As a member of a cattle-raising family, I hear a pretty steady stream of complaints about people eating less beef, which is variously attributed to a conspiracy against the American rancher (possibly by terrorists), the result of stupid city people who get all terrified over every little health concern (Mad Cow Disease is a myth! Unless it’s a terrorist plot to ruin ranching), environmentalists, animal rights activists, and me (I’ve been a vegetarian since 1996 and thus single-handedly nearly destroyed the beef industry).

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is similarly concerned about reduced beef consumption. And given that we frequently hear about the connections between red meat consumption and health concerns such as heart disease, and are advised to substitute white meat for red meat (to the point that the pork industry began branding pork as “the other white meat”), you’d probably expect to see a dramatic decline in consumption of beef.

And we do see a decline, but not as much as you might expect, as this graph from the Freakonomics blog, sent in by Dmitriy T.M. and Bryce M. (a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), illustrates:

Clearly beef consumption has declined since its peak in the late 1970s, when people in the U.S. ate nearly 90 pounds of beef each per year, to closer to 60 lbs. each today. On the other hand, all those health warnings, disease scares, and environmentalist-vegetarian terrorist plots haven’t yet knocked beef out of its position as the most-eaten meat in the U.S. Clearly, chicken seems poised to take over that position, but beef doesn’t exactly appear to be falling off the charts.

So how do we compare to other countries in terms of overall meat consumption? In a 2003 article in the Journal of Nutrition, Andrew Speedy provided data on global meat consumption (defined as “beef and buffalo, sheep and goat, pig meat and poultry”) — note it’s in kilograms, not pounds, and the legend should be read across, not down (so the first bar is for the U.S., the second is for France, and so on):

So insofar as there has been a decrease in beef consumption in the U.S., and more dramatic increase in chicken consumption: what’s going on? The Freakonomics article presents an explanation:

A study by the agricultural economists James Mintert, Glynn Tonsor, and Ted Schroeder found that for every 1 percent increase in female employment, beef consumption sank by .6 percent while chicken consumption rose by .6 percent. Why? Probably because beef takes longer than chicken to prepare, and because poultry producers did a good job marketing cheap and ready-to-cook chicken products. Furthermore, all those working women meant more household income, which meant more families eating in restaurants — where meals are less likely to contain beef than meals at home.

Health concerns do play a part; the authors found that negative media coverage of beef (either recalls due to contamination or general links to heart disease, etc.) reduced consumption, while positive coverage that linked eating meat to getting iron, zinc, and other minerals increased it. But they found that health effects were small compared to the effects of changing family dynamics — that is, women working outside the home and families eating fewer meals at home.

It’s a nice example of how the factors driving social changes are often much more complex than we’d expect. Common sense explanations of changes in beef consumption would, I think, a) overestimate how much less beef Americans eat than in the past and b) assume the major driving factors to be health-related concerns, whether about chronic disease or recalls. Yet it turns out a major aspect of the story is a structural change that doesn’t seem clearly connected at all.

I guess if I were a health advocate hoping people in the U.S. were starting to listen to messages about healthy eating, that might depress me. But I guess I can tell my grandma that the terrorists’ evil plans to infect U.S. cattle herds with Mad Cow or some other disease might not be as catastrophic as they might imagine.

UPDATE: As a couple of readers point out, the increase in chicken consumption can’t be explained just as a result of people eating chicken when they otherwise would have eaten beef; the drop in beef consumption is way overshadowed by the increase in how much chicken people eat. The total amount of all meat eaten each year has increased dramatically.

I don’t know what is driving all of that change, but I suspect a lot of it is marketing campaigns — not just directly to consumers, but efforts by industry groups and the USDA to get more meat into a wide variety of items at grocery stores and on restaurant menus, as they have done with cheese.

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