Where’s the Beef? – Mark Bittman Has No Idea

January 11, 2012   ·   3 Comments

Source: NYTX

Big Burger

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 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


Readers Comments (3)

  1. Thebigkate says:

    I agree with you about Bittman’s column, Marie. He glossed over the horrendous cruelty of animal abuse in factory farming, and how people are becoming more aware of this. More people now are educating themselves about what they eat, and realize that the harmless looking package of red meat with cellophane wrapping in the supermarket bin may very well have been DOA when the cow/pig/lamb arrived at the slaughterhouse, either from outright abuse or from inhumane transport in getting him to slaughter. Or possibly was a very sick animal and just got shoved in the truck. Not much attention paid by the “slave” labor.

    Were I to teach a high school (or college) course in environmental issues, I would include reading (nobody said it better than Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle,”) and take my students on a fieldtrip to a factory farm (where, of course, they wouldn’t let us in). Then to a slaughterhouse. I have done both of these things, which is a VERY big reason I do not eat meat.

    To be fair, I have also seen cows, pigs and lambs humanely raised with open pasture and kindness. I still won’t eat them, but I can understand why people who can afford it make that choice.

    BTW, I posted a comment about factory farming and Bittman’s sliding over and around it in his column. The trolls over at the NYT tanked it. Hardly anybody wants to be reminded of the nasty way we consume. Sorta like “collateral damage” in war. Denial is so much more comfortable and doesn’t keep us awake at night!

  2. PD Pepe says:

    Sometime in the 1970′s there was a female Bittman by the name of Adele Davis who advocated no meat, but lots of legumes and greens, nuts and fruits–-some dairy. I took her up on it. Sad to say that the flatulence that preceded this diet was something to behold. I went back to my balanced diet of a little of everything. When I learned Adele succumbed to cancer a few years later it was also sad given that this diet was to prolong life.

    We are faced with lots of choices in our eating these days and if we have the bucks to spend on grass fed beef, free range chickens and eggs plus organic vegetables not to mention the kind of fish (more expensive than meat) that are not on the chopping block then we, who are not vegetarians, can rest a little easier. We here in the the north east have a large garden and continue to buy local products. But there are so many not so lucky, not having the bucks to shell out on the more expensive food stuff and eat poorly. Kate cites Upton Sinclair whose name sounds a loud bell for regulation––something our Republican friends would like to whittle down. But it’s not just in the slaughter houses, it’s in our agriculture at large. Perhaps in the end we’ll become like squirrels—our safest food will be nuts and nuts to that!

  3. Mushiba says:

    The statement, “because they want to,” would be a major red flag to an astute marketer who would then respond with, “Why do they want to?” The answer to the ‘why’ is found in an upper level tool to demographics known as psychographics, which attempts to capture relevant aspects of a consumer’s personality, buying motives, interests, attitudes, beliefs and values. Marie has methodically presented that psychographic analysis ~ Bravo!



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