Meatless cafeterias save as many lives as smokeless ones

The parallels between tobacco and meat promotion in the House cafeteria are striking. The link between smoking and cancer had been known for decades. But due to pressure from the tobacco industry, the House cafeteria permitted smoking for entirely too long. We’ve long known the dangers of meat consumption, but pressure from the livestock industry is taking away Meatless Mondays.

Meatless Mondays has become a part of Americana, spreading to hundreds of schools, restaurants, and hospitals across the country. Many city councils and dozens of entire school districts, including Baltimore, San Diego, and Los Angeles, also combat chronic disease through Meatless Mondays.

Mounting evidence demonstrates that consumption—sometimes as little as one serving a day—of meat and other animal products is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases. The environmental impact of meat consumption is equally destructive: The livestock industry may be responsible for more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2009 report.

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As more Americans take note of these health and environmental impacts, a parallel shift away from diets heavy in animal products is occurring. Meat consumption declined by more than 12 percent between 2007 and 2012—an unprecedented drop.

Unfortunately, Congress didn’t get the message. While the rest of the country is moving forward—toward better health and a smaller environmental footprint—lawmakers are moving in the exact opposite direction.

In 2007, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), a member of the Congressional Task Force on Tobacco and Health, remarked, “In the face of mountains of evidence about the adverse effects of second-hand smoke, it is indefensible that smoking has continued to be allowed in the House Office Buildings … It’s long past time that the House of Representatives caught up with the rest of the country.”

Now, in the face of increasing confirmation that diets high in animal products are bad for both our health and the environment, it is inexcusable that our legislators are overlooking public health and the health of their staff. Congress needs to catch up to the people by reinstating Meatless Mondays.

Barnard, M.D., is an adjunct associate professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine, and president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He is one of America's leading advocates for health, nutrition, and higher standards in research.