Meat Consumption In the U.S.: Is It Increasing or Decreasing?
Half of U.S. consumers under the age of 50 have already tried plant-based meat products. While that may sound like good news — for animals and the environment — it’s still just a small dent in the billion-dollar conventional meat market. People in the U.S. are still eating more meat than ever even if the type of meat has changed over the years. Hamburgers and hot dogs may be synonymous with some of the country’s largest holidays, but chicken has taken the lead when it comes to the most-consumed type of meat.
Does the U.S. Eat a Lot of Meat?
According to data pulled from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United States and Portugal are tied for highest overall meat consumption per capita. The average person in both countries eats 149 kg/327.8 lb a year. Whereas in the U.S., chicken makes up the largest portion of that, in Portugal, eaters prefer fish and other seafood.
How Much Meat Is Consumed in the U.S.?
According to the USDA, the average U.S. resident consumes 224.6 pounds of meat — beef, pork, broilers and turkey — every year. Meat consumption in the United States reached record highs in 2021, and, though the following year saw a slight downtick, 2022 reached similar levels as the second-highest year on record.
The most recent data from the USDA shows that the average person is eating more than 40 percent more meat than they should be according to dietary guidelines. Following the uptick in meat consumption broadly, this represents a significant increase in meat consumption since 1970, when the average person was eating just over 20 percent more.
Beef and Veal
Based on data from 2020, the average person in the United States consumes 82 pounds of beef every year. This places U.S. consumption well above the global average of 19.8 pounds per year. Also in the United States, a person dies from cardiovascular disease every 33 seconds, with some studies pointing to an increased risk of the disease for those who eat large amounts of red or processed meat.
Unlike beef, the amount of veal we consume is dropping, and in 2011 the number was less than half a pound per person. The consumption of veal, which comes from calves, peaked during World War II, when people were eating about 8.4 pounds per person.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, bacon seemingly adorned everything from t-shirts to chocolate bars. The United States had reached peak bacon mania, as recipes and merchandise featured this kind of processed pork.
Though memes focusing on an unabashed love for bacon have become more scarce, the average person in the United States still consumes roughly double the global average. Eating too much bacon can have negative health impacts. Processed meats such as bacon are carcinogenic, which means some evidence links them to risk of cancer.
According to data collected from FAO, the average person in the United States was eating 127.2 pounds of poultry in 2020. This is well above the global average of 35.7 pounds.
Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are not the only reason that poultry consumption in the country is so high. Many people also view swapping beef out for chicken or turkey as a way of combating climate change and improving their health. While pound-for-pound beef is significantly worse for the environment than poultry, poultry is much worse for animal welfare, and beans and lentils are better on all counts.
Consumer hesitancy combined with serious competition from beef and poultry producers has driven lamb consumption steadily downward since the 1960s. Today, the average person consumes only one pound of lamb a year. Following this trend, in July 2023, lamb and mutton production in the United States hit an all time low — 9.5 million pounds.
What Is the Most-Consumed Meat in the U.S.?
People are eating an increasing number of chickens around the world, a trend that has already led to poultry topping charts as the most-consumed meat. The United States is no exception, and is even leading the charge. Chicken overtook beef as the country’s favorite meat in the 1990s. Now, U.S.-style factory farms — and the many problems associated with them — are spreading to countries around the world.
From a farmer’s perspective, chickens are ideal because they grow so quickly. One factory farm can raise millions of chickens annually. Meanwhile, consumers view eating chicken as at least better for the environment than beef, while also less costly.
How Many Slaughterhouses Are in the U.S.?
As of the start of 2022, there were 905 USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in the United States dedicated to processing cattle, pigs and sheep. There are an additional 349 slaughterhouses focusing on poultry inspected by the Food Safety and Inspection Services.
The number of slaughterhouses actually operating within the country is likely far larger than the number represented by USDA data. There are numerous backyard slaughter operations operating within state borders, meaning federal agencies don’t inspect them.
One such facility is Bradford Livestock. Despite being issued a cease and desist order in 2019 for operating in a residential neighborhood —down the street from a public school, no less — the facility continued to operate. Since the order was served, more than 5,700 animals have been slaughtered there,according to advocates.
Is Meat Consumption Increasing or Decreasing?
People in the United States are pretty obsessed with eating chickens, driving an increase in the overall consumption of meat. While a preference for chicken has driven demand for poultry upward over the last few decades, demand for other types of meat, most notably beef, has actually declined slightly from peak demand in 1961.
Is the Meat Industry Dying?
Despite its massive environmental impact, the meat industry in the United States is alive and well. But that is not to say there are no challenges facing the industry.
The development of new technologies such as cultivated meat and improvements of plant-based alternatives both provide alternatives to consumers. The meat industry viewed these new developments as threatening enough that they launched multimillion dollar smear campaigns against them.
Meanwhile, during the coronavirus pandemic, meat companies’ profits soared. Among the companies that did the best was Tyson — which alone controls a whopping 67 percent of U.S. chicken production sales. Even Tyson’s virtual monopoly over broiler chickens was not immune to the dip in sales once life resumed. Earlier this year, they announced the closure of six processing plants.
