March 21, 2011

How much meat do we eat, anyway?

Julia DeBruicker

Julia DeBruicker

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

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.

Mid estimate

The admirable National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) supplies data whose figures for meat and poultry consumption are closer to 7 ounces daily: nearly half a pound.  NHANES is a mammoth study administered every few years by the CDC.  Eighteen thousand people meet with NHANES interviewers to tell them what they spent the past day eating.  The methodology has interviewers probe people’s responses to clarify them, and the statistics later adjust for foods that respondents may be inclined to over- or under-report, depending on how healthy or unhealthy the food seems.  Meat, and in particular red and processed meat, may fall into the latter category, given the mounting health evidence against them.

A second 24-hour recall is collected later, as is a food frequency questionnaire.

Epidemiologist May Baydoun and Hopkins nutritionist Youfa Wang published analyses of a few waves of NHANES meat consumption data, together with Bob Lawrence of CLF and others.  Their results support the 7-ounce figure.

Low estimate

May Baydoun showed me what may be the source of the lower figure published in the dietary guidelines (e-correspondence, March 2011).

The dietary guidelines use the phrase “usual intake” to report US meat consumption.  This “usual intake” is the outcome of a new method of analysis that NCI has pioneered in an effort to more fully understand the food intake data gathered by NHANES.  This method distinguishes foods that tend to be consumed daily from foods that are consumed infrequently (“ubiquitous” compared to “episodic” foods).  Going beyond what people happen to report from a given 24 hours, the procedure goes for a long-term average, aiming to determine what people “usually” eat.

This phase of analysis is now applied to NHANES data.  Its results suggest that mean US “usual” intake is 1.8 ounces of red meat; 1.3 ounces of poultry; and .8 ounces of processed meat, totaling 3.9 ounces.  Note that these figures are for everyone; if you take out children, then the means are a bit higher.

These 3.9 ounces are close to the 3.7-ounce figure reported in the dietary guidelines.

What about just red & processed meat?

Notably, the “usual dietary intake” results suggest that daily consumption of red and processed meat is just 2.6 ounces – nearly exactly the 2.5-ounce figure that many health experts wanted to see the guidelines call for.  Perhaps one reason the guidelines did not call for lowering our red and processed meat intake to 2.5 ounces is because the data they use say that this is the amount people are eating already.

Ounces Equivalent serving size


4 dice, a ping pong ball, a matchbox, the small of your hand


Meat on a chicken drumstick, hamburger in the national school lunch program


Amount of meat on a Big Mac


Hot dog


Deck of cards, bar of soap, woman’s palm, checkbook


Amount of meat on Applebee’s bacon cheese chicken grilled sandwich


Amount of chicken on Applebee’s chicken tenders platter

– By Julia DeBruicker Valliant

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.


  1. I imagine for those who eat meat the average is higher still since there are so many who choose not to eat it at all.

    Also, animal products are not just flesh and include broths (made from bones), gelatin (made from bits into marshmallows and gummy bears among other things including pills), and other stuff such as eggs, and dairy (many cheeses use rennet from calves’ stomachs).

    The celebrated American breakfast of eggs, bacon (ham, sausage..), toast (slathered in butter of course) and perhaps some coffee (with cream) often only has a pathetic sprig of usually uneaten parsley offered as fresh, as well as the closest most will come to something green all day.

    Overall the general public’s consumption of plant-based foods is quite low especially those not composed of some reduction of corn, soy, wheat, or other whitened grain.

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