I’ve seen more than a few new faces at my health club in recent days. At the start of each new year, surveys reveal, nearly 150 million Americans make resolutions to get in shape, save more money, quit smoking, or commit to doing greater good for others.
You can bet that some subset of the resolution makers have pledged to do better when it comes to how they treat animals, and there is always much to be done on that score.
It’s on my mind today because the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have just released the latest U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which reiterate the health benefits of consuming less cholesterol and saturated fats, found primarily in animal-based foods. The HSUS and its affiliates have long encouraged consumers to act with greater concern for animals when it comes to food choices. Since the 1990s, we’ve supported the three Rs of reduction, replacement, and refinement, encouraging people to enjoy more meatless meals, and to make a commitment to switch to animal products raised under high welfare standards.
Yet, such common sense dietary changes have become a source of great political conflict in recent years. A Politico story revealed that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council spent a collective $1.1 million dollars on lobbying in the first three quarters of 2015, with the government guidelines as a primary concern. Pressure from the industry, as well as from farm state lawmakers, led USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to steer clear of explicit discussion on reducing consumption of animal products, as was recommended by a panel of scientific experts who advised the agencies.
This kind of political skirmishing provides an important lesson for us, since the meat, dairy, and egg industries have since the 1950s recognized that there’s a lot at stake in this matter, and they’ve long viewed the USDA as third-party validator and promoter of their commodities. They’ve also used their political muscle to shape the discussion and the recommendations. But these latest guidelines, even weakened by industry politicking, are not quite as subject to capture by those special interests as they once were, and they are tilting more in the direction of being helpful and prescriptive for health-conscious consumers.
It also underscores the importance of consumer choice. The question on where to draw the line is a personal one for us all, but my thought has always been to encourage people to start by making a few changes, and go from there. Committed and compassionate people should not fret about whether they’re doing enough. They ought not to worry that they’ll be called out for some minor inconsistency, such as wearing leather or eating cheese, because when they are worried, they often hesitate to take any action as a consequence. Fear or uncertainty spawns paralysis. The important thing is to take a few steps.
In my case, I had been an animal advocate throughout my childhood, but my engagement was limited and my voice muted until I decided to stop eating animal products. At that point I felt the weight of inconsistency lift from my shoulders and then I was all in.
But perfect consistency is not, and should not be, the price of entry to the cause. This is not a club, and there are no litmus tests. Striving for consistency is a virtue, but if you worry about it too much, or fear embarrassment for failing to achieve it, it can turn into a liability. When it comes to doing good for animals, every little bit helps. Doing something is far better than doing nothing. It’s also better for your health, as the dietary guidelines confirm.
If you’re thinking about stepping up your involvement in animal protection, do what you can, and try to stretch yourself. If you fall short of your goals, don’t quit.
Eating more plant-based meals with simple steps like observing Meatless Mondays is a great way to get the ball rolling, both for animals and for your health. Choosing animal products that meet animal welfare standards and are not from factory farms is another important step.
You can also extend the cruelty-free lifestyle by buying cosmetics and household products that are not tested on animals – look for labels indicating this. Volunteer at your local shelter. Donate a few dollars to the cause. Contact your elected officials and ask them to support pro-animal legislation.
For other tips, check out The HSUS website. In the meantime, Happy New Year from The HSUS, and good luck on your resolutions. Good for you for resolving to do better, no matter how far you get.