Americans' red meat obsession is growing stronger, with beef sales skyrocketing to $30 billion as a 'meat war' looms
- Beef is the best-selling meat in America, with 2020 sales growing to $30.3 billion.
- But some experts say Americans need to eat less meat to address the climate crisis.
- There is a fundamental disconnect between fears of red meat bans, and the reality of growing sales.
The American love affair with beef is growing stronger. And that's fueling a crisis, according to environmental experts.
Beef is the best-selling meat in America, and the fastest growing in terms of sales. Beef sales soared 23.7% year-over-year to $30.3 billion in 2020.
"In March 2021, beef had the highest increase over pre-pandemic normal (2019) levels of all areas of the store - ahead of seafood, berries and chocolate," Anne-Marie Roerink, the founder of market research firm 210 Analytics, told Insider.
"Additionally, burgers along with pizza and chicken wings were powerhouses in restaurant takeout and delivery in 2020," Roerink continued.
Despite skyrocketing sales, there's a growing belief that beef's reign in the American diet is under threat.
This is fueling tension between American beef lovers and climate experts, as well as restaurants and food publications that are under mounting pressure to take a stance on red meat.
These tensions were highlighted when false claims circulated that President Joe Biden planned to address the climate crisis by forcing Americans to cut 90% of red meat from their diets.
Meanwhile, in unrelated moves, some restaurants and food publications have been cutting back on their reliance on beef.
On Monday, iconic fine-dining restaurant Eleven Madison Park said it was cutting meat and fish from its menu. Last week, Epicurious announced it would not publish new recipes with beef. The food publication said it stopped running recipes with the red meat more than a year ago, in an effort to promote sustainability.
The Epicurious decision set off an explosion of online discourse, ranging from those furious about the loss to beef to people who thought the move was not sufficient to address the mounting climate crisis.
The incident highlights a conundrum of the discourse over beef consumption in America: Individuals feel their choices are under attack, despite the fact that people are eating more beef than ever - which is exactly what experts say we need to stop doing.
Experts say Americans need to eat less beef. It's not happening.
There's a strong case to be made against beef. Agriculture is the source of 10% of all US emissions, with cattle accounting for 62% of that figure, The Washington Post reports. A 2013 UN Food and Agriculture Organization study found that the livestock supply chain is responsible for 14.5% of all human-caused emissions.
"There is really no way around it," Marco Springmann, a researcher in population health at the Oxford Martin Program for the Future of Food at the University of Oxford, told Insider in 2019. "If we want to have even a small chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change ... then we have to change the way we eat."
Unsurprisingly, the meat industry does not promote eating less beef.
Instead, meat producers are marketing solutions to the climate crisis that would not cut into sales, such as rolling out new sustainability policies and creating the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Meat producers frequently point to the fact that burning fossil fuels are a larger source of emissions than agriculture.
Roerink says that backlash against beef has done little to impact sales, and that "the vast majority of Americans see red meat as permissible and favorable and consume it in moderation."
In surveys and on social media, people may say they want to cut red meat from their diet. But, the sales numbers tell a different story.
"In reality, Americans still love their red meat," Roerink said.
Should companies turn on red meat?
If the vast majority of Americans are eating more beef than ever before, do companies that influence their choices - like food publications - have a moral imperative to convince us to cut back?
Emily Atkins, founder of the climate crisis-centric newsletter Heated, applauded Epicurious's decision to stop publishing new beef recipes as an American "meat war" looms. The environmental reporter tweeted that the move "will help normalize and facilitate one of the most difficult cultural shifts solving the climate crisis requires."
-Emily Atkin (@emorwee) April 27, 2021
Epicurious editors wrote in a post on their decision to cut beef recipes that they hope "the rest of American food media joins us." But no other food publications have announced plans to do so thus far.
A representative for Condé Nast did not respond to Insider's comment on whether sister brand Bon Appétit would also be cutting beef, but a beef stroganoff recipe from March seems to indicate it remains on the menu. The New York Times also did not respond when asked if its cooking section would adjust its recipe selection, but it does not appear to have made any change as of yet.
Change may still be brewing, as insiders discuss how sustainability should inform food media.
Marnie Shure, the editor-in-chief of The Takeout, told Insider that the G/O Media-owned food publication decided to look back at its recipe archives in light of the Epicurious news. Out of the roughly 185 recipes published in 2020, only eight original recipes and three reprinted recipes used beef or beef stock.
Shure said that, in the publication's history, no one has ever complained about a dearth of beef recipes. While there are no plans to ban beef recipes, Shure said that is only because they are a relatively small part of what the site publishes.
"If we were producing a higher volume of beef- pork-, or chicken-based recipes, that would necessitate a conversation about how to adjust our output," Shure said in an email. "But historically, the highest demand has been for recipes that happen to be meat-free, so we find ourselves conveniently drifting away from meat-heavy dishes anyway."
Erin Booke, food editor at the Dallas Morning News, told Insider that the Texas publication won't be ending beef coverage any time soon. Brooke said she felt cutting back on coverage of beef in brisket-obsessed Texas would do more harm than good.
"Are we probably overly dependent on beef? Yes," Brook said. "Do we overly celebrate over consumption of it? Yeah, probably. I'm of the mind of just having balance."
Beef is a practical choice for many meat eaters
Brooke said that, for many Texans, loving brisket and red meat is more than just a dietary decision. The beef industry is a major part of the economy, carrying additional historical and cultural weight for many communities in the state.
"It's just almost part of the identity here," Brooke said. "We have so much barbecue and brisket. It's just part of Texas."
Brooke says she worries that moves like Epicurious's will be politicized. Some Republican politicians have fueled fears that Democrats will ban meat, with conservatives like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene pushing false claims that Biden would cut beef consumption.
But for many people, buying beef is a practical - and not political - choice, with Roerink calling it "versatile, affordable and convenient."
"Reality is that meat alternatives are much more expensive than meat, including beef," Roerink said, noting that Epicurious promoted Lightlife vegan hot dogs in its post on dropping beef recipes. "According to IRI data, the average price per pound for meat in the US during 2020 was $3.79 per pound versus $7.97 per pound for plant-based alternatives. That's a big difference that not everyone can afford."
Over the past year, people who already bought beef started buying more of it and households that did not previously buy beef purchased it for the first time, according to Roerink. People have been cooking at home more during the pandemic, and many have only grown more comfortable preparing beef.
"I do expect the beef share to stay strong, if not grow further," Roerink said.
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