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.

Eileen M Wyatt

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.

Eric M. Jones

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.

mohammad

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

Kirk

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?

Brian S

"The answers appear in the illustrated edition of SuperFreakonomics:"

This is low.

-Brian

Brian S

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

Nylund

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.

Ruth

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.

Gilmoure

I don't know about eating out at restaurants (only once or twice a month) but at home, yeah, the bag of frozen boneless/skinless chicken breasts is are staple meat, followed up by hamburger, and then steaks and pork products and salmon once a week.

Ease of use is the main thing with the chicken; we both work 9 hour days (real wages haven't increased in our lifetime so must work longer) and don't need to remember to move frozen steak over the night before using it. Also, doctors are recommending skinless chicken/olive oil for main meat consumption. 3 breasts in the skillet with lid on, some veggies in another skillet and then rice/pasta/potatoes can all be started in 15 minutes. Gives us time to sit down with daughter and go over day/homework, etc.

MRB

Minor guess - we have a lot more immigrants from places where chicken are plentiful but beef are rare, or that don't eat beef at all - the Caribbean and South Asia.

Chicken also looks to have really taken off in the 40's and 50's, perhaps due to the advent of fast-food chicken like KFC (1952) and Chick-Fil-A (1967) to compliment burgers.

hip

these articles and these books are pop science. selective correlation, selective evidence..blah blah. Provide a universe of facts on a topic and present it in a consumable way rather than the glib, dual income; eat out, no red meat in restaurant food story???? who buys that.
Its more likely a demand supply, relative cost issue. Also demographics have changed over time and diet awareness has changed.
NONE of these factors have been addressed.
FAIL.

Greg

What I am curious about is, why is chicken easier to prepare than beef?

Now, you can often get irradiated beef, which makes it easier to cook. Additionally, beef has to reach a lower temperature to be cooked at a "safe" level than chicken. Therefore, it usually (of course depending on what you're making) takes less time to cook beef.

Maybe that's just me.

-Greg

Joel Upchurch

This is good news because chicken has a far lower green house gas footprint than beef. Cattle are major producers of Methane which is much stronger GHG than carbon dioxide. A Scientific American article listed the footprint of beef as 13 times that of chicken. Sheep are also major methane producers, but mutton doesn't seem popular with Americans.

Nosybear

Overall, if you sum all these values, it appears that protein consumption per capita is on the rise. Both chicken and turkey show exponential growth, pork is flat. Beef is declining slightly. We're eating more meat is what I get from this and, in an attempt to be more healthy about it, we're eating more chicken and turkey, less beef. Correlation to obesity?

zenaxe

"i honestly think beef's main downfall is the real or perceived health risk associated with it."
This times 1000. Red meat's image was a casualty of the "low fat" hype of the last 15-20 years or so.

James

I'm a little confused by the claim that beef takes longer to prepare than chicken. In my experience, it depends entirely on the recipe and manner of cooking. A hamburger is certainly quicker than fried chicken, stir-frying either takes the same time, while a roast chicken takes about the same time as a beef roast of the same weight.

Like several others, I've also noticed the gradual impoverishment of diet choices. Lamb is rare, mutton unheard of. Haven't seen rabbit in this country for years, or buffalo, venison, etc. And I could almost write a book on the fruits & vegetables that are no longer available in mainstream stores.

AaronS

I'm betting that reason pork has stayed largely consistent, not growing with the population, is because for every person who figures out that bacon is the food of the gods and makes all other meats and vegetables better, another person decides to lay off of pork for health reasons...or perhaps dies of clogged arteries.

Basically, pork may be killing off as many people as it is attracting.

OK, I'll go have some bacon now, 'cause you have to go sooner or later anyway.

Andrew Mitchell MD

In economics price is always the biggest factor. Chicken is now cheaper than most vegetables and bread! Turkey is even less, but too large for 1 meal. Competition keeps other meat prices relatively low.

Shelley

But what about fish? It's even faster to prepare and even healthier!

Clancy

I'd like to see this chart with additional lines for fish and a catch-all "other meat" category.
It also raises the question: "How has consuption of food-in-general (per person) gone up in the last hundred years?"