By: Janet Riley
When I receive a question from a reporter or member of the public that starts with “Everybody knows” or “Critics Say,” my antenna automatically goes up and I respond with “Who is ‘everybody’ and could you name these ‘critics’? And cite their source?”
I was kicking myself this week while surfing the internet because I found a July 2012 Gallup survey that I had missed about vegetarianism. ‘Everybody knows’ (read sarcasm) that more people are going vegetarian, so the survey’s findings really caught my eye: “Five percent of American adults consider themselves to be vegetarians, largely unchanged from the 6% who identified as vegetarians in 1999 and 2001.”
I may have missed the press release the first time, but it’s bookmarked now. My theory on the matter: we see vegetarian menu items more often and we hear about vegetarianism in media and on TV more commonly than in prior years. There appears to be some increase restaurant sales of veggies sandwiches according to NPD Group. This kind of variety is good – we all need to eat more vegetables. But these trends together create a false perception that vegetarian lifestyles are rising markedly. Interestingly, Vegetarian Times released even more recent Harris Interactive data in October that found a slightly lower rate of vegetarianism than Gallup found, but they made much of the fact that a percent they extrapolate to 22.8 million people say they follow a “vegetarian inclined” diet. I think that translated to “I mean to eat my vegetables”. It’s like the answer I give when my dentist asks “Are you flossing regularly?” I essentially tell her that yes, I’m inclined to floss.
Ironically, the other “Everybody knows” statement that I hear so often is “Everybody knows that Americans eat too much meat.” But USDA data show that the meat and beans category (now called protein) is the only category consumed at the proper levels. Adults should eat five to seven ounces from the meat and beans category per day. Men, on average, consume 6.9 ounces while women slightly under-consume at 4.4 ounces.
To make the meat consumption discussion almost comical, we’ve received many inquiries during the last year about what is perceived be declining meat consumption. It’s true that if you look at straight per capita consumption data over the last several years, numbers show a modest decline. But consumption, according to University of Missouri Economist Ron Plain, Ph.D., is not demand. Record high prices have eroded meat consumption, but considering the rise in prices, demand actually remains remarkably strong. As he said in releasing a background paper last year, “Recent reporting about data on U.S. meat and poultry consumption has created a false and overly simplistic impression that demand for meat is declining. This is simply not the case. This backgrounder aims to explain the difference between consumption and demand and will show that meat and poultry demand has actually risen.”
Like many people, I respect vegetarianism as a choice. I just get frustrated when media and advocates position this choice as a trend that is sweeping the nation. If we avoid what ‘Everybody knows’ and look at actual data, here’s what we will find: Vegetarianism is stable at roughly five percent of the population; meat and poultry consumption is consistent with federal recommendations and while meat and poultry prices have risen significantly due to rising feed costs and drought, demand for meat and poultry is strong.
An approach we all might consider responding more often to “Everybody knows” statements with, “Actually, data show…”. And deliver the facts with a smile.