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The Making Of Meat-Eating America
by Dan Charles
We eat a lot of meat in this country; per person, more than almost anywhere else on Earth. (Here’s a helpful map of global meat-eating.)
But why? What makes an American eat ten or twelve times more meat than the average person in Mozambique or Bangladesh?
Reason #1: Dollars and cents. Mark Rosegrant, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute, pulls out a graph that shows the typical trajectory of meat consumption, in country after country. “All countries eat more meat when their incomes grow and they have the economic wherewithal to eat more meat,” he says. The pattern is so consistent, economists now treat it almost like a law of human behavior. “It seems to be a preference that’s built in to people,” says Rosegrant.
Yet this difference may also be due in part to economic factors. Meat is relatively cheap in the U.S., compared to Japan or many countries in Europe.
Jayson Lusk, a professor of economics at Oklahoma State University, got a taste of this reality last year when he lived in Paris. “We literally spent twice as much each month on food, and it wasn’t because we were living high on the hog, if you pardon the pun,” he says. “It was really because things were just much more expensive, meat included.”
Lusk says that simple economics also helps to explain some other trends in American meat consumption that appear, at first, quite puzzling.
For instance, American appetite for beef hit a peak in 1976, and has been plummeting ever since. It’s now down by one-third. Instead, the average American is eating twice as much chicken. You can see the shifting trends here (scroll down to the bottom of the page).
Health warnings about the dangers of eating too much red meat played a role in beef’s decline. But the main reason for chicken’s rise, says Lusk, is simply the fact that it got a lot cheaper. Entrepreneurs like Frank Perdue, in Maryland, and Don Tyson, in Arkansas, turned raising these birds into an industry, and their industrial operations brought down the price.
So that’s the economic explanation for America’s meat-eating ways. But it’s not the full story, says historian Roger Horowitz, at the Hagley Museum and Library in Greenville, Delaware. Horowitz, who is the author of Putting Meat OnThe American Table, says you have to go back a little further to understand why meat is so central to American life, and why this country has led the world in the innovations that made meat affordable.