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Julia DeBruicker

Julia DeBruicker

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

How much meat do we eat, anyway?

Reading the new federal dietary guidelines made me want to look into this question.  The guidelines, just released, say that Americans presently eat an average of 3.7 ounces daily of meat and poultry.  But, the figures I typically see are double that, or more.  So, why, in the brand-new guidelines, are USDA and HHS telling us that Americans eat less than a quarter pound of meat on a given day?  I set out to reconcile these figures:

Who says what? US per capita meat consumption (ounces per day)

High estimate

Mid estimate

Low estimate



of the UN

NHANES data from the CDC*

New NCI analysis of NHANES data

2010 federal dietary guidelines**

Meat & poultry





Red & processed





*In: Wang, 2010.  **See: table 5-1 on page 51 of the guidelines.

High estimate

screen-shot-2011-03-21-at-10738-pm1An oft-cited estimate for meat consumption in our country comes from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO).  The FAO figure of three-quarters of a pound daily has gained traction: The New York Times and The Guardian both cited this data for national meat consumption, propagating an image of Americans consuming a very large amount of meat on a daily basis.  This reporting appears logical, because the FAO data combine US meat production and imports, and then subtract exports and typical rates of spoilage and waste, arriving at 124 kilograms per capita per year, or 12 ounces per day.

However, Hodan Farah Wells of the USDA Economic Research Service points out that the FAO data appear to represent the carcass weight of meat, not its retail weight (e-correspondence, March 2011).  There is a big difference between the two.  Retail weight represents cuts of meat, ready to cook.  Carcass weight is heavier: it includes the weight of the bones, tendons, ligaments and fat that do not end up in the eventual retail cuts.  For a beef steer, the difference between carcass weight and retail weight can be a couple hundred pounds.


Live weight (lb)

Carcass weight

Retail weight

(% of live weight)

Steer (beef)




Pig (pork)




Broiler (chicken)



66% (less if boneless)

Sources: Cornell Waste Management Institute fact sheets; Advances in Meat Research, Pearson & Dutson, eds.; Principles of Meat Science, Hedrick et al., eds. (thank you Mary Schwarz)

Carrie Daniel of NCI, author of a recent paper in Public Health Nutrition about trends in US meat consumption, explains that the FAO definition of “consumption” in this case is the total amount of “the commodity” available for human consumption (e-correspondence, March 2011).  Yet a bunch of this matter gets diverted from the human food supply and sent for rendering into products other than human food.  (Industrial and agricultural products, and pet food, are some of the biggies).  FAO keeps the numbers rougher than it might for the sake of international comparison: not every country can provide equally precise information on how livestock and meat circulate in society, so FAO reports the data at a level that permits cross-border comparisons. Read More >

Chicken, Ascendant

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.

Field Notes: Farmers Gather as Winter Settles In

450480-copy1On the front porch, boots stamp away snow, and then the farmer steps inside.  The glasses fog up.  Off comes the jacket, the cap, and out goes the hand in greeting.  After a season spent grazing cows and sheep and pasturing pigs, hens and turkeys, meat producers from around southern Indiana are coming together today to compare the results of this year’s work.

From up to three hours away people have driven through the dark of a 13-degree morning, attracted to the occasion to sit with one another, to talk.  For them the day provides fellowship, a growing acquaintance with other farmers who they know mostly by reputation and whose work they admire.  These farmers are bound together by the work of supplying the region with meat and poultry raised outside the usual concentrated, confined, industrial model of production.  Grazing and pasturing their herds and flocks outdoors, with approaches meant to be ecologically regenerative, this group of graziers constitutes my study group for the past year as I prepare a doctoral dissertation about their part of the marketplace for meat and poultry, its potential, and its implications for public health.  Today’s gathering I have organized to collect a final stream of data.

Bunched together like they are at one end of the production spectrum – under designations like natural, grass-fed, pastured and “beyond organic” – I would have expected more similarity among the study population than I have found.  Motivations, skills, proclivities differ greatly.  And yet, there are commonalities.

One we hear about today is weariness.  All of these people are entrepreneurs quickly ramping up businesses that demand of them a world of new skills.  Some in the group are new to farming from careers in engineering, social work, teaching, sales.  For them, farming itself is new.  Most people here today, though, are lifelong farmers who have decided to add to their plates the work of marketing, selling and distributing the food they know how to raise.

One farm, for instance, that sells cheese as well as pork and beef saw their duties proliferate as they adopted grass-fed production, cheese-making and direct marketing.  They refer to the “BC” and “AC” eras of their farm: Before Cheese and After CheeseBefore Cheese, the only relationships their work required them to have were with the feed mill and the milk truck.  That was pretty much it.  After Cheese has them interacting with hundreds of wholesale and retail customers: relationship-based marketing, they call it.  This farmer says that the constant pressure of the small business life, paired with the long hours, over time begin to “erode family time.”  Another farmer is off making deliveries four days a week while his wife and children basically run the farm – this so they can raise food ecologically and sell it to a clientele whose demand far outstrips supply.  Life balancing is an issue farmers here want to discuss. Read More >