March 8, 2011

Chicken, Ascendant

Julia DeBruicker

Julia DeBruicker

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Between now and April 3, the USDA is inviting comment on a just-completed, major research effort to reassess how much of the food in the United States actually makes its way into our mouths.  Its findings suggest that in the chicken-versus-beef rivalry, the popularity of boneless chicken is edging out beef consumption in the USA for the first time on record.

The report calculates “consumer-level” food losses.  “Consumer-level,” in this case, doesn’t only mean us, and what we do with the food we bring into our homes.  Here, “consumer” reflects the amount of food that is discarded after it reaches the home, the restaurant, or other institution that serves prepared meals (including schools, hospitals, company cafeterias).  (Losses before this point – not covered by this report – are termed “primary”  or “retail” losses.  Owing to spoilage, expiration dates, trimming, or culling, primary and retail losses occur as food travels from the farmgate, through slaughter and processing, on to transport and distribution, to arrive in warehouses and grocery stores.)

Losses from hundreds of foods, after they reach their final destination, are evaluated in the report.  Among its major findings are that losses of meat and poultry in particular may be much lower than was previously estimated.  The past estimate was that 32% of beef, 39% of pork and 40% of chicken was discarded from restaurants and homes.  The revision decreases these loss estimates to 20%, 29% and 15% for these three “leading meats:” beef losses drop by a third, pork by a quarter, and chicken by a whopping 167%.

The big tumble in estimated chicken losses leads to perhaps the first evidence of a much-anticipated triumph of chicken over beef.  “Adoption of the proposed loss estimates,” reports USDA, “would mean that for the first time since the data series began in 1909, consumers would now eat more chicken than beef in terms of pounds per year” (p26).

At first glance, these results seem really encouraging: people and institutions must be becoming more frugal, allowing less to go to waste.  Yet, reading closer, we learn that these decreases basically reflect the fact that meat now comes to us with less to dispose of.  This is partly because meat is a bit leaner, with the fat trimmed closer, than it would have been when the estimates were last calculated.

The major factor, though, is the growth in popularity of boneless meat.  Now, more meat is cut away from bones before it reaches the “consumer,” so what’s changed is just that bones and meat part ways earlier in the food chain.

These bones are valuable resources that we could be making into nutritious, mineral-rich stocks and broths, as humanity has done with animal bones for millennia.  Bones provide us additional sustenance from the same amount of meat.  However, today’s food landscape tends to send bones off to renderers where they are turned into highly-processed industrial and agricultural products.  That’s better than the landfill, but, still, deriving additional human nutriment from the animal would help justify the cost, energy, and, we hope, care that went into raising the cow, pig or chicken.

To learn more, see the report: Consumer-Level Food Loss Estimates and Their Use in the Economic Research Service Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data.


Julia DeBruicker Valliant, MHS is completing a doctorate in public health.  For her thesis she is conducting an in-depth and place-based study about the market for eco-labeled meat in Indiana, where she also raises cows and turkeys on her family’s farm.  From 2007 to 2010 she served as a CLF Predoctoral Fellow.

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