Americans are eating more meat — why you should care (even if you’re a vegetarian)

Americans are eating more meat — why you should care (even if you’re a vegetarian)

Americans are eating even more burgers, chicken fingers and bacon, and the trend could say a lot about our health — and our financial health.


American consumption of red meat and poultry per capita is forecast to hit 222.2 pounds per person in 2018, up from 216.9 pounds in 2017 and 210.2 pounds in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s the highest amount of meat consumption since records began in nearly half-a-century ago. Production of both red meat and poultry will increase in 2018, at the same time the U.S. economy is growing and Americans have more money to spend on food, it found.


Meat prices vary wildly from month-to-month. Ground beef cost $3.64 per pound on average in U.S. cities in November 2017, a 1% increase from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. Sliced bacon cost $5.71, a nearly 12% increase from the previous year. Poultry is more affordable, while fresh chicken cost $1.45 per pound in U.S. cities in November 2017, a 1.8% drop from the previous year.


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This is a prime indicator that the economy is strong, said Ted Schroeder, professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University, with economic growth forecasts reaching the fastest pace in three years. “The conditions around employment and disposable income are creating demand from consumers,” he said. “As income grows and we gain more confidence, we will spend more at establishments on meat, especially products like high-quality steak.”


“Producers work hard to keep prices low,” said David Simon, author of “Meatamomics,” which looks at how manufacturers persuade people to buy meat. Supply has also increased. Domestic production of meat will exceed 100 billion pounds for the first time next year. “But having more disposable income and feeling more confident about that are important factors,” he added. Consumer confidence recently hit a 17-year high, the Conference Board said last month.

Even accounting for downward price fluctuations in meat prices, food is the third-largest expense for families, after housing and transportation, and meat is still the most expensive item on the grocery bill. Americans spend almost 13% of their incomes on food each year, with 7.8% going to grocery-store purchases and 5.1% on food bought from restaurants, so fluctuations in food prices have the potential to make a significant impact on our spending.


What’s more, those with lower household incomes are more likely to say a meal is “not complete without meat.” Nearly one-third (31%) of families with annual household incomes under $50,000 agreed with this statement versus 27% of households with incomes over $50,000 per year and 28% for households of all incomes, according to a 2017 survey by market-research group Mintel of nearly 2,000 consumers who said they ate red meat within the last six months.


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Americans are also getting fussier about their meat, said Matt Lally, who analyzes fresh food trends for research firm Nielsen. They are increasingly looking for antibiotic and hormone-free options when it comes to lunch meat, as well as labels that say “no artificial preservatives” and “all natural.” These options are often more expensive. Conventional 85% lean beef is $4.99 per pound on AmazonFresh AMZN, +1.29% compared to $8.55 per pound when organic.


Non-meat eaters, meanwhile, are spending more on plant-based proteins like tofu, Lally said. Between 2016 and 2017, consumer spending on plant-based foods and beverages increased 14.7%, Nielsen found. Sales of prepared foods containing tofu grew 2% to $91 million last year. And being a vegetarian isn’t always cheaper, especially for those who eat fake meat products. “Lightlife Smart Ground Original Veggie Protein Crumbles,” for instance, costs more than $5 per pound.