February 2, 2011
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey may have just encouraged a large segment of her 30 million viewers to join the Meatless Monday movement following her latest show which gave us a rare glimpse into where some of our meat comes from.
The Meatless Monday campaign’s national awareness has more than doubled in the last 2 years. An FGI Research survey found that 30 percent of Americans are aware of the public health campaign. My guess is that following Oprah’s very public backing and the announcement last month that the food service company Sodexo implemented Meatless Monday national and global awareness is going to sky rocket!
The episode, entitled “Oprah and 378 Staffers Go Vegan: The One Week Challenge” featured celebrated “veganist” Kathy Freston and journalist Michael Pollan, best known for his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” A large chunk of the show followed Freston encouraging sometimes belligerent but mostly willing Oprah Show staff members to eat a vegan diet for one week and their testimonials on how they did. A few employees said the experience helped them lose weight and become healthier. Following her experience, Oprah decided, quite enthusiastically, that her studio’s café would do Meatless Monday every week.
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Center for a Livable Future helped launch the national Meatless Monday campaign back in 2003. The campaign’s primary focus is to reduce America’s saturated fat consumption by 15%, following the recommendations of the Healthy People 2010 report issued by then U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher in 2000. Key recommendations from the recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 reiterate the message that we need to reduce our consumption of solid and saturated fats.
While nutrition experts like Marion Nestle say the new guidelines are not perfect, they are a great improvement. Nestle says the overall advice is to eat less and eat better. However, interestingly, the guidelines seem to be making news for what they are not asking people to do, like eat less red meat. National Public Radio’s April Fulton reported on the network’s Health Blog that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was put on the spot Monday by veteran food reporter Marian Burros when she asked: “Why didn’t they just say steer clear of red meat?” Fulton says this is Vilsack’s “guarded” answer:
“The guidelines do mention the need for more consumption of fish and seafood in the lean protein area… I think that’s a way of saying what you’re saying.”
Besides the part where Oprah yelled “Meatless Monday, Meatless Monday!” the show segment which I found most interesting took Oprah viewers into the heart of a beef processing plant, owned and operated by Cargill Meat Solutions. The Oprah Show’s investigative reporter Lisa Ling was invited to document “how meat is made” from the feedlot to the slaughterhouse floor. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I commend Cargill for giving Oprah viewers a chance to see how beef is processed.
Michael Pollan, who as Oprah noted was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, is a master at bringing out his primary message about what he considers a broken industrial food system. He maintains that meat isn’t necessarily the problem, rather it is the way the majority of it is made that is. Pollan told Oprah that, “There are great farmers in this country who are doing really good work, and they need to be supported. We need to reform the meat system—not eliminate it.”
Pollan also stated that there are lots of good reasons to eat less meat. Unfortunately, Oprah did not have time to review many of the health and environmental impacts of industrial meat production. I thought I’d list a few facts that show why cutting meat out of your diet just one day a week could have a significant impact on the planet and your health.
Reduce Fossil Fuel Consumption
- On average, it takes 20 times the amount of fossil-fuel energy to produce conventional beef protein than plant-based protein.
- If everyone in the U.S. switched to taking meat out of their diet one day a week, it would be the same as saving approximately 12 billion gallons of gasoline a year.
Reduce Water Usage
- Soy tofu produced in California requires some 220 gallons of water per pound. Whereas an estimated 1,580 to 2,500 gallons of water go into a single pound of beef.
- The estimated 634 gallons of water required to produce one 5.2-ounce hamburger would be enough for a four-hour shower.
Mitigate Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global food animal production generates nearly one fifth of the world’s man-made greenhouse gas emission, far more than transportation.
- Based on data from the EPA and a recent study by Weber and Matthews, meat production accounts for an estimated 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Reduce Antimicrobial Use in Livestock
- According to new data released in December 2010 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), of the antibiotics sold in 2009 for both people and food animals almost 80% were reserved for livestock and poultry. Producers often administer antibiotics in continuous low-dosages through feed or water to increase the speed at which their animals grow. Public health experts and scientists say the practice can lead to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
- In accordance with a 2008 amendment to the Animal Drug User Fee Act, the FDA released the annual amount of antimicrobial drugs sold and distributed in 2009 for use in food animals. The grand total is 13.1 million kilograms. According to the FDA’s Office of Surveillance and Epidemiology analysis of IMS Health data, approximately 3.3 million kilograms of antibacterial drugs were sold in 2009 for human use.
Reduce risk of mortality
- A recent study followed over 500,000 U.S. men and women over 10 years. Study participants who consumed the highest amounts of red and processed meat had significantly higher risks of overall mortality, cancer mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality.
Pimentel, D., & Pimentel, M. (2003). Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3), 660S-663.
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Hoekstra, A. Y., & Chapagain, A. K. (2006). Water Footprints of Nations: Water use by People as a Function of their Consumption Pattern. Water Resource Management
Steinfeld, H., et al., Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options. 2006, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome, Italy
Weber, C. L., & Matthews, H. S. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science and Technology, 42(10), 3508-3513.
U.S. EPA. (2010). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2008. Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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