The Obama administration just announced a potential furlough 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, the second-largest producer, has 6.3 million, and Kansas comes in third 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, the nation's worker productivity will increase, gyms will be fuller, and emergency rooms will have fewer visitors.
Over the long-term, the results of a meat-heavy diet are even more devastating. Scientific studies strongly link meat intake to increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and even 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.
In 2007, the American Institute for Cancer Research reported that convincing evidence from dozens of studies linked red and processed meat intake and colorectal cancer risk. In 2009, researchers with the National Cancer Institute published a study of more than half a million people showing that red and processed meat intake is associated with increased cardiovascular, cancer, and total mortality.
Food-borne illness outbreaks are caused by intestinal bacteria in our food supply, and can almost always be traced back to a factory farm. Inspectors are only required to condemn a cut of meat if they see visible feces on the carcass. As a result, contaminated meat and poultry products pass inspection as long as the feces are not visible to the naked eye.
Shutting down the meat industry will save money up front — and it will save billions more down the road with lower medical costs and fewer food-borne illness outbreaks.