January 11, 2012 · 3 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Today, New York Times writer Mark Bittman titles in his op-ed blogpost, “We’re eating less meat. Why?” You might think he would answer that question. He does not.
According to his Times bio, Bittman has been writing a foods column for the Times for 13 years and “has been urging Americans to change the way we eat for decades.” He has written four books on food, one of which “explored the crucial connections among food, health and the environment.” He has appeared in three TV series about food and is working on another. Mark Bittman is an expert!
Yet Bittman’s answer to the question he poses – why are Americans eating less meat? – is “because we want to.” That’s it.
Bittman writes that “we want to … for the right reasons.” He bases this assertion on two reports. The first is a single sentence in a report on a survey by the Values Institute at DGWB: “Following a trend towards better health, the Institute predicts that more Americans will adopt a flexitarian diet, significantly cutting meat out of their diet without becoming full vegetarians – a shift that it attributes in part to the nonprofit promotion of Meatless Monday meals.” The second is an online survey which the Website Allrecipe.com invited its readers to take. Reader responses revealed that “health concerns are the primary motivation behind flexitarian eating, followed by the growing appeal of vegetarian dishes, along with cost savings.”
As Newt Gingrich might say, “That’s pious baloney.” I’ll warrant that millions of Americans are paying more attention to diet – in fact, diet products constitute a major industry. Voluntarily cutting meat consumption is definitely part of that effort. But Bittman fails to consider other factors that affect meat consumption.
Bittman does acknowledge that economic considerations could factor into Americans’ decision to eat less meat, but he essentially rejects that argument. He writes, “Even buying less meat because prices are high and times are tough is a choice; other ‘sacrifices’ could be made…. Yet even though excess supply kept chicken prices lower than the year before, demand dropped.”
Once he has dispensed with the economic argument, Bittman fails to consider just what kinds of meat people eat during economic hard times. While people may purchase less meat because they have less money, they also are apt to choose the cheaper, fattier cuts. Some beef producers dubbed the current recession the “Hamburger economy.” As Reuters reported in December,
Beef companies … are carving up beef carcasses in interesting new ways. Carcass portions once meant for ground meat or roasts, such as rounds and chucks, are now sliced into cheaper cuts of steaks. These new less expensive steak cuts became popular during the recession and still are….
Bittman never mentions what may be the biggest factors affecting American meat consumption: our changing demographics:
Americans are getting older. The median age is now 37.2 years, up almost two years in 2010 from the median age of 35.3 in 2000. You know what? Older Americans eat significantly less meat. In fact, after age 19 for women – not exactly a ripe old age – and age 39 for men, beef consumption begins to decline, according to a USDA study. The study’s authors wrote that “per capita beef consumption is expected to fall over the next two decades as the population ages.” A report by the national Economic Research Service noted that,
The aging of the baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, will accelerate growth in the number of Americans older than 65, who will number 54 million by 2020. Although the U.S. population under age 18 will increase by 7 million by 2020, it will decline as a share of the total population. Consequently, catering to the food preferences and eating habits of older Americans – who are likely to be more health conscious than younger Americans – will be an important marketing strategy for food suppliers…. According to ERS projections, small declines in per capita consumption of … beef and poultry are expected….
Another demographic factor affecting meat consumption is ethnicity. The USDA study on beef consumption found that Black Americans “had the highest beef consumption per capita … of all races, followed by Hispanics…, Whites…, and Other races (including Asians)….”
Where Americans live matters, too. The USDA study found that people in rural areas eat more beef than do suburbanites, who eat more beef than do urbanites. As the country becomes less and less rural, it would follow that Americans would eat less meat.
Beef consumption varies by region, too. Midwesterners are the biggest beefeaters, Northeasterners the least. These figures probably reflect the fact that Northeasterners live in more urban areas, are older and are better educated.
Education is certainly a factor. A 1995 USDA study developed a “Healthy Eating Index” which measured “how well American diets conform to [USDA-]recommended healthy eating patterns.” The study found that “A person’s Healthy Eating Index improved with increasing education.” It’s an old study, but I doubt the story has changed. With better education comes better eating habits – and that means less meat consumption.
A couple of the demographic factors I cited support Bittman’s contention that we’re eating less meat “because we want to.” For instance, as the Economic Research Service report asserted, seniors are likely to be more health-conscious than are younger people. But the same report also noted that, “Older Americans typically eat less food than younger ones due to lower activity levels and energy needs.” It isn’t only that older Americans are eating less meat; they are eating less of everything. This is hardly a nod to Meatless Mondays.
Personally, I suspect the majority of people who eat less meat do so for reasons other than that they “want to.” Healthy eating is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Or ends. People know a diet of healthful foods will make them feel and look better and can mean they’ll live longer and maintain a better quality of life. Many also know that meat production, especially the way it is managed in the U.S., is an environmental disaster and usually involves egregious cruelty to animals. To be sure, there are Americans who eat less meat because they want to: Asian-Americans, for instance. That is a cultural habit. As more American children grow up in homes where their parents conscientiously provide healthier family diets, likely more Americans will develop the low-meat consumption habit. That is, they will eat less meat “because they want to.” But people who cut down on their meat consumption because they “should” – or in some cases, because they “must” – do not really do so because they “want to.”
As for Mark Bittman, he asks a question but does not give us the full and honest answer. A longtime advocate for “changing the way we eat,” Bittman ends his post by offering us a bowl of “rice and beans.” Instead of answering the question posed in the title of his post, Bittman gives us a sermon. He gives us the answer he “wants to.”
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com