The USDA’s data seem to paint a pretty clear picture: per capita meat consumption in the US is steadily rising. While plant-based meat has exploded onto mainstream menus and meat aisles in the past several years, if you take this data at face value, it seems like Americans are eating more meat per person than ever before. Surveys like Newsweek’s recent poll affirm that Americans love meat and few have plans to halt that love affair (and we’re #1 in world consumption).
Aside from a modest drop during the Great Recession, Americans, it appears, have been eating more and more meat every year. In 2023 we’re projected, on average, to eat a record 225 pounds of land animal meat per American.
This is of course sobering for those who champion a food system that uses fewer animals, but do these USDA data tell the full picture?
My friend and long-time animal advocate Stewart David recently pointed out to me that in fact, the USDA doesn’t really try to measure how much meat the average American actually eats.
As Feedstuffs states: “USDA calculates per capita meat disappearance — a proxy measure of consumption — as a residual measure of supply (the sum of production, beginning stocks, and imports minus the sum of exports and ending stocks) divided by the total U.S. population. However, since it does not account for indirect consumer uses such as pet food and food waste, it overestimates the actual consumer consumption.”
In other words, “per capita meat consumption” includes a lot of meat that humans never actually eat: both the meat that we throw out, and, perhaps more importantly, the meat our dogs and cats eat.
More food waste + more pets = way more animals farmed
Estimates suggest that about a quarter of the meat produced in America simply never gets eaten. (This says 26%, while this says 21.5%, of meat is wasted.) And the problem is only getting worse — we’re wasting more total food and per capita food than ever before. That means literally billions of animals are raised and slaughtered only to be thrown into landfills.
But an even bigger contributor to the riddle of per capita numbers: Pet-keeping has exploded in the US, and nearly all of our dogs and cats eat meat. There’s even been a trend toward human-grade meat in pet food, meaning pet food isn’t simply the meat that would have been wasted. If our roughly 180 million meat-loving dogs and cats formed their own nation, they’d reportedly be the fifth biggest meat-consuming country in the world. (If only they could eat all the meat we’re throwing out!
Of course, to the meat industry, it doesn’t really matter so much whether the meat they produce ends up in human stomachs, canine/feline stomachs, or landfills, so long as the meat was purchased from them. That’s why the number of animals raised for food has steadily increased in the US. I remember when I stopped eating animals in 1993 and reading animal advocacy literature decrying that six billion land animals were slaughtered for food annually in the US. Today, the number is closer to 10 billion.
Of course, we have 70 million more humans living in America today than we did in 1993, which accounts for a portion of that rise. But that’s not nearly enough to account for those additional four billion land animals entering slaughterhouses. Perhaps people are eating more meat per person, but it seems at least possible that the above reasons (increased food waste and increased pet-keeping) are driving slaughter numbers up, and therefore the inferred per capita numbers too.
I asked Purdue University economist Jayson Lusk about this, who confirmed that people often accidentally conflate “consumption” with “demand,” which are really two separate matters. And he made it clear that “growth in pet food demand meaningfully contributes to the growing demand for livestock and poultry.”
Why does this matter?
To the animals being farmed and slaughtered, it doesn’t really matter whether they’re destined to be eaten by dogs, cats, humans, or not at all. But to alt-protein advocates who are questioning whether their work has made any impact on how much meat Americans are actually eating, this suggests that the picture isn’t as clear as just looking at per capita consumption data. At a minimum, without those efforts probably even more animals would have been used for food. But it’s also ovbious that Americans actually aren’t eating as much meat as the USDA “per capita” numbers suggest.
Of course, make no mistake: we’re moving in the wrong direction — more animals being used for food today than ever before. All the evidence suggests that meat-eating remains quite popular. It’s not like we’re on the verge of mass vegetarianism breaking out any time soon. But is carnivory actually more popular today than yesterday? Given the way USDA counts its chickens, it’s probably too difficult to know for sure.
So what to do?
To the extent that there’s a hope to meaningfully slash the number of animals farmed for food, it seems like new technology offers the greatest opportunity. After all, new technology has been the biggest driver of ending other forms of animal use in the past. For example:
- Geese are no longer live-plucked for their quills not because anyone cared about the birds, but because metal fountain pens were invented.
- Carrier pigeons aren’t forced to fly long and dangerous routes not because we had a soft spot for pigeons, but because the telegraph was invented.
- Fireflies are no longer “harvested” by the millions for the biotech industry not because it was unsustainable, but because scientists synthesized luciferase.
- Horses are no longer whipped to carry us around not because of animal advocates, but because of the invention of bikes and cars.
- Whales are no longer harpooned for their oil not because 19th century social reformers gave whales a voice, but because kerosene offered a cheaper, cleaner way to light our homes.
The point is that if we’re serious about wanting to make a dent in the number of animals farmed for food, yes, we should try to reduce food waste and persuade people (and pets?) to enjoy more plant-based foods currently available. But really, creating tastier and cheaper alternatives to animal-based meat — whether from plant proteins, fungi, and/or animal cell culture — is the most likely path to accomplish that goal.
But in the meantime, let’s not presume that per capita meat demand continues to inexorably rise in spite of so many valiant efforts. The USDA data is useful in many ways, but when it comes to keeping a precise account of how much meat Americans actually consume, we really just don’t know.
This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.