Americans still consume more meat than nearly anyone else in the world, but consumption is declining – and people’s reasons for eating less meat have evolved in recent years.
According to USDA figures , US meat consumption is on track to fall by more than 12% from 2007 to the end of 2012 – about 165.5 pounds per person this year, or just under half a pound a day. But why?
FoodNavigator-USA spoke to one of the founding partners of the Meatless Monday campaign, Dr. Robert Lawrence, a professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future.
When the Meatless Monday campaign was founded in 2003, the idea was to help cut saturated fat consumption to USDA-recommended levels, he says, a 15% reduction. Researchers knew most saturated fat in US diets came from animal sources, so this seemed like a sensible place to start.
“We realized that setting targets, realistic targets, would be a powerful incentive,”Lawrence says. “…It turns out that one day a week is about 15% of the week, so we came up with the idea of avoiding animal products one day a week.”
He says polling data show that the incentive is still growing, with 18% of Americans claiming to participate in the campaign, and awareness now at 50% of the population.
A powerful message
In early focus-groups, poorer consumers – most at risk of diet-related ill health – responded well to the health message, while wealthier consumers were more likely to be concerned about environmental impacts of meat production.
“For low and low-middle income groups, the most salient message was ‘if it would protect the health of my family, then yes, I’ll cut back’,” he says. “…The environmental message was presented early on, but was never quite as powerful as the health message.”
However, the Meatless Monday campaign has grown to include a wide range of issues, including problems of global food security; problems with devoting grain crops to animal feed; water scarcity; water security; animal welfare; and concerns about the impact of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) on rural American communities.
“You take a general public and you pick off those who are really concerned about public health, those who are concerned about the environment, rural communities, animal welfare, and so on. You add all those up and you are reaching a big sector of the American public,” says Lawrence.
Has US meat consumption peaked?
Some trend watchers have suggested that the cost of meat is a major factor too, particularly as pocketbooks are pinched, and animal feed prices are on the rise, pushing prices higher.
But while the drop-off in meat consumption has coincided with recession, Lawrence claims that health remains the number one reason that people are changing their habits.
Per capita beef consumption increased with higher incomes only until the 1970s, after which it remained relatively stable until the past four or five years, he says. In addition, in the United States, food spending accounts for a relatively small proportion of the household budget – about 10% of total disposable income. Instead, he says that meat consumption may have peaked, and is now receding to a level that is more culturally normative.
“I think the trend is toward a growing awareness that a high meat diet is a high risk diet, and a growing awareness that a high meat diet is unsustainable,” he says.
The cultural norm in the United States still values animal protein (from both meat and dairy) above other sources, with 65% of US protein coming from animals, compared to a global average of about 30% – and there are many low-income countries where animal protein accounts for just 6 or 7% of dietary protein.
Slowly Americans are beginning to understand that grains and vegetables are good sources of protein, says Lawrence, and that meatless options can be tasty too.