Meat And Protein Consumption In The U.S.: The Best Estimates
Many researchers, journalists, and bloggers would welcome a single authoritative source for the answers to two simple questions: 1) What is the average daily meat intake per person in the U.S.? and 2) What is the average daily protein intake? This study shows us once and for all that no such source exists, and endeavors to tell us why. The authors describe two government agencies with very different missions, who maintain databases that provide relevant data for consumption estimates. However, neither data set provides a definitive answer to the two questions above.
Agricultural Supply Data
The authors first cover the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). The ERS measures U.S. food supply based on production estimates. The estimates for meat availability are based on slaughtering facilities’ records, so the reported data refer to “carcass weight,” including edible and inedible portions. The ERS also provides a “loss-adjusted” estimate of available meat by subtracting non-edible parts of the carcasses and estimated losses (e.g., from spoilage or waster). The ERS does not collect data on major non-meat sources of protein, such as seeds and soya products.
Dietary Intake Data
The authors then turn to the other main source of data for estimating meat and protein consumption, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The department uses the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to poll a sample of Americans on a regular basis, asking them to recall what they ate in the last 24 hours. Using sophisticated sampling techniques and analytical models, the survey responses are used to arrive at reliable averages for the entire population.
Comparing the Data Sets
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. The “availability” approach starts with all available meat at the source (the aforementioned “carcass weight”), but can’t account completely for what happens when meat is prepared, portioned, consumed, and thrown away. The “intake” approach gets closer to what is actually put into people’s mouths, but may suffer from faulty memory and/or inaccurate reporting (bias), which is common with self-report surveys.
So, how much meat does the average American eat per day? The authors use the ERS and NHANES data as well as several international data sets to land on a range of 5.4 to 5.9 ounces per person per day. An important limitation of both sources is that an average does not capture variation among individuals (some people eat little or no meat, while others consume very high amounts). Additionally, “per person” in these data sets refers to individuals aged 2 years and over, and consumption varies by age and other demographic factors.
This article offers an important primer for anyone who wants to utilize available data sources to make claims about Americans’ meat- and protein-eating habits. For animal advocates, the study gives a credible measure of meat consumption in the U.S. that, despite its limitations, is in many ways a “best estimate” that can be used for all types of advocacy applications.