THE BLOG
01/10/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

Why the USDA's Decision Could Be Bad for Our Kids' Health

Stephen Alvarez via Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced that it will now allow more meat to be served at American schools. The restrictions on the amount of meat schools could offer in meals were originally in place due to alarming childhood obesity rates, but families complained that kids were not getting enough food at school. So, the Department of Agriculture recently permitted school nutritionists more flexibility in meal planning by allowing for more meat and grains to be served.

Unfortunately, this is the wrong solution to a serious problem. It is estimated that nearly 16 million American children lack access to nutritious food at some point annually. Since nearly half of all households receiving SNAP (food stamps) include children, and this program is in danger of being severely cut, this problem will seemingly be exacerbated. In addition, while free or subsidized school lunches feed about 31 million children annually, during the summer only a fraction of these children receive meals.

However, what these children need is more nutritious food, not more animal fat and corn. As researchers have noted, in the United States today, more children suffer from "overnutrition" (too much fatty/salty food), which prevents the body's use of vitamins and minerals, rather than from malnutrition (too little food). Indeed, current estimates are that 15 percent of American children are overweight and another 15 percent are in danger of becoming overweight. Unless we act, there will be an early epidemic of hypertension, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in this coming generation. What we need is cheaper, more plentiful healthy food.

It is well-known that Americans eat excessive amounts of meat and that this consumption takes a serious toll upon one's health. On average, Americans consume more than three times as much meat as the average person worldwide, nearly 271 pounds annually (compared with, for example, seven pounds per capita in India). It has long been established that meat consumption has been linked to cardiovascular disease. The Framingham Heart Study, a joint project of Boston University and what is now the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, has been monitoring the cardiovascular health of thousands of people in a Massachusetts town since 1948 in an effort to determine the causes of cardiovascular disease. Early on, the study's findings indicated that elevated cholesterol (especially triglycerides, calculated as very low-density lipoprotein, or VLDL, associated with diseases such as type 2 diabetes as well as cardiovascular disease and the "bad" LDL most associated with high risk for heart attack and stroke) was a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Since cholesterol is present in all animal products, and not in plant products, it makes long-term sense to avoid (or at least minimize) the consumption of animal products.

Other studies, such as the following research projects that enrolled clinicians as participants, demonstrated a significant connection between red meat consumption (it should be noted that cholesterol is present in all meat products) and adverse health effects:

• In the Physicians' Health Study, which analyzed more than 20,000 male physicians for more than 25 years, there was a direct correlation between the amount of red meat consumed and heart failure, with those consuming the most red meat having a 24 percent greater risk of heart failure than those who did not eat red meat.

• In a study of more than 28,000 female clinicians with a 10-year follow-up, researchers found a direct correlation between red meat consumption and hypertension, a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Among women who ate 1.5 or more servings of red meat daily, the increased risk for hypertension was 35 percent.

Furthermore, the American meat industry has engaged in unsafe practices that present serious health risks for humans. According to 2011 data, 80 percent of all antibiotics were purchased for use in livestock. These antibiotics are most often given at low doses to animals, since this produces an animal that grows faster and heavier, which results in higher profits when the animal is slaughtered. However, this has greatly increased the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as inappropriate and under-dosing of antibiotics is the primary cause of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which threaten humans as well. We are already seeing the consequences of this misguided practice. In a recent scientific study of meat sampled in supermarkets, for example, 37 to 80 percent of various meats tested positive for staph bacteria, including some with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Extreme efforts have been undertaken by the meat industry to reduce bacteria and some have produced disgusting results. "Lean finely textured beef trimmings" are a meat byproduct produced in centrifuges and treated with ammonium hydroxide as a way to prevent bacterial infection. However, the bubble-gum pink color and toothpaste-like consistency of the product earned it the indecorous title "pink slime," and it quickly became unpopular. Nevertheless, considering that it was used in school lunches, one can only imagine what will now be used in these lunches with more meat set to appear on school menus.

There are still other harmful effects from meat. In addition to bacteria and antibiotics, ground meat may contain drugs used to treat cattle maladies such as Ivermectin (used to treat worms in cattle) and Flunixin (used to treat inflammation), which can produce severe adverse effects in humans. However, the most egregiously injurious current practice involves the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) complicity in resisting basic scientific and health standards. It has been well established that animals should not be given feed derived from their own species. Over the past 20 years, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as "Mad Cow" disease) emerged after cattle were given food that included cattle meat products. The World Health Organization (WHO) has noted the existence of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), a variant form of human Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, after a "Mad Cow" disease epidemic in the United Kingdom and the detection of TSE in the human population. The WHO believes that there is a connection between the bovine disease and its transmission to humans. There has been speculation that this might happen not just in food, but also in vaccines made with bovine products, as well as human blood products from people who might have contracted TSE.

With these facts well-established, it is nonsensical that the FDA allows cattle to be fed with poultry litter, a sickening mixture of chicken feces, feathers and whatever uneaten pellets of food that remain on the ground where chickens are kept in close proximity. While this "litter" is inexpensive, it carries additional risk. Many chicken pellets are made with ground beef and bone meal, and their feces also contain remnants of this beef-derived feed. Thus, by eating the "litter" with its beef contents, there is a risk that cattle may contract BSE and pass it on to humans through TSE. Appropriately, the FDA bans the inclusion of all protein derived from mammals in cattle feed, but it does not ban the substance in chicken feed. Poultry litter is cheap and does not appear to affect the taste of meat or milk products, but do we want to add more of this revolting litter to our school lunches?

We must protest the USDA decision to expand meat consumption in schools. It is in youth that one develops eating habits and we dare not set our children off on a path toward uninformed consumption, disease and worse.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."