Americans love their meat. Along with countries like Australia and Spain we consume the most meat per person in the world. Before the recession hit we were eating almost 190 pounds of meat per person. That’s more than half a pound of meat per day. Today is Friday and the last time I had meat was Sunday. That was about 1/4 pound of chicken. Sooooo someone is picking up my slack.

We’re a big meat eating culture for a number of reasons. For one, meat tastes really good. But meat is also expensive compared to other foods and Americans are still the richest in the world; meaning we can afford it. We also grow most of our meat in the US leaving no need to import. And the government has long subsidized (directly and indirectly) the meat industry.

But then the recession hit. Not only do we have less money than before, but the price of meat has gone up. The result is a drop in meat consumption per capita of about 12%. There’s never been such a precipitous drop before.  The expectation is that our meat consumption will not pick up again for some time.  And that’s coming from a convergence of a number of factors.

For one, Americans are choosing to eat less meat for health reasons.  Not just because we’re as fat as the pigs we’re eating.  But awareness about growth hormones and humane treatment has made shoppers more sensitive to the meats they choose.  Some are buying less meat, but of a higher quality.  Some are even starting to learn about how harmful livestock growth can be on the environment compared to other food sources.

Another reason is price.  Meat prices have increased and they aren’t likely to come down.  The cost to produce meat has gone up.  The feed needed is more expensive to grow, and the land these animals need takes up a lot of space.  With a growing world population, farmers are shifting their focus to producing the most food per acre.  That growing world population is also coming out of the poverty line.  And they want meat too.  Global demand for meat is likely to increase for a while.

This is all fine, as it’s unlikely many have noticed their decreased consumption.  Years ago I gave up meat for Lent and had no trouble surviving.  Since then my meat consumption has dropped considerably (especially meat from mammals).  My diet is supplemented by dairy, whole grains, and legumes (peanuts, kidney beans, and black beans).  And chocolate.

Will this trend help Americans get healthier?  I have my doubts.  It is unlikely everyone is switching from meat to tofu or humus.  One of the problems in the US is healthier food costing considerably more than less healthy food.  This is true in the grocery store and elementary school cafeteria.

Graph: Daily Livestock Report

Image: toolmantim


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categories: business, economics, environment, government, personal finance