I love social media. In a sense, you could say that I'm an old-timer on sites like Facebook and Twitter because I've been involved with each for four or five years - well before they were the homepage of nearly every man, woman and child. So when my social networks explode over stories like this week's USDA "Meatless Mondays" kerfluffle, sometimes I tend to react like a grouchy old timer.
Here's the brief synopsis of the story: On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Operations released an inner-agency newsletter called "Greening Headquarters Update" that appeared to call on USDA employees to participate in the "Meatless Monday" initiative. Somehow, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association got wind of the newsletter, and a press release Wednesday alerted the world to the problem.
Let me pause for a moment and say this: If USDA had in fact endorsed "Meatless Mondays," I would be the first to question the wisdom in doing so, particularly for some of the reasons NCBA outlined in its release.
That doesn't appear to be what happened, however. In fact, USDA flatly denied that it ever endorsed the Meatless Monday concept, and that the newsletter included the blurb without proper authorization. The newsletter and the mention of the anti-meat campaign have since been removed from the USDA website.
Here's where my hair starts to stand on end. They say success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan, and in this case that sentiment is born out in full view. When one of my colleagues at Feedstuffs contacted USDA to ask for comment on the NCBA release (more or less 30 minutes after the release arrived), USDA responded almost immediately that it did not support Meatless Mondays and was retracting the unapproved newsletter.
Late yesterday and throughout this morning, I've seen literally dozens of posts from social media luminaries - who should know better - claiming both that social media and/or NCBA beat back USDA's allegedly pernicious plot to foist Meatless Mondays on its staff, and further that the unapproved newsletter is just one more piece of evidence that USDA is clearly anti-farmer.
NCBA's release applauding the removal of the Meatless Monday endorsement didn't directly claim credit for the "victory," but vaguely referenced the connection between the two events in something of an "post hoc, ergo proptor hoc" manner. Setting that rather picky point aside, it's the chest bumping and high-fiving going on among the "agvocates" of social media that has me shaking my head.
Social media did not expose and somehow cow a vast vegan conspiracy within the people's department.
USDA's Office of Operations are the people in charge of things like changing light bulbs and keeping the HVAC systems running. From the looks of the newsletter, it is clear to me that some mid-level bureaucrat in charge of CFL conversions slipped this blurb about Meatless Mondays in their in-house newsletter. It clearly wasn't a publication that circulated through the USDA PR shop.
In other words, it's pretty silly to start seeing black helicopters circling USDA just yet. In fact, at one point in the not-so-distant past one could have lost count trying to track all of the once, former and future NCBA staffers working in the USDA headquarters. That may have changed in recent years, but I don't honestly think that suddenly there's a vast vegan conspiracy at the highest echelons of the department behind this story.
Unfortunately, however "USDA peon screws up" doesn't make for sexy headlines - or Tweets.