Changes in Meat Consumption

There's been a lot of discussion lately about changes in meat consumption over the last year or two.  Much of it seems to have been generated by a Rabobank report (based on USDA's data and projections).  For example here's a representative tweet.

There were headlines like: "America Cannot Kick Its Meat Habit".  Yesterday there was a story at (in which I am quoted) that summarizes now dated cheers by animal advocates that meat consumption was falling.  This new news seems to contradict those claims.  

So what's going on with meat consumption?  I think it's useful to take a step back and take a longer view.  Here's USDA quarterly data on per-capita meat consumption (it's technically a measure of "disappearance" not consumption) going back to 1980.  Note: these are the same underlying data driving all the headlines.

Over this long time period, there has been a general decline in beef consumption, falling or steady pork consumption, and the big story is rising chicken consumption.  "Yes" it appears over the past few quarters or so there has been increasing total meat consumption, but that's mainly a result of eating more chicken.  Moreover the total consumption levels in 2016 are lower than they were in 2002-2006.

What caused the total meat consumption decline from roughly 2006 to early 2015?  Most journalists seem to want to focus on demand-side factors.  The typical story was that consumers were more concerned about health, environment, animal welfare, etc.  These might have played some role, but the much bigger driver is likely supply-side issues.  I noted these issues back in 2014 (see here and here for longer discussions).  In short, consumption was down because prices were high.  Prices were high because of supply-side issues like drought, high feed prices, a disease issue in pork, etc.  

Why is consumption starting to tick back up?  The answer is same as it was before: prices.  Here are changes in relative meat prices over the same time period as the previous graph.

Here's what I wrote back in July 2014 near the price peaks

Ultimately, the old adage is likely to hold: the cure for high prices is high prices. The high meat prices we’re seeing today will eventually encourage larger beef and pork supplies, which eventually will put downward pressure on prices. When will that day come?

Looks like the answer is "now."  

The long term price trends shown above also help explain the rise in chicken consumption over time.  While all meats are today more expensive than in 1980s (some of this is due to inflation - the prices changes above haven't been adjusted for inflation), today chicken is "only" about 200% more expensive than it was in January 1980 whereas beef and pork are both about 264% more expensive than in January 1980.  

Here's a graph of the price changes just since 2010 (January 2010 = 100).  These graph show relative changes, but if you look at actual price levels, it's also apparent why chicken consumption is up.  In July 2016, the USDA reported prices for beef, pork, and chicken were $6.09/lb, $3.78/lb, and $1.44/lb.  

The main message here is that we don't need to grapple for complex, convoluted stories to explain  recent changes in meat consumption.  The prices of meat have fallen (because feed is less expensive and because there are larger inventories), and lower prices encourage consumers to buy more.  It's just basic economics at work.