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September 2003
Vegetarian Advocate: When “Meatless” Doesn’t Mean No Animals

By Jack Rosenberger



When I first read about Meatless Monday, my reaction was nothing but positive. I mean, what could possibly be wrong with a public health campaign that encourages people to eat less meat? The answer, I quickly discovered, is plenty. Then again, I’d expected an organization that encourages people to eat less meat to say a few favorable words about vegetarianism. Now, isn’t that silly?

Launched two and a half years ago, Meatless Monday is a nonprofit organization associated with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and endorsed by 28 other public health schools. The group’s overall purpose is “to help prevent heart disease, stroke and cancer—the three leading causes of death in America. A simple way to do this is to not have meat one day a week.”

For obvious reasons of alliteration, the group selected Monday as a target day, but participants are encouraged to go meatless any single day they like during the week. The campaign’s long-term goal is to reduce Americans’ consumption of saturated fat by 15 percent by 2010.

After reading about Meatless Monday in a syndicated newspaper article (“Make Mondays Meatless—For Health” by The Baltimore Sun’s Arthur Hirsch), I visited, anticipating a vegetarian-friendly cyberspace. My mistake.

The “Meatless” Health Campaign

While surfing, I quickly discovered that the Meatless Monday campaign is a sham. In the site’s Frequently Asked Questions section, for example, it states: “Based on our nutritional guidelines, ‘meatless’ means no beef or poultry. Fish—which is high in nutritional value and ‘good fats’ our bodies need—is okay to eat and encouraged.”

Indeed, one of the website’s strong points is its weekly recipes, and fish is frequently featured as a dinner choice, with red snapper for the first week of May and poached Halibut with carrots being the recipe for the first week of September.

It is disconcerting that Meatless Monday doesn’t regard fish as meat. Dictionaries define fish as meat. Legal statutes define fish as meat. In fact, most people, even carnivores—when pressed—will define fish as meat. Yet, the Meatless Monday folks don’t. And, of course, this faulty definition of what meat is will only generate unwanted public confusion about what vegetarians do and do not eat.

Moreover, the statement “‘meatless’ means no beef or poultry” fails to address the fact that humans eat numerous other animals besides poultry and cows. What about pigs? Do bacon, salami, and spareribs constitute meatless food? How about venison burgers? Or stewed rabbit? Plenty of people eat the flesh of goats and lambs. Where do these foods fall under the Meatless Monday’s nutritional guidelines?

As for Meatless Monday’s take on vegetarianism, the prevailing mindset is sadly behind the times. In the FAQ section, one featured question is “Are you telling me I need to be a vegetarian?” The answer: “No. This is a simple case of moderation. We realize that Americans are constantly bombarded with contradictory messages about diet and health, and many people are confused about what they should eat. But it’s a fact that Americans eat too much saturated fat. Not having meat just once a week is an effective, easy way to start eating healthier.”

As far as I can tell, this is the sole mention of vegetarianism in the entire site. The site fails to say, for example, “Millions of Americans enjoy a vegetarian diet, and numerous health studies have found that vegetarians are at a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancers.”

Meatless Monday reminds me of our nation’s laws on bike helmets—in short, a good idea that is poorly executed. America lacks federal legislation regarding bikers to wear a helmet even though numerous studies have shown that helmet use reduces injuries and death. In many states, only children are required by law to wear a helmet and often until they are 12 or so years of age. Of course, people of all ages are involved in bike accidents.

Likewise, is too modest. Eating no red meat or chicken one day a week is a good starting point, but there’s plenty of research that shows such a measure is inadequate. One recent study suggests that eating only half an ounce of red meat a day is enough to incite cancer.

Dare to Struggle
I interviewed Sid Lerner, Meatless Monday’s chairman, who is content with the current campaign. He defended the organization’s definition of fish as being “meatless,” saying “our emphasis is on nutritional guidelines and saturated fat.” As for the lack of useful or positive information on vegetarianism, he cited a goal of “mainstream appeal,” explaining that, “We do not want to put a strong vegetarian flag on the website. We want to get people to cut back on meat.”

Lerner’s responses remind me of a George Orwell quote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Please write Lerner and request that Meatless Monday acknowledge that its campaign isn’t actually meatless. It would be considerate to the vegetarian community if Meatless Monday noted that vegetarianism means no meat consumption, including the meat of fish. Ask Lerner to include more positive information about, and resources for, vegetarian diets. And lastly, remind him that when polled, many Americans like to say they’re vegetarian, indicating that it is becoming mainstream.


Meanwhile, someone should launch a vegetarian health campaign similar to Meatless Monday. As for a name, I suggest Eight Days a Week.


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