The True Cost Of Meat
2004 08 14
Americans each chomp their way through an astounding 100 kilos of meat every year - that's a medium steak per person per day. This worries Robert Lawrence, because a meaty diet with so many calories in saturated fats squeezes out healthier fruits, vegetables and grains. But, as he told Liz Else, he's busy providing the academic ballast for a national campaign to save the country from itself. And fortunately for him, he's an optimist
*What is the campaign called? Can you really change the way Americans eat?
It's called Meatless Monday - the name goes back to the first world war when it was used as a catchy phrase to help people live with rationing. In a way we're doing the same thing but it's a voluntary rationing at a time when the average citizen is "eating" 800 kilos of grain per year compared with 250 kilos in China. Our grain feeds animals, mainly beef, where 1 kilo of beef takes around 7 kilos of grain to produce. And yes, the food industry is enormous but I'm a great believer that the truth will ultimately out, and the more good data that we have the more likely it is that we will be able to persuade people either to change their behaviour or, even more importantly, to use their behaviour to change policy.
We liked the way it sounded! But also people often overdo things at the weekend so it makes a different start to the week.
*How meatless is Meatless?
Basically, no red meat, pork or poultry. Fish - which is high in nutritional value - and "good fats" are fine.
*What was the motivation?
Maybe it was because I had my first grandchild and started worrying about the future. I began to think a great deal more about what policy interventions we could develop that would integrate human health with the health of the ecosystem. After all, we've known for years about the important environmental effects, starting back with the London chimney sweeps in the 18th century who got scrotal cancer because they were being exposed to all the tars of the soot. But the environment as something that is intimately related to the health of the entire population hasn't been explored in this much depth. It particularly relates to ideas of food security, how we are using arable land and water, and how food production contributes to inequities in food security around the world as well as within our own society.
*This is all highly political.
Oh, highly political. The agricultural industry and the food industry have a lot of political power.
*Could it be as tough as taking on the tobacco industry?
Well, it's interesting that there is a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom in the US which is a front for the tobacco industry, the Cattlemen's Association, the Pork Producers' Association, the Dairy Producers' Association, the Egg Board and so on. They have declared several of us here at the School of Public Health "environmental extremists" because we are talking about the safety of the human food supply, going right back to the safety of the animal feed supply.
*Are there environmental health problems associated with meat production?
Absolutely. One striking example is in our own back yard. We are looking at changes in the microbiologic flora and fauna of the surface water on the eastern shore of Maryland, where a billion chickens a year are raised. The chicken feed contains antibiotics and arsenic, which is used as a biocide. And the arsenic ends up in what we euphemistically call "chicken litter", chicken excrement. That is put back on the fields to grow soybeans and the corn to feed the chickens, but in such quantities that the arsenic is now leaching into the surface water.
A colleague was trying to see whether this enormous industrial agricultural production could explain the arsenic in drinking water on the eastern shore, and the appearance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of chronic exposure to low levels of antibiotics.
*What are the risks of doing this kind of research?
There is a risk, particularly in the US, of science being used for political purposes. A few months ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement that was signed by about 60 Nobel prizewinners, criticising the political manipulation of scientific data. And when you get into the environment in the US, of course, it brings out all the worst aspects of that.
*What can you do?
The Center for a Livable Future, which is where we provide the academic background for Meatless Monday, focuses on the way diet, food production, environment and health are interrelated, with particular emphasis on the environmental and health impacts of industrial animal production. Animal rearing on an industrial scale adds to the air quality problem, for example, by releasing ammonia and other chemicals related to intensive agriculture. The centre is all about promoting policies to protect our health, our planet, and our ability to sustain life in the future.
*Why did you pick meat? Why not fizzy drinks, dairy products, cakes or cookies?
One reason was that we could map onto the Healthy People 2010 initiative from our Department of Health and Human Services. Every 10 years, it comes up with a set of objectives - this time cutting saturated fat intake by 15 per cent. Now if you do the math, one day a week without saturated fat from animal sources is about 15 per cent.
And the other reason is that because of subsidies and other factors, we don't capture the externalities in the true cost of things. Meat is a particularly good example of where we don't capture the true costs - environmental degradation - and price that in.
*But you're up against huge sums of money?
Yes, and it's not just the subsidies. Around $34 billion a year is spent by the food and beverage industry on marketing to the American population. By contrast, the social marketing budget of the National Cancer Institute for its big Five-a-Day campaign, promoting five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, was $2 million.
*In such an unequal fight, leverage must be important...
That's right. So the idea of Meatless Monday is to get something that is catchy, that people will remember. What we've really learned from promoting health education is that frequent simple messages work much better than complicated ones. Or, sadly, than talking about the plight of the developing world.
*But you're not going to get anywhere unless you join up with activists, are you?
Right. And we have joined up with a group in New York that is actually where the Meatless Monday campaign is based. We're providing the kind of scientific validation, and we have staff at the centre who vet the recipes on the Meatless website. And the site (www.meatlessmonday.com) has been specially designed to make it very accessible for everyone - bright and jazzy. We also work closely with the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment in New York, and they've been involved with doing a cartoon called The Meatrix.
*Like The Matrix?
Yes, but it's making the point about industrial animal production in the US through a spoof of the film. It's won lots of awards - and does a great job of raising the issues in a way people can relate to.
