A new report from Rabobank suggesting meat consumption in the U.S. rose five percent in 2015 generated several headlines over the last week with the media offering analysis of what increased consumption means and why the efforts of anti-meat crusaders (seemingly including some in the media) have failed. The reality of changes in meat consumption is much simpler than the media analysis would suggest and comes as no surprise to us—it’s the price.
Back in 2012, media reports told a much different story: meat consumption had declined “for all the right reasons” according to Mark Bittman. Except when economists looked at meat demand, which considers the relationship between consumption and price, interest in meat remained strong and had increased slightly. This meant that increased prices were the primary reason for declines in consumption. Prices were on the rise due to a variety of factors impacting supply including drought and feed cost among the major influences.
Fast forward a few years, and the price of meat has now declined while demand remains strong, even increasing a bit. It makes sense that meat consumption would go up. Rabobank estimates that this trend will continue until 2018 when the market might change. If the price of meat starts to rise again, which typically occurs because of a lower supply, we can expect to see another round of the meat consumption is declining “for all the right reasons” stories. Those who want the true story will look more closely at the price of meat and estimates of meat demand instead.
For a deeper dive, Jayson Lusk at Oklahoma State has a great summary of the issue on his blog.
Meat Consumption and Nutrition
The new round of stories highlighting increased meat consumption also raises the question for some of whether we eat too much meat. While Rabobank cites per capita consumption, what they are actually looking at is per capita disappearance of meat or how much is purchased from store shelves. Unfortunately we know that not everything purchased is consumed, so it is not a perfect measure of how much meat we actually eat. For that data we look to USDA’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) which is used as the basis for recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. According to NHANES data, on average Americans eat close to the recommended five to seven ounces from the protein group. Women fall on the low end at 4.4 ounces of meat and poultry per day, while men fall on the upper end at 6.9 ounces of meat and poultry per day. Meanwhile, discretionary fats and carbohydrate laden sugars are overconsumed while fruits, vegetables and whole grains are under-consumed.
No matter how you crunch the numbers of meat consumption, supply and demand, we know that Americans love meat and poultry and they are a part of our culinary past, present and future. Meat and poultry products are foods we look forward to eating whether a strip of bacon at breakfast, a hot dog at a ballgame or a steak at the fanciest restaurant in town. Meat and poultry offer valuable nutrition and are a part of a healthy balanced diet. Basic economics might change how much we eat from time to time, but won’t change these basic truths.