National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

I may have a random “Meatless Monday” in weeks and years to come, but limiting the environmental impact from cattle may have nothing to do with it. It will be all about the Benjamins - or in my case, the Washingtons and Lincolns.

In case you missed it, the entertaining dust-up at the U.S. Department of Agriculture related to Meatless Monday was chronicled in various consumer press accounts.

In coverage in, the story goes that a USDA employee newsletter called Greening Headquarters Update called on the 105,000 USDA employees to participate in Meatless Mondays, declaring that the “small change could produce big results.”

The newsletter  alluded to the beef and dairy production being harmful to the environment and a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change.

The backlash was predictable and immediate.

After being harshly scolded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and every member of Congress from a beef-producing state, the USDA issued a retraction.

Our national trade associations for the produce industry have been silent on this backtracking by the USDA.

Should the fresh produce industry be chagrined to see the agency back off support for greater fruit and vegetable consumption inferred by its backing of “Meatless Monday”?

Others seem to be making the argument for the industry.

Michael Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md., wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a letter July 27 that objected to the USDA flip-flop.

“The campaign simply states that, just one day a week, consumers should replace one agricultural product with another to improve their health. Such a recommendation is a positive statement intended to benefit all Americans, including the majority of agricultural producers.”

Klag goes on to state that increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in the diet, as suggested by Meatless Monday, aligns with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. “As USDA recommends, people should reduce saturated fat in their diet, eat more lean protein in the form of fish and seafood, and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables,” Klag writes.

Then he makes a decisive point, at least in my view.

It won’t be for any concern about greenhouse gases or climate change that will keep me from eating meat.  With the price of corn boiling over this summer under the searing Midwest drought, economists are already predicting substantial price increases next year for the animal protein sector.

Klag points this truth out to Vilsack, noting that recent USDA food price forecasts estimate consumer beef prices will increase as much as 5% next year.

“Eliminating meat one day a week is a practical way for Americans to keep those escalating costs in line with their household budgets,” Klag wrote Vilsack.

So true, Mr. Klag.

Some in the produce industry have embraced “Meatless Monday.”

For example, Potandon Produce LLC., Idaho Falls, Idaho, promoted Klondike Brands Potatoes by each Monday in July tis year by featuring a meatless recipe on its website, with potatoes as an alternative to meat.

I would love the luxury of  breaking out a couple of 16-ounce steaks every Monday and grilling them on the Weber. More than likely, that won’t happen. Excepting an occasional “splurge” on a McDouble burger at lunch, budget-friendly baked potatoes and a  garden salad may make it on the menu instead. Rest assured, I won’t be holding greenhouse gases against the meat industry, however.

Consumer beef prices increases of 10% in 2011, a projected 3.5% to 4.5% in 2012 and 4% to 5% next year leave the meat industry vulnerable to erosion of demand from budget-sensitive consumers like me.

By way of contrast, fresh fruits and vegetables showed more modest price increases of 4.5% in 2011, a projected 1.5% to 2.5% this year and 2% to 3% inflation forecast for next year.

You know that consumer perception that fruits and vegetables are “expensive”? Wait till they visit the meat counter.