USDA backs off ‘Meatless Monday’

July 26, 2012, 7:12 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Perhaps the U.S. Department of Agriculture was worried about Chuck Grassley’s health. The Iowa Senator had tweeted this pledge on Wednesday: “I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation abt a meatless Monday.” The USDA, which had earlier appeared to sign on to the “Meatless Monday” initiative, declared, also on Twitter, that the recommendation to its employees has been “posted without proper clearance.”

Or it could be that pressure from Grassley, other ag-state politicians, and the meat lobby caused the department to yank the page from its Web site, where the “Greening Headquarters Update” newsletter had been posted. Another Iowa lawmaker, Rep. Steve King, tweeted that the USDA’s apparent endorsement of Meatless Monday was “Heresy! I’m not grazing there. I will have the double rib-eye Mondays instead.” Owners of beltway steakhouses must have been licking their chops.

The USDA was made aware of the passage on Tuesday by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, A spokesman for that lobbying group told The New York Times that the apparent endorsement was “a slap in the face of the people who every day are working to make sure we have food on the table to say ‘Don’t eat their product once a week.'” The department issued a statement flatly declaring that “USDA does not endorse Meatless Mondays,” an initiative of the Monday Campaign and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health that has been joined by corporate cafeterias, restaurants, and public institutions as a way to counter some of the environmental and health drawbacks of meat consumption.

It’s not easy being the USDA. Like no other government agency, its mission is split among several different, often opposed goals. They are summed up in its own description of itself: “The USDA works to support the American agricultural economy to strengthen rural communities; to protect and conserve our natural resources; and to provide a safe, sufficient, and nutritious food supply for the American people.”

The trouble is that supporting the agricultural economy is often at odds with protecting the environment and with providing a safe and nutritious food supply. The USDA was created to both promote and to regulate the same industry. Whenever its health-and-environment mission is pitted directly against its promotion mission, promotion usually wins.