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If We Eat Less Meat, Perhaps We Can Eat Better Meat

Americans love meat. Meat is not so great for the environment. But perhaps there is a middle ground: As meat consumption decreases, we’re seeing Americans buying the more expensive, humanely raised stuff.

Americans love meat. But even meat lovers will agree that the production of beef tenderloin and lamb chops takes its toll on the planet. Enter the new breed of meat producer, one that actually applauds eating less while still encouraging Americans to eat well.

It’s not bad advice, either. The links between the production of red meat and stress to the environment are well documented. It’s a resource-intensive process with a production cycle requiring a tremendous amount of energy. According to an oft-quoted analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, "Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food."

As recently as 2005, Americans were breaking records for per-capita consumption of red meat. While we’ve reduced intake a bit since then (less than 5%), we continue to eat more beef, pork, lamb, and veal than any other country on the planet. As the founder of Pavone, an integrated ad agency specializing in food and beverage marketing, I’m well aware that a meaty diet (including my own) is still solidly entrenched as a part of the American ideal and remains a powerful symbol of prosperity, indulgence, and general well-being. That’s one reason it’s so hard to reduce consumption.

Despite an onslaught of efforts to persuade Americans to eat less meat, the strategists here at Pavone report a seemingly counterintuitive explosion in premium red meat offerings. It appears that well-heeled red meat fans are willing to eat less as long as they can reward themselves by trading up in quality and taste.

We also see evidence of the industry working to change the meat-producing dynamic. The inclusion of heritage breeds of meat on menus, at farmers’ markets and in upscale retailers are clear indicators that the desire for heritage breeds is growing. While we don’t believe the link between the proliferation of heritage livestock breeds and a healthier planet is iron clad (at least not yet), the adoption of heritage meats, and their elevated price tags, by chefs and consumers is an encouraging sign.

Pavone’s strategists have also noted a perceived resurgence of butchers. If the food media is to be taken at their word, one would get the impression that every small town now has a dedicated butcher or two providing excellent cuts of local and artisanal cured meats. But the reality is that, with a few exceptions, butcher shops are still limited to major urban areas, while the majority of America continues to rely on big grocery chains for their meat.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I love red meat. I don’t eat a lot of it, and I don’t have a local butcher to supply me with choice cuts, but if I wanted to indulge, I know a choice cut of ribeye is also only a mouse click away. These days, anyone can go online and find a cornucopia of grass-fed, locally raised, heritage breeds and custom offerings (although typically priced at two or three times the cost of grocery store options). Take your pick from high-end retailers like Williams-Sonoma, Dean & DeLuca, and Omaha Steaks, or choose from the hundreds of upstart artisanal producers now leveraging the power of the web.

If you’re not ready to order red meat online, your local grocery store will more than likely suit your needs. They’re ready, too, as many grocery chains have shifted how their meat is chosen, marketed, and presented. Grass-fed red meat is also finding a broader market. Grass-fed is promoted as a more humane way of raising beef because it’s centered in pastures, not in feedlots. It also offers more protein than corn-fed beef, although its environmental benefits are still up for debate.

A recent Washington Post article proclaimed that dramatic drops in meat consumption mean eating red meat is "going out of style." Regardless of how you feel about red meat, that statement hardly seems accurate. As a food and beverage agency that’s been watching this market for 20 years, we know that American meat producers, family farms, and corporate producers alike are actively searching for ways to reduce the environmental impact of raising and consuming red meat. An unexpected, and quite welcome, side effect is that we now have access to a wider variety of better cuts than ever before.

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