This trend is driving me crazy.
First, let me provide some background. According to most reputable news and information sources, nearly one-third of all Americans now report that they’re eating less red meat on a regular basis. (We won’t get into the fallacy of switching to “healthier” chicken—much of it fast-food fried and breaded—right now. That’s for another day).
People aren’t not necessarily going vegetarian or vegan, but simply purchasing, preparing and consuming fewer animal protein products overall.
Why? One, because anti-industry activists have done an outstanding job publicizing legitimate concerns—a lifestyle with excessive meat-eating appears to be associated with a number of cancers and other chronic diseases. And two, they’re even better at demonizing red meat’s (alleged) contribution to climate change, casting suspicion on its nutritional status and flogging endlessly the issue of animal welfare and the “outrage” they’re so good at ginning up over various production practices, issues on which, truth be told, the industry has often left itself wide open for criticism.
Add in ad hoc PR bonanzas such as pink slime, well-heeled campaigns like Meatless Mondays and the occasional food-safety recall—plus rising prices—and you have an environment in which it begins to make economic, if not philosophical, sense to dial down the meat-buying and meat-eating.
Not to mention that if you host anything from a backyard barbecue to a formal dinner party these days, you’re likely to be confronted with a guest (or guests) who doesn’t eat meat, won’t touch dairy and/or is allergic to eggs, soy, gluten and seafood.
Like it or not, the days of slapping a stack of burgers on the grill and calling it good are over.
Just a side order of meat
All that is the backdrop to what has been a slow decline in per capita consumption of meat over the last generation, which is understandable and not necessarily a net negative for the industry long-term.
But what’s aggravating is the eagerness with which all too many self-styled foodies have seized on this trend as some sort of watershed moment that history will record as the day the (meat) diets died.
For example: Mark Bittman, a New York Times food critic, has spent the last several years writing books advocating for something he calls the “less-meatarian” diet: As he describes it, “Making and consuming tasty, affordable meals without making meat the center of the plate.”
“Combining vegetables with meat makes them much more interesting, and this is historically how people ate,” Bittman told ABC News (a Times online news partner). “Meat and fish were treasures. They were treats. They were things you couldn’t count on. It’s only in the past 50 years that you could count on putting meat on the table every night and every day.”
Fine, but here’s the part that gets me.
Bittman makes a big deal out of the fact that eating less meat has helped him improve his health.
“I lost 35 pounds, my cholesterol level went down below 200, which is where it’s supposed to be, and [my] blood sugar went down to where it’s supposed to be,” he said.
Dude, I got a news flash for you: Lose 35 pounds any which way—dieting, working out, fasting—and all your baseline health parameters will look way better. We already know that obesity is the nation’s single biggest health challenge, and it’s common knowledge that nearly every chronic health problem—diabetes, heart disease, respiratory problems, osteoarthritis—improves markedly when people shed those excess pounds.
It’s not about cutting back on beef, it’s about shrinking your BMI.
But such obvious conclusions aren’t good enough for Bittman and his cohorts, though. Instead, ABC News Nightline producers engaged celebrity chef Angelo Sosa, a “committed omnivore,” as he likes to be labeled, to go on the “less-meatarian” diet and see what happens.
Here’s the kicker: He did it for three whole days, meaning he had to curb the meat and amp up the veggies “for a full 72 hours” (the show’s characterization, not mine).
Wow. And you thought The Great Escape was challenging.
So what happened? I’m sure you can predict the outcome.
After his 72-hour, life-changing ordeal, Sosa said, “I’m excited. I’m energized. I feel like I don’t need to be weighed down.”
Now he’s a convert to the less-meatarian diet, which is fine, but the one factor nobody considers in these “now-I’m-eating-less-meat-and-I-love-it” scenarios is the source of all those fruits and veggies we’re supposed to be substituting for beef, pork and chicken.
Who’s growing all that produce? Where’s it coming from, given its year-round availability? How sustainable is the current system of sourcing fresh foods from around the globe? And how “natural” a diet is it, really, if we’re subsisting on jet-freighted produce grown somewhere across the world in tropical climates using the same outsourcing business model that has devastated domestic manufacturing?
Don’t expect answers to any of those questions from either veggie activists or the less-meatarian crowd.
Ain’t gonna happen.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.