It sounds like a zombie apocalypse. Grocery store meat departments may soon be wiped out for weeks. But the streets won't be filled with bloody, tattered corpses limping and moaning. It will be filled with people who suddenly have amazing complexion, endless energy and healthier weight.
The Obama administration just announced a potential furlough -- due to the automatic budget "sequestration" that takes effect in March if Congress doesn't act -- that would require every meat and poultry inspector in the country to stay home for two weeks, effectively shutting down the meat industry.
On behalf of dietitians, I hope the furlough happens -- and I hope it never ends. The real savings isn't in keeping thousands of meat inspectors at home and unpaid for a few weeks -- it's in keeping meat off Americans' plates and helping them cut the meat habit.
The meat industry claims this shutdown would devastate both the industry and consumers. It's true that it would cause chaos in factory farms -- and the economies of Texas, Nebraska and Kansas may suffer the most. Texas produces much more beef than any other state, with 11.3 million cattle. Nebraska is No. 2 with 6.3 million and Kansas is No. 3 with 5.85 million.
But a meat industry shutdown would actually give consumers -- and their bodies -- a much-needed break from the foods that are causing our nation's worst health problems.
Americans are addicted to meat. The average American now eats more than 200 pounds of meat a year. This addiction results in higher rates of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Withdrawal symptoms may include lower blood pressure, increased energy and healthy weight loss. After just a few days without meat, people will notice a profound shift and realize how easy it is to follow a meatless diet.
I predict that in two weeks or less, worker productivity would increase, gyms would be fuller and emergency rooms would have fewer visitors. We might even see Viagra sales plummet.
Even in the short term, eating cheeseburgers and ham sandwiches kills our energy and causes arteries to become clogged, reducing circulation to our most critical organs.
Over the long term, a meat-heavy diet is even more devastating. Scientific studies strongly link meat intake to increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Two-thirds of the population is either overweight or obese. More than 80 million Americans have one or more forms of cardiovascular disease. Cancer strikes one in two men and one in three women over the course of their lives.
In 2007, the American Institute for Cancer Research reported that convincing evidence from dozens of studies linked red and processed meat with a higher risk of colorectal cancer. In 2009, researchers with the National Cancer Institute published a study of more than half a million people showing that red and processed meat is associated with increased cardiovascular disease, cancer and overall mortality.
Chronic diseases aren't the only negative effect of meat production. Food-borne illness outbreaks are caused by intestinal bacteria in our food supply and can almost always be traced back to a factory farm.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture spends $1 billion on meat inspection each year and has 8,400 inspectors. But that doesn't mean meat is free of intestinal bacteria. Inspectors are only required to condemn a cut of meat if they see visible feces on the carcass. As a result, a lot of contaminated meat and poultry products pass inspection.
Shutting down the meat industry would save money right away, but it would save billions more down the road with lower medical costs and fewer outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.opinion_commentary
Susan Levin is director of nutrition education with the vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (firstname.lastname@example.org). Distributed by MCT Information Services.