Just how many animals do Americans eat? And how many would you save by going meatless one day a week?

(Post also published on medium.com!)

Meat Trends in the US

Figure 1. Trends in total meat consumption (excluding seafood) in the US from 1909 through 2017. The left gives total meat supply, in terms of either total carcass, retail, or boneless weight, with similar per capita trends on the right. Note that this dataset ends at 2017, but meat consumption continued to climb in 2018 and 2019 as well. Data from the USDA Food Availability Data System.

Figure 2. Trends in yearly retail meat consumption for major animals in the US from 1909 through 2017. The left and right give total and per capita consumption, respectively. Note especially the explosion in chicken, which is now America’s favorite meat. Data from the USDA Food Availability Data System.

Something to note here is the difference between live weight, carcass weight, retail weight, and boneless weight, as the unsavory business of converting a living animal to a retail product necessarily involves losses. Carcass weights are somewhere on the order of 50–70% of live weights, while final boneless weight is in turn about 60% of carcass weight. These losses are but one reason eating animals is less efficient than plants: Not only do animals convert only a fraction of the energy and protein in their feed into biomass, only a fraction of that biomass is ultimately edible.

Meat Totals

Figure 3. Per capita meat production and animal slaughter for the top four meat animals in the US. The top graph shows per capita live, carcass, retail, and boneless weights (based on live and carcass weights reported in USDA Livestock and Poultry slaughter reports, combined with retail and boneless conversion factors reported separately). The bottom figures show total (in millions) and per capita slaughter counts on an annual basis. While tens and hundreds of millions of cows, pigs, and turkeys are slaughtered, the chicken numbers are utterly overwhelming.

Lifetime Totals

Figure 4. The number of terrestrial animals the average American can be expected to eat over a 78.5 year lifetime, rounded to the nearest animal, and using 2019 consumption numbers.

Figure 5. Graphical illustration of how many animal lives would be saved by going without meat (the equivalent of) one day a week, over a lifetime, for a typical American. Animal slaughters avoided are highlighted in red.

Figure 6. And now a graphical illustration of how many animal lives would be saved by switching to eating meat (the equivalent of) only one day a week, over a lifetime, for a typical American. Animal slaughters avoided are again highlighted in red.

So to sum up, America is and has been a nation of meat eaters, with the revolution in livestock, and poultry production especially, since about WWII driving the US to now consume nearly 10 billion terrestrial farm animals each year, not to mentions tens of billions of sea critters (perhaps the subject of another post!). However, by seeing the enormity of the numbers, we can also see the remarkable potential of harm reduction strategies, even if they fall short of a meatless ideal.

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