Are we still a land of ‘meat and potatoes?’

Mark Bittman Feb 6, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Depending on the menu at the Super Bowl party you went to yesterday, there’s probably plenty of chili con carne for leftovers today.

Commentator Mark Bittman says probably not as much as you might think, though.

Mark Bittman: America eats more meat than any other country in the world; about one-sixth of all meat consumed, though we’re less than one-twentieth of the world’s population.

But that’s changing. You might even say the numbers are plummeting.

The Department of Agriculture says that our meat and poultry consumption will be about 12 percent less in 2012 than it was in 2007. Beef consumption has been in decline for about 20 years, chicken is way down in the last five, and pork also has been slipping.

You might say holy cow. What’s up?

The industry blames a familiar quartet: draught, recession, exports — especially to China — and ethanol, which is causing an increase in the price of feed. And although it’s all true — meat is more expensive, and much more is being exported — there’s a factor that the industry doesn’t like to talk about. That factor is a conscious decision on the part of many of us to simply cut back.

Availability may be down, but it’s not as if we’re going to the supermarket and finding empty meat cases or deli counters filled only with coleslaw. And even if people are buying less meat because prices are high, that’s still a choice; we could cut back on junk food, or shirts, or iPhones.

Some people are eating less meat for the right reason. It’s called flexitarianism — where people eat mostly vegetables, but will also indulge in meat. It’s an idea that may not have set the world on fire, but it’s clearly a trend. One recent survey of home cooks found that a third said they ate less meat last year. Another found that half of Americans were aware of the movement toward Meatless Mondays, and more than a quarter of those were actively reducing their meat consumption.

Ask anyone you know: most of them are eating less meat, or trying to. And ask this: Is anyone in this country eating more meat than they used to?

A 12 percent reduction in just five years is significant, and if that decline were to continue for the next five years — well, few would have imagined that. This is something only meat producers could get upset about. The rest of us should be celebrating.

Ryssdal: Mark Bittman is a columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author of “How to Cook Everything.”

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