups spreading fiction to consumers” nor took the opportunity to acknowledge the reality that animal agriculture is causing extraordinary damage to the environment.
One individual named Amy emailed Murtagh and others complaining that “[s]upporting [Meatless Monday] is supporting inaccurate information,” followed by statistics comparing the relative improvement of beef production today compared to 1977. But Murtagh didn’t point out that the fact that the environmental impact of beef has declined says nothing about how it stacks up against other foods today. Instead, he apologized—“I was the one who wrote that. […] The news letter has been taken down. Sorry to have offended you.”
“Knowing that the newsletter has been taken down makes me feel very good,” Amy said in response, before praising the greening committee and imploring, without any apparent sarcasm, “keep up the good work!”
It’s unfortunate that so much of the blow-back neglected to address the factual bases for advocating for something as innocuous as Meatless Monday. Not one critic took issue with any specific claim contained in the newsletter. It is a fact that the United Nations produced a report which calls animal agriculture “a major source of greenhouse gases.” And it is true that beef production requires significant amounts of grain, water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides – far more than the resources required to produce the same number of calories or grams of protein in most fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. And the health concerns “related to the excessive consumption of meat,” as the newsletter claims, is something repeated by nearly every reputable dietetic association in existence.
A colleague offered some moral support to a surely disillusioned Murtagh. “Don’t worry about it Ed. Your [sic] likely to offend someone simply for caring about the environment. People should grow up. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure you have good info. 1977 is more than 30 years ago and not a relevant comparison.”
“The problem is that complaints went to the secretary’s office, so not a good situation,” replied Murtagh.
After the chaos died down, Murtagh replied to Nancy. “Thanks Nancy. This newsletter actually caused me a lot of problems. First time I had a bad experience with it,” he wrote the next day.
“Hmmm, which part were people unhappy about?” she wondered.
“The meatless Monday item. Very bad thing to say politically at USDA especially at this time. I was not thinking when I put that in the newsletter,” Murtagh responded.
In case you wondered about who calls the shots over at the USDA – an agency in part responsible for formulating dietary guidelines for some 323 million Americans – now you know.
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