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

Source

FAO

of the UN

NHANES data from the CDC*

New NCI analysis of NHANES data

2010 federal dietary guidelines**

Meat & poultry

12

7

3.9

3.7

Red & processed

n/a

~5.3

2.6

2.5

*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)

~1100

60%

42%

Pig (pork)

~235

70%

56%

Broiler (chicken)

~6

66%

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 >