US meat consumption is down, but we’re still out-eating the world & other interesting stats

American beef consumption is down – USDA shows a 5% decrease between 2002 and 2010 and a poll done by NPR finds that as many as 39% of us are eating less red meat today than three years ago.

This is good news. It means more of us are eating healthier (also, less environmental impact, fewer animals killed for food, etc). Unfortunately, America is still eating more meat per capita than any other country! And it’s not a stretch to assume that this is thanks in part to our indecently huge subsidies for corn and soy that’s fed to livestock… but I’ll save that discussion for another blog post.

Three main reasons attributed to our decreased meat intake are increases in price, health consciousnesses and most recently social awareness.

The financial correlation is a simple one: when meat is cheap or incomes go up, meat consumption goes up. This has been true in the history of America and other countries, most recently in the developing regions where salaries and the middle class are on the rise. The opposite is also true: when meat prices go up or incomes go down, meat consumption goes down as well.  The latest from USDA shows cost of beef per pound increasing 7.5% from 2005 and 2010. And the recession doesn’t help either.

On the health side, the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that links red meat consumption with shorter lifespan, primarily from type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity and cancer, is finally sinking in.  In fact, among those of us who are eating less meat, 66% are doing so for health reasonsAnd after reading these scary statistics I have a hard time coming up with even one good reason NOT to eat less meat.

Social campaigns like Meatless Monday and a shift towards semi-vegetarianism or “flexitarianism“, a vegetarian-based diet, with occasional meat consumption, are taking America by storm.  From families and schools to hospitals and even cities (go San Francisco!), our nation is embracing the ‘meatless’ mentality.

Public awareness about the environmental impact of commercial farming is also growing. While exact percentage of greenhouse gases attributed to raising animals for food will differ depending on who you ask, it ranges from a surprising 6% to an unacceptable 51%. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and whatever the true number is, it is still too high and not environmentally sustainable.

And I’m sure that increased consumer awareness about farm animal abuse thanks to undercover investigations by the Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals and others is making an impact on our meat choices as well.  Some are opting for less meat while others are switching over to the humanely raised alternatives.

So if eating lots of meat is bad for us (and the animals, and the environment) and price is a key driver in curbing meat consumption, it would seem that beefing up (I just couldn’t resist) consumer education (health and otherwise) and dramatically decreasing the farm subsidies are the right steps towards a healthier, and a less meat-dependent America. 

I realize that my reasoning is simplistic. I understand that reducing meat consumption is a long and difficult battle, even with all the scary risk factors staring us in the face. And that the price of a ‘value meal’ hamburger will not surpass one of a salad overnight. And that the the meat industry, with their extremely deep pockets, will do just about anything to reverse the trend.

I also believe that the ‘less meat’ movement is not a fad, it is a force to be reckoned with and it’s not going away. If meat consumption has decreased by 39% in the past three years, I can only imagine what will happen in the next three.  But I’m looking forward to it with my flexitarian fork and knife in hand.