Does the U.S. Export a Lot of Meat?
The United States is responsible for 26 percent of global poultry exports. Though that number is projected to decrease slightly to 24 percent by 2031, as other countries construct more factory farms, the U.S. will still be a major player when it comes to raising chickens for consumption everywhere.
Has U.S. Meat Consumption Decreased?
The consumption of some types of meat such as veal and lamb has gone down significantly since the mid 1900s, when they peaked in popularity. Even the amount of beef eaten in the U.S. has been trending slightly downward.
The one type of meat driving an increase in meat consumption overall is poultry, though pet food and food waste also figure into rising meat consumption rates.
Beef Consumption by State
Different states prefer beef prepared in different ways. For example, some of the states eating the most steaks are Florida, California, Nevada and Washington, while the upper Midwest has a penchant for ground beef and hamburgers.
Average Meat Consumption Per Person, Per Day
The average person in the United States eats 347.36 g of meat every single day. However, there are some variations, with men eating more meat on average than women.
How Much Meat Is Wasted in the U.S.?
In the United States, up to 40 percent of all food is wasted. Meat accounts for 30 percent of that total. This waste takes place not only at restaurants and in grocery stores, but also in homes across the country.
On top of the significant environmental impacts of producing meat in the first place, wasting meat contributes heavily to climate change. A whopping 20 percent of methane emissions comes from landfills, which are overwhelmingly filled with slowly decaying food.
Experts point to a lack of awareness surrounding where meat comes from as a driver behind our willingness to waste. “In the modern-day world, people have lost touch with the traditional ways in which we would take the life of an animal to feed ourselves—and waste is always a by-product,” Tammy Fry global brand lead for Fry Family Foods and marketing director for the LIVEKINDLY Collective told Sentient Media.
What Are the Risks Associated With Meat Consumption?
Eating meat — especially red and processed meats — comes with serious health concerns. In fact, processed meats are carcinogens. Beef and other red meats aren’t much better; dangerous, cancer-causing chemicals are produced when they’re cooked at high temperatures or in direct contact with fire, such as with barbecuing.
Practical Ways to Reduce Meat Consumption
One easy way to reduce meat consumption is to rearrange your plate to simply include less meat. Increase your portions of veggies and whole grains on the plate instead. There are also numerous completely meat-free replacements for popular meat dishes that make easy swaps.
What Would Happen If Everyone Ate Less Meat?
If everyone ate less meat, their health would improve, there would be a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution and pandemic risk would be mitigated. Consuming large amounts of meat has been tied to everything from colorectal cancer to heart disease, meaning that a population eating less meat is also going to be a healthier population.
Factory farms present the perfect breeding grounds for a pandemic, making them a public health nightmare. Because all of the animals are very similar genetically and are often packed together in extremely tight and filthy conditions, diseases have the perfect environment to proliferate and make the jump to people.
From an environmental perspective, consuming less meat also means fewer harmful emissions from farms. Not only does the methane produced by factory farms contribute significantly to climate change, but pollutants also have a direct impact on wildlife and the environments they depend upon.
The responsibility of making this switch lies primarily with higher-income countries such as the United States; those are the countries disproportionately consuming meat.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Do Americans Consume a Lot of Meat?
Meat is seemingly synonymous with an “American” identity. It’s featured prominently at celebrations such as Independence Day cookouts and Thanksgiving Day feasts. Though at a cursory glance this seems to be simply how it’s always been, the reality is that the connection between identity and meat is the result of decades of intense marketing campaigns.
These campaigns have done everything from tell men that they have to eat meat in order to be considered masculine, to using TikTok to extol the many virtues of dairy. While they haven’t been able to completely stop plant-based foods from growing in popularity, they have successfully influenced culture in the United States to ensure meat has a death grip on the way people eat.
What Will Happen if Meat Consumption Is Decreased?
When a person chooses to decrease the amount of meat they’re consuming, their risk of developing several different diseases— such as heart disease, diabetes and several types of cancer — goes down, along with their environmental footprint.
Why Is the Term ‘4 Pounds of Red Meat per Year’ Popular?
The phrase “4 pounds of red meat a year” refers to a now-defunct belief among conservatives that Biden was going to restrict how much meat people could eat to four pounds a year. While such a cut would make lengthy strides toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, pandemic risk and eliminating animal suffering, the claims simply aren’t true.
How Much Meat Does the Average American Eat?
The average person in the United States eats 327.8 lbs of meat annually, tying the country for first in meat consumption.
The Bottom Line
Meat consumption in the U.S. remains high, despite the increasingly urgent need to change global eating habits. Meat and dairy has a significantly larger environmental footprint than plant-based foods. According to scientists, a plant-based diet is “probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”
Since U.S. citizens have one of the highest rates of meat consumption globally, more people eating a plant-based diet is critical to reducing the country’s emissions and transitioning towards a more sustainable system of food production.