After a Decade of Decline, Americans Are Eating More Meat Again

But there are some signs of hope in the new ways people go about consuming animal protein.
(Photo: Kevin Russ/Getty Images)
Aug 22, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

One of the most acclaimed restaurants to open in New York City last year was Superiority Burger. In a cramped slice of East Village real estate, chef Brooks Headley did what seemed impossible a few years ago: He made veggie burgers cool. Punk, even. Not only were his meatless patties a disavowal of the corporate, capitalist meat industry—by all accounts, they tasted phenomenal too. But at the same time as New Yorkers were lining up to eat at Superiority—at the same time as researchers were working to perfect a test-tube burger and the egg industry was trying to undercut a vegan mayo start-up that threatened the very meaning of the word “mayonnaise”—Americans were starting to eat more meat.

According to a report from the Dutch bank Rabobank, 2015 marked “the largest increase in U.S. meat consumption since the food scares of the 1970s.” Per capita consumption jumped by 5 percent, and the trend is expected to continue in the coming years. By 2018, meat consumption should be back up to the peak levels reached in the mid-aughts.

Even if Americans are eating more meat than they have in a decade, they aren’t eating it in the same way. In 2015, for example, beef consumption was flat. While the Rabobank projections estimate a slight rise in the coming years, consumption of red meat will remain historically low. The downward trend began in the mid-’70s, when beef consumption peaked at nearly 90 pounds per capita; Rabobank’s projections put it at around 56 pounds per capita in 2018. In 2014, chicken consumption beat out beef for the first time in a century, and the great chickening of the American diet shows no sign of abating.

Industrial poultry farming is rife with problems—birds live in horrid conditions, runoff contaminates groundwater and creates algae blooms that destroy marine ecosystems downstream, and both the farmers and the workers who slaughter and process the birds are mistreated by the industry in their own particular ways. But even if rising chicken consumption is no moral victory, it matters from a climate standpoint. When Zero Foodprint, which works with restaurants to offset and reduce emissions, did a carbon footprint analysis of the San Francisco restaurant Mission Chinese Food, chicken was the most carbon-efficient ingredient, accounting for just 37,500 pounds of CO2 emissions annually, compared with 117,000 pounds for beef and 143,000 for veal breast. After conducting the carbon analysis, Mission Chinese decided that it would cut back on the amount of beef and lamb it served, which together accounted for nearly half the carbon emissions tied to its ingredients.

Zero Foodprint’s Anthony Myint told Eater SF, “It’s a major environmental improvement if people choose that fried chicken sandwich, and I don’t think anybody thinks about it as like, ‘Oh man, that burger is four times worse for the environment.’ ”

What type of meat Americans eat matters—and, furthermore, the decisions consumers make once they decide if dinner is chicken, beef, or pork (or no meat at all) matter too. According to the market research firm Packaged Facts, a 2015 survey found that one in four consumers “have switched to healthier meat and poultry products within the last year.” More than half of consumers “were willing to spend more for better-for-you meat and poultry products” and are buying from “alternative shopping venues,” such as farmers markets, and are “purchasing organic and natural meat and poultry products.” Some research has found that grass-fed beef has a higher carbon footprint than feedlot beef—the result of the “efficient” weight gain of the latter. But some environmentalists have argued that if pasture is managed correctly, grazing cattle can help make grasslands capture more carbon than if the land was not being used to produce beef or dairy.

With the global demand for meat expected to be 95 percent higher in 2050 than it was in 2005, the scope of concern is far larger than the U.S. Considering that domestic meat consumption is on the rise—the decline over the past decade or so was likely due to a combination of factors, including drought and the Great Recession—in a country where vegan and vegetarian diets are increasingly part of the zeitgeist, any doctrinaire message of abstaining from meat is destined to fail. That’s largely how the Rabobank study has been played up in the media: Animal rights activists and other anti-meat groups believed that the country was finally waking up to their message, but that message has failed.

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The larger question about meat consumption and the environment is not, as more ideological vegans would have you believe, a zero-sum game. Just as eating a fried chicken sandwich is better for the environment than having a steak, adjusting diets on a societal level can have a significant effect on the carbon emissions related to meat production. A recent report from the World Resources Institute, for example, focused on the significant decline in diet-related carbon emissions that could be achieved with strategic diet shifts—none of which involve the U.S. becoming a vegetarian nation.

Report author Janet Ranganathan told TakePart in April that consumers “can have a significant impact on their diet just by making small changes to their consumption of animal-based production—specifically beef and dairy—and making switches to poultry and pork and eating less of it. Not giving it up—just eating less of it.”