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The decline of red meat in America

Consumption of red meat is in a serious, sustained decline, marking a profound change that predates Monday’s bombshell report that processed meat causes cancer.

America is known as a nation of carnivores, devouring more pounds of meat per capita than any people in the history of the world. But after rising for decades, our consumption of meat — and especially red meat —is in a serious, sustained decline, marking a profound change in the national diet that predates Monday’s bombshell report that processed meat causes cancer.

Back in 1972, the average American consumed at least 104 pounds of red meat a year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. By 2012, the most recent year for which data exists, that average had fallen to 75 pounds, a drop of more than 25%.  All meat consumption, meanwhile, which includes poultry and fish, has fallen about 10% per capita since 2004, the USDA data shows.

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No one is really sure what explains this decline. Some academics and industry reps point to price changes and fad-diet driven shifts in public perception. Sales of full-calorie sodas have also declined by 25% in the past two decades. And to the surprise of obesity researchers, Americans are eating fewer calories overall, according to a report last year in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

That may mean that the decline in meat consumption — like the decline in soda and calories consumed — may reflect a growing belief that eating less is better for long term health. "Eat less meat" is certainly the idea suggested Monday by the World Health Organization, which declared that processed meat, such as bacon or hot dogs, causes cancer.

It wasn’t the first study to link cancer with meat consumption, but it was the first to dispatch with hedges like “probably” or “may,” and baldly declare that processed meat is “carcinogenic.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO body that issued the report, said there was enough evidence to rank processed meat as a “group 1” cancer causing agent, a category that includes plutonium, arsenic and tobacco. The seriousness of the ranking reflects the strength of the evidence backing the link, as opposed to the likelihood that the substance will cause cancer, however.

The report said that as little as two slices of bacon a day — which is about 50 grams of processed meat — could increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. Meanwhile, the group warned of health risks associated with all red meat, concluding that even the freshest beef, pork and veal is “probably” a cause of cancer as well.

A coalition of American meat purveyors tried to beat back the report long before it was released, portraying the research as old, weak and borderline ridiculous.

“Red and processed meat are among 940 substances reviewed by IARC found to pose some level of theoretical ‘hazard,’” the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said in a statement attributed to multiple spokespeople. “Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer.”

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In the statement to MSNBC, another spokesperson for NAMI said that the report wouldn’t matter much in the long term. “Consumers are engaging in a collective eye roll because they are tired of being given advice one week that is contradicted the next week,” wrote Eric Mittenthal. Meat, he continued, is "a nutrient dense source of protein and whether it’s a juicy steak or burger, hot dog at a ballgame or BBQ from the local BBQ joint, it’s something we love to eat. Nothing in this report should change that.”

The report may not change any minds, especially given how many minds seem to have been turned against unchecked meat consumption already. The report could, however, make it harder for the industry to continue to win its perennial battles against “Meatless Mondays” and new dietary guidelines that prioritize foods that never had a face.

Earlier this year, the panel of experts charged with advising the government on the guidelines issued a 500-page report supporting “a focus on decreasing meat consumption” and “eating more plants and plant-based products.”  

This was deemed optimal for American health and, in a new twist, the long-term health of the planet, too. The care and feeding — and, yes, the farting — of livestock is one of the word’s leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations. That means the typical meat-eater’s average diet is responsible for almost twice as much global warming emissions as your typical vegetarian’s diet, and almost triple that of a vegan’s diet.

The panel’s recommendation was rooted in this body of research, and it reflected in similar conclusions contained in the guidelines of other countries, including Germany, Australia and Brazil. But after outrage from the meat industry and some of their friends in Congress, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell stripped the new guidelines of this “sustainability” section.

It was a win for the meat lobby. But after dominating the dinner plate for decades, the decline of the American meat industry is far from over.