Beef or Chicken? A Look at U.S. Meat Trends in the Last Century

A lot of meat and poultry gets eaten during the holiday season. Did you ever find yourself wondering: Hmm, what’s the trend line over the past 100 years for U.S. per-capita consumption of beef vs. chicken vs. pork vs. turkey?

Yeah, so did we. The answers lie below the fold. Before you peek, here are a few more meaty questions to consider:

  1. Which category was consumed at a clip of just 10 lbs. per person 100 years ago but has since risen to 60 lbs. per person? And what accounts for this spike?
  2. Which category has reigned supreme from the early 1950’s, peaking at nearly 90 lbs. per person during the late 1970’s – but has recently been pretty much matched by the category in question 1?
  3. Which category has been remarkably consistent for the entire century, with consumption usually between 40 and 50 lbs. per year?
  4. Which category has always been the laggard – and yet has climbed from just a couple of pounds a year to well above 10?

The answers appear in the illustrated edition of SuperFreakonomics:

DESCRIPTION Over the past few decades, Americans have been eating less red meat and a lot more chicken. (Turkey consumption, meanwhile, has been on a slow and steady upward path, while pork has remained consistent.) The beef industry, troubled by this trend, funded research to find out why. It turns out that the public began to increasingly see beef as a health risk, thanks to recalls of tainted beef and a growing belief in the connection between red-meat consumption and heart disease. There’s likely another reason: more women were entering the workforce. A study by the agricultural economists James Mintert, Glynn Tonsor, and Ted Schroeder found that for every 1 percent increase in female employment, beef consumption sank by .6 percent while chicken consumption rose by .6 percent. Why? Probably because beef takes longer than chicken to prepare, and because poultry producers did a good job marketing cheap and ready-to-cook chicken products. Furthermore, all those working women meant more household income, which meant more families eating in restaurants – where meals are less likely to contain beef than meals at home.

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  1. Eileen M Wyatt says:

    Is there an economic reason to omit price data? In the early 1970s, many varieties of beef (both ground and steak) were cheaper than chicken.

    At that time, food consumed a greater proportion of household incomes than it does now, so it’d make sense that families stretched their budgets with the less expensive meat.

    The time-to-prepare argument makes no sense. While chicken parts take less time to prepare than a large roast, ground beef dishes are faster yet, and pre-1975 cookbooks are full of such casseroles.

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    Factoid for you: Early in the last century someone marketed chickens cross-bred with turkeys. No information on the results, but apparently it never caught on.

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  3. mohammad says:

    i honestly think beef’s main downfall is the real or perceived health risk associated with it. anecdotally, many of the people I know have decreased or avoided beef primarily because of cholesterol awareness

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  4. Kirk says:

    What’s really striking to me is that since the year my parents were born, 1950, we’ve increased total meat/person consumption by roughly 70%. I’m sure ounces/meal have increased meaningfully, but evidently we’re also substituting meat for pastas or vegetables much more often, too?

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  5. Brian S says:

    “The answers appear in the illustrated edition of SuperFreakonomics:”

    This is low.


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  6. Brian S says:

    Disregard my last post – it appears the image was posted and blocked by a content filter. Whoops.

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  7. Nylund says:

    My father talks about being a kid in the 1930’s and how chicken was considered the fanciest of those categories of meet. His family only ever ate it during special events or when visitors came over.

    He also talks a lot about how today’s chicken, turkey, beef, etc. tastes nothing like the animals they had on the farm growing up. That was before the factory farms with their breed for big breasts birds, odd diets, unnatural habitats, and crazy chemicals.

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  8. Ruth says:

    Sigh. Once again, lamb gets no respect.

    The meat business seems to be fixated on the major meats. A few years ago, I thought duck was going to take up part of the chicken convenience market, but that effort fizzled, probably because producers didn’t do a good job of providing quick and easy recipes for the product.

    When I was in college, the grocery store I shopped at sold rabbit. That’s another meat that seems to have disappeared.

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