*This hints at the dark side of animal production...
Yes, it can get quite dark. We've got a couple of studies going on with the chicken industry following hurricane Floyd. In all of the big hog farms in North Carolina, their open septic pools were flooded out by the hurricane. Twenty-three of the 26 river systems in North Carolina were polluted with animal waste run-off from the hog industry. There are 11 million hogs in North Carolina and there are 7.5 million people, and each hog produces about five times the waste of one human.
*Are things improving at all? How many animals are killed in the US?
We now have a population of 286 million, and we kill and consume 9 billion animals a year, 35 million head of cattle, 100 million hogs and 8 billion chickens and turkeys. In terms of total meat consumption, the average American male consumes twice what the US Department of Agriculture recommends, and the average American woman consumes about 1.6 times. Way above even the high meat-eating countries of Europe.
*So what does meat do to you?
No matter how lean the cut of meat you still take in saturated fat, and the saturated fat content of the American diet is much, much higher than it should be. The cholesterol story and the saturated fat story have been around a long time, and the meat industry says that for 30 or 40 years they have been breeding leaner cattle. But when they talk about lean cuts of meat, they don't acknowledge the vast quantities of beef consumed that is in the form of hamburger, and that typically has about 50 per cent fat. In fact, they take the meat that is not used for steaks and chucks and things like that, the part that raises concerns about BSE. Some of that meat is actually quite lean, but then they take some of the trimmed fat, grind it up and add it back to the meat so that the beef patty in McDonalds or Wendy's or Burger King will retain some moisture and juices because a very lean patty ends up being pretty dry.
*That sounds rather contradictory!
You have them talking out of both sides of their mouth. On the one hand the industry says: "But you can have a 3-ounce portion of lean beef and it has fewer calories, fewer fat calories than lots of other things." But if you go to an American restaurant, and they came out with the 3-oz serving, it would be about the size of a deck of playing cards. The customer would say: "Is that all I'm getting?" A typical serving is 12, 14 or 16 oz. Enormous.
*But that can't be good?
Our agriculture system produces 3900 calories for every man, woman and child in the US every day, and since we only need about 2400 calories on average, what are you going to do with that excess? Well, you're going to super-size everything, and people either throw it away so there's tremendous waste or they consume it and gain waist!
*Where do you shop?
My wife and I go to Whole Food and Trader Joe's in the north of Baltimore, which are good but they are more expensive. And one of the things that is a real equality issue in the US is that poor neighbourhoods like the one our school is in don't have any supermarkets at all. They rely on these little corner stores that don't have any perishables, just canned and packaged food. To get decent produce, a poor person living in east Baltimore would have to take the bus and change twice to get to another part of the city.
*They'd have to be very motivated. Maybe if they knew about the other health effects of eating meat?
Well, maybe. Another big problem with eating a lot of animal fats is the organic pollutants that travel in the fatty layer of tissues. So dioxins, PCBs and pesticides end up in the food supply. About 30 per cent of animal feed for hogs and beef is recycled animal fat. And then there are endocrine disrupters, hormones and growth promoters used in the beef industry and increasingly in some of the other animal products. We need a lot more data, but what is emerging suggests that these endocrine disrupters play a role in everything from lowering the age of menarche to explaining the continued increase in breast cancer compared with other cancers.
*What about food poisoning?
We have about 75 million cases of food-borne diarrhoeal disease in the US each year. And 75 million cases out of 286 million Americans is quite a lot.
*Do these problems with meat-eating show up anywhere else?
Leaving aside the epidemic of obesity, Americans were once the tallest and leanest people in the world and now we are collectively getting shorter too.
There's a lot of speculation but part of it must be lower nutritional values. This is not unlike what happened in the past. Take my uncle, who grew up in the Rhondda Valley in south Wales and was barely 5 feet tall. He was a conscientious objector in the first world war and served in the ambulance corps. The average enlisted man in the British army was four inches shorter than the average officer. My father was the tallest in his family at 5 foot 3 inches, and my older brother is the same height as me - 6 foot - so in high school we had to endure all these jokes about the tall milkman because they would see my brother and me with our parents!
*But now Americans are getting shorter?
We may be in the midst of stepping back, of seeing collectively some of the real manifestations of a degraded American diet.
*What's it like trying to get the message across to government officials?
I recently chaired a panel at the Institute of Medicine on dioxin in the food supply. It was sponsored, as most of the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine things are, by the US Department of Agriculture; the Food and Drug Administration; the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the Centers for Disease Control. And when we met seven or eight of the people from these agencies and told them what we were going to say in advance of the press conference, the EPA and the ATSDR people were fine, the FDA was a bit more concerned but USDA was really unhappy.
They have this totally untenable situation where part of their job is to make recommendations to the American people about diet and the other is to promote the US agricultural sector. They were very, very concerned that we were going to make some recommendations that would create huge political problems for them.
One of the things we said was that school lunches needed to be dramatically altered to reduce the animal fat served to school-aged children because that is where the dioxins and other chemicals are accumulating - and nothing has happened yet.
*How much meat do you eat?
I would say on average in a typical week we would end up having fish once and then chicken about once in two weeks and I can't even remember the last time that beef or pork was prepared.
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