Almost exactly a year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put its foot in its mouth on the topic of Meatless Mondays. First, the department circulated a newsletter among employees. “One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias,” they advised, “is to participate in the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative.” (“This international effort, as the name implies, encourages people not to eat meat on Mondays,” the newsletter helpfully added.) The next day, facing outrage from livestock producers, a representative for the department clarified: “U.S.D.A. does not endorse Meatless Monday.”
The kerfuffle highlighted the paradox contained in the department’s dual tasks of creating dietary recommendations and promoting American agriculture. It also gave us a quintessential example of the ridiculous political bluster that conservative politicians invariably deliver whenever the topic of reducing meat consumption comes up. “I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday,” tweeted Sen. Chuck Grassley at the time. (Good one, senator.)
One might think of this kind of idiotic posturing as a peculiarly American affliction, what with our fondness for steaks and libertarianism. But this week, observers of food politics are experiencing déjà vu—or, perhaps more accurately, bereitsgesehen. Germany’s Green Party proposed a (voluntary) national meatless day in work cafeterias, and the opposition went nuts. “Constantly telling people what they do is not my understanding of freedom and liberty,” said a former federal transportation minister from the conservative Free Democratic Party (FDP). FDP protestors besieged the Green Party headquarters carrying signs reading, “Hands off my sausage.” One politician even compared the pledge to Nazi propaganda on Facebook.
It’s refreshing to know that Americans don’t have a monopoly on comparing relatively innocuous policy proposals to those of Hitler. But it’s depressing to discover that we aren’t the only country in which elected representatives try to gain political points by pandering to people’s affection for meat. If you accept that it is within the government’s purview to look after public health and the environment, then it is is entirely sensible for governmental bodies to recommend that people reduce their meat consumption.
The link between meat production and environmental degradation is fairly airtight, as is the link between meat consumption and heart disease. Recommending that people cut some meat out of their diet should be as uncontroversial as recommending that people drive less and walk more, or that people use energy-saving light bulbs. (It’s good for you, and good for the environment!) The fact that it isn’t says a lot about the emotional power of food, and about politicians’ willingness to exploit it. Unfortunately, politicians all too often prove incapable of talking about food without sounding like petulant children.