Where's the Beef? Why America's Per Capita Beef Consumption is in Decline.

Beef Cattle
Good news for people, animals, and the planet. We’re eating less beef.

Despite Americans’ longtime love affair with steaks and burgers, we’re slowly giving up our red-meat habit.

Consumption of beef has declined steadily since its heyday in the 1970s. We ate 32 percent less in 2012 than in 1970.

Americans’ passion for meat, especially beef, has been cooling for several reasons: 

Health.

The saturated fat in beef promotes heart disease. (Ignore the “man bites dog” reports to the contrary.) What’s more, “the evidence that red meat [and] processed meat… are causes of colorectal cancer is convincing,” notes the World Cancer Research Foundation.

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Animal welfare.

Several groups have exposed the miserable way that cattle are sometimes treated. It doesn’t take many videos of sick cows being dragged along a slaughterhouse floor to turn people into vegetarians.

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Healthy Veggie Meats

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Greenhouse gases.

Cattle are big emitters of methane gas. Pound for pound, methane’s impact on climate change is 20 times greater than carbon dioxide’s, according to the EPA. To produce 1,000 calories of food, beef generates about five times as much greenhouse gas as dairy, poultry, pork, or eggs, says a recent study.

Fertilizer, etc.

It takes a huge amount of energy to produce the fertilizer to grow the corn, soybeans, and other crops that are fed to cattle. Excess fertilizer washes down rivers and streams, leading to low-oxygen dead zones in the mouth of the Mississippi. Pesticides on those crops harm wildlife, while tons of manure from feedlots stink up neighborhoods and pollute rivers.

Price.

Chicken and turkey are cheaper than beef. That’s partly why poultry consumption doubled between 1970 and 2012. Fortunately, poultry is better than beef for our health and the environment.

Controversy over eating beef is likely to heat up in 2015. First, in February the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee urged people to eat less red and processed meat, and to make sure it’s lean. The powerful meat lobby is up in arms.

And several new books have exposed the true costs of meat. Cowed argues that by cutting our beef intake in half, “we can reduce pollution, global warming, medical costs, animal cruelty, loss of soil, loss of biodiversity, and germs resistant to antibiotics.” The Meat Racket targets the bullying business practices of giant beef–hog–poultry producers, particularly Tyson. And The Chain looks at corruption and the abuse of animals and workers in the hog industry.

Eating beef occasionally isn’t harmful, and if you do, grass-fed is the way to go. But given the vast damage beef does to our health, to animals, and to the planet, I’m not surprised that more and more of us are saying “Hold the beef.”


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