Don't Cry About It, Argentina: Less Beef Is the American Way

Webinars make it too easy for presenters to pick and choose the questions they answer and those they ignore. I was reminded of that reality last week during a webcast involving the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Research results were presented, suggesting that, despite rising prices, Americans were just as inclined to tuck into a T-bone or buy a burger patty in February 2013 as they were in July 2012.

Forget about intent: I wanted to know if they actually were buying as much beef this year. I never got an answer. The question was partly inspired by an article I read earlier in the day about declining beef consumption in Argentina, a nation with a long love affair with red meat. The South American country still has more cattle (50 million) than people (40 million), but Argentineans are seeking more dietary variety. As a result, per capita consumption fell to 129 pounds last year, a fraction of the 222 pounds choked down by every human in 1956.

Compared to Eva Peron's countrymen, Americans are cow-devouring lightweights. We actually hit our per capita peak 20 years after them, in the bicentennial year (1976, for non-history buffs). It's been pretty much down hill ever since, with population growth helping mask individual consumption patterns. The recession and tighter border control undid that growth driver. From 2009 to 2011, U.S. beef consumption plummeted 1.2 billion pounds to 25.6 billion, USDA's Economic Research Service reports. Chicken left beef in the dust three years ago.

Exports are one of the few bright spots for the cattle crowd. (In a weird paradox, the U.S. is the world's third largest exporter at 1,043 metric tons in 2010 and the No. 1 importer at 1,042 metric tons.) USDA's agricultural projections through 2021 show year to year growth to 1,432 metric tons, but by next year, more beef will be inbound than outbound.

Considering the Millennials' flirtation with vegan lifestyles and their aversion to all things carnivore, the future looks dim for meat on the hoof. An update of a turn-of-the-century promotional campaign might be, "Tofu: it's what's for dinner."