January 18, 2012

Decline in U.S. Meat Purchases: Public Health, Environmental Implications

Brent Kim

Brent Kim

Project Officer, Food Production & Public Health

Center for a Livable Future

According to USDA estimates, the amount of meat purchased by the average American nearly doubled between 1930 and 2007. On average, each American purchases roughly 200 pounds of meat per year (minus spoilage and other losses between farms and consumers), or almost nine ounces per day—roughly twice the global average for meat intake. With a few exceptions, meat purchases have been been on a fairly steady incline, until recently: From 2007 through 2011, estimated levels dropped by over 12 percent and are projected to continue to decline through 2012.

After 70 years, Americans are finally buying less meat. In his recent New York Times opinion piece, author Mark Bittman asks, “Why?” Industry reports suggest the “shocking” decline stems from factors such as a rise in ethanol production, which raised the demand for corn—the main ingredient in most livestock feed—along with the price of meat. Combined with the recent economic downturn, it’s understandable that consumers would turn toward cheaper alternatives.

The report also blames a federal “war on meat protein consumption,” a suggestion that ignores the considerable federal support offered to them in the form of feed subsidies, tax write-offs, research dollars and weak enforcement of antitrust laws and environmental regulations.

Both Bittman and industry literature acknowledge another possible reason: Perhaps Americans have come to recognize the public health, environmental and social justice impacts—to which I would add animal welfare harms—of a model that has come to be known as industrial food animal production, or IFAP.

There is some evidence indicative of such a shift in knowledge and attitudes. A recent review article suggests that omnivores in Western countries are reducing their intake of animal products, in part out of concern for animal welfare and the environment. A 2011 survey suggests that the Meatless Monday movement is recognized by half of American adults, with almost 30 percent of those actively reducing their meat consumption, particularly on Mondays; the movement promotes a weekly shift to plant-based food choices in order to promote individual health, public health and environmental conservation.

Whatever the driving motivation, a reduction in U.S. meat purchases—on a scale much larger than the recent decline—would be a long overdue public health imperative. The facilities in which most U.S. animal products originate serve as reservoirs for pathogens, some of them novel, many of them resistant to the same antimicrobials used to treat infection in humans. These and other contaminants can spread, often via animal waste, into air, water, soil and our food supply—to say nothing of the workers who are directly exposed to these and other occupational hazards.

Compounding its impact on the public’s health, IFAP raises numerous environmental concerns. Upon entering waterways, the enormous volumes of animal waste generated by IFAP facilities can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, contributing to the aptly-named dead zones that lie along many coastal shores. From a resource standpoint, IFAP—particularly beef and dairy production—is particularly draining of natural resources, namely fresh water and energy for feed crop production. Feedlot beef production is also a major contributor to global climate change; more research is needed to accurately measure how entirely pasture-based beef production systems compare. The prevailing approach to seafood harvest and production has its own set of concerns, including the destruction of aquatic ecosystems from bottom trawling, overfishing and other unsustainable practices.

The global demand for meat is predicted to rise by more than 50 percent between 1997 and 2020, with most of the increase occurring in developing countries. Even with this growth, per capita meat consumption in developing countries is expected to remain far below levels in the developed regions, with the U.S. ranking among the highest in the world—unless American consumers continue what looks to be a promising trend. A major shift toward diets abundant in whole plant foods, supplemented with only small amounts of sustainably produced animal products, arguably gives the global citizenry the best shot at a livable future.

Editor’s note: This blogpost was updated on September 17, 2012, to reflect meat purchasing patterns. (The earlier version reflected meat consumption patterns).


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