Few foods have a place in our collective consciousness like beef. Whether it’s industry slogans like “Where’s the beef?” or burgers on the Fourth of July, beef plays an outsized role in Americana.
Yet in the past decade or so, a growing body of evidence has also come to show that beef is driving climate pollution. As a result, leading research groups recommend U.S. eaters — who eat four times more than the global average — decrease their beef consumption to around a burger and a half a week. Yet beef consumption in the U.S. hasn’t declined in recent years. If anything, it’s not only held steady, but increased.
History of Meat Consumption in the U.S.
Before the era of colonization, meat was consumed in modest amounts by Indigenous Americans, primarily by trapping and hunting wild animals: bison, deer, rabbit and fish. Indigenous Americans were and are not a monolithic group, however — meat consumption was higher in the far north and on the Great Plains. Many tribes cultivated plants and grains as a primary means of sustenance.
This all changed with the arrival of Europeans. As colonists began taking land from native peoples, they used this land to create a more European diet heavy in meat. American farmers and soldiers began clearing land to make way for large beef ranches, killing Indigenous people and bison, and razing their lands.
Over time, European immigrants came to the newly formed United States in ever-larger numbers, bringing with them a preference for meat whenever they could afford it. American farming developed over time to meet that demand.
In the 21st century, U.S. meat consumption is at an all-time high. American meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses frequently employ workers from marginalized groups and have a poor record on workers’ rights. In the last few months, many meat companies were found to have employed child labor, and have also used prison labor for decades.
Meat consumption is also damaging the planet. In North Carolina, pig farms are polluting local rivers and reservoirs, and harming local majority-Black neighborhoods in the process. In the western U.S., large swaths of land are dedicated to grazing and growing feed for animal agriculture. Between the land and methane from cattle burps and farm manure, the meat industry is responsible for high greenhouse gas emissions.
Industrial animal agriculture is also responsible for animal suffering, as factory farmed animals endure cramped quarters over their short lives. They are separated from their families, with some forced to endure branding, dehorning, sexual penetration and other painful processes.
How Much Beef Does the Average American Eat?
The average U.S. consumer eats 25.9 kilograms (57.1 pounds) of beef per year.
Meat Consumption in the U.S. by Year
For the last 60 years, U.S. meat consumption has risen steadily. In 1961, the average was 93.7 kilograms (206.5 pounds) of meat per year. By 2020, that number had risen to 126.73 kilograms (279.4 pounds) per year. The most notable period bucking this trend of growth is from 2008 to 2013, a decrease that likely resulted from the 2008 recession.
However, in recent decades, rising meat consumption has been driven almost entirely by poultry. Beef and red meat consumption peaked in the mid-1970s, and is now slightly lower than it was in 1961.
The graph below shows the per capita consumption of beef and red meat in the U.S. from 2009 to 2019, using data from the USDA.
Globally, meat consumption has nearly doubled over the same time period. In 1961, the average person on Earth only consumed 22.93 kilograms (50.6 pounds) of meat, while in 2020, that number had risen to 42.26 kilograms (93.2 pounds).
Which U.S. State Consumes the Most Beef?
The USDA does not track beef consumption on a state-by-state basis. But according to survey data about consumer trends, the pattern changes a lot depending on the kind of beef product tracked. California, Nevada, Washington, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Illinois, Florida and New York are all hotspots for steak consumption. But when it comes to ground beef and hamburgers, consumption is higher in the upper Midwest and lower on the coasts, with Alabama, Vermont, Indiana and Kentucky all ranking high.
Which Country Consumes the Most Beef?
Beef Consumption by Country
According to the OECD, the 10 countries that consume the most beef annually are:
- U.S. - 12.9 million metric tons
- China - 8.4 million metric tons
- Brazil - 7.8 million metric tons
- Argentina - 2.5 metric tons
- Pakistan - 2.3 million metric tons
- Russia - 2.1 million metric tons
- Mexico - 1.8 million metric tons
- Vietnam - 1.4 million metric tons
- Turkey - 1.4 million metric tons
- Egypt - 1.4 million metric tons
Where Does the U.S. Rank in Beef Consumption?
Overall, the U.S. is the largest consumer of beef in the world. On a per capita basis, however, the U.S. is second to Argentina, where the average annual consumption of beef is in a league of its own at 36 kilograms (79 pounds) compared to 26 kilograms (57 pounds) in the U.S.
Is Beef the Most Consumed Meat in the United States?
No, beef is not the most consumed meat in the United States. In the early 1990s, sales of chicken by weight overtook beef. In 2020, the average U.S. consumer bought 57.8 pounds of chicken, 37.3 pounds of beef and 30.2 pounds of pork.
Why Do Americans Eat So Much Beef?
There are many factors that have contributed to America’s high beef consumption.
The meat industry went through a massive period of industrialization during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — developing feedlots, feed crop farms and meat-packing plants to raise cheaper and more accessible meat for the average American.
Meat-eating is also closely associated with income — richer people and countries tend to eat more meat. The United States has a high GDP per capita, meaning that the average American is richer than the average person globally. This extra money is often spent on expensive foods like meat, especially beef.
Beef is also socially ingrained in American culture, associated with wealth, masculinity, power and independence. For many Americans, especially American men, eating expensive cuts of steak is a way to signal prestige and social class, or to celebrate a momentous occasion.
Is Beef Consumption Increasing or Decreasing?
Over the last few decades, there has been a trend towards reduced beef consumption and availability in the United States. Yet since the 2010s, beef consumption has increased a little, and changes to beef were far outstripped by massive growth in chicken consumption.
Beef Consumption After the Pandemic
Beef consumption appears currently to be slightly decreasing. In 2022, per capita red meat supply to U.S. retail was 0.2 pounds less than in 2021. This is likely due to the increased retail prices of meat and stoppages in production as a result of the coronavirus shutdowns starting in 2020. This is just one aspect of a global decrease in meat consumption since COVID-19, partly reflecting existing trends, like European pork consumption, and partly fuelled by new issues like Chinese concern about meat safety.
How Much Beef Is Wasted in the U.S.?
Every year, the beef industry throws away about 2.5 percent of beef, or 194.7 million kilograms, due to discoloration. This is equivalent to about 780,000 animal lives. But this statistic only encompasses industrial waste that is cataloged by the beef industry, not waste from supermarkets, households or restaurants. The Environmental Working Group estimates that worldwide, 20 percent of meat produced is wasted every year.
What Would Happen if Everyone Ate Less Beef?
Leading climate researchers and advocates, from the United Nations to Oxford University, from Greta Thunberg to Al Gore, are in consensus: we need to reduce our beef consumption.
Beef is undoubtedly one of the most destructive foods that humans consume. For every pound of hamburger meat you consume, 60 pounds of greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere. Estimates suggest that animal agriculture is responsible for between 11 and 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition to methane burps, cattle ranching uses a lot of land. Beef, despite only providing 2 percent of the world’s calories, takes up 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land. The beef industry is the largest contributor to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, and a leading driver of land use change worldwide. If some or all of this land were to be rewilded, the world could potentially offset 100 gigatons of carbon dioxide.
Reducing beef consumption would also help curb animal suffering. Despite the fact that cows are social and playful animals, 300 million cows are slaughtered every year.
What You Can Do
There is a consensus of evidence that people in the global north, including the U.S., need to eat less beef in order for the world to limit global warming. Transitioning to a plant-rich diet is one way to do that, as outlined on our Take Action page.
An earlier version of this story was written by Hemi Kim.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is an Icelandic-American writer who examines the psychology of eating animals, the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and the plant-based meat industry. He lives in Spain with his two lovebirds.