During the height of uncertainty about the pandemic and economic shutdown, the U.S. meat sector found itself in the middle of several COVID-related disruptions. On the demand side, consumers rushed to the grocery stores, initially emptying the shelves. Meanwhile restaurant activity slumped and summer BBQs were in limbo. And then supply-side challenges proved to be even more challenging throughout the spring and summer.
With some of the uncertainty settling, this week’s post steps back to review U.S. meat-consumption trends as well as the forecasts for 2020 and 2021.
Throughout this post we discuss per capita meat consumption. It’s important to note the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports those data as per capita meat disappearance. The measure is the residual of production, beginning and ending inventories, and import and export data.
In other words the USDA does not explicitly measure consumption but offers a proxy measure that’s essentially consumption. When discussing consumption we are truly reporting the USDA’s measure of meat disappearances. Furthermore a decrease or increase in consumption is not a change in demand.
Figure 1 shows the per capita consumption of total red meat and poultry since 1970. After peaking at almost 222 pounds in 2017, total meat consumption began to slump during the Great Recession; it eventually hit 202 pounds in 2014. Beginning in 2015 meat consumption increased; it’s forecasted at 225 pounds in 2020. Looking ahead, total consumption is expected to slump slightly into 2021 – 224.8 in 2021 compared to 225.1 in 2020.
U.S. beef consumption declines
Beyond the total consumption trends, it’s important to recognize each meat has its own set of opportunities, challenges and trends. Figure 2 shows U.S. beef consumption, which has been a long story of decline.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, per capita consumption was about 80 pounds. Consumption slipped but stayed at about 65 pounds throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. After the Great Recession consumption slipped, again to 54 pounds.
For 2020 consumption was more than 58 pounds. On the one hand the upturn since 2015 is significant and noteworthy. However the reality is that beef consumption remains at well less than 65 pounds per capita, which was last observed in 2007.
For 2021 consumption is estimated to be slightly less than in 2020, with a decrease of 0.4 pounds per capita year-over-year.
Pork consumption mostly flat
Pork consumption has been mostly flat at 50 pounds per capita during the past 50 years. At 52 pounds in 2020, forecasted consumption is expected to increase 0.5 pounds in 2021. Pork consumption has not been at more than 52 pounds per capita since 1999. But consumption is considerably more than the 2011 number of 45.7 pounds.
Poultry consumption increases
The decades-long trend toward more poultry consumption is well-known. At less than 50 pounds in the early 1970s, poultry consumption is forecasted at 113 pounds in 2021. Broadly speaking the trend is dramatically different from declining per capita consumption in beef and stable consumption of pork.
In the 1970s poultry accounted for less than 25 percent of total U.S. meat consumption. But since 2014 poultry has accounted for a majority.
Wrapping it Up
Three primary observations are worth keeping in mind.
- U.S. consumption varies significantly depending on the type of meat. Total consumption is increasing but it’s been largely driven by an increase in poultry consumption to offset the decline in beef and holding pattern for pork. Of course those data don’t reflect changes in overall consumer demand or total consumption. In 1970 the United States had an estimated population of 205 million, compared to 331 million in 2020.
- Given all the turmoil and uncertainty in 2020, meat consumption has been fairly steady and looks to remain so in 2021. For all three categories consumption in 2021 is currently forecasted to be within 0.1 pounds of 2019 levels. That was not the case during the Great Recession when beef and poultry contracted sharply from 2007 to 2009. Those forecasts will be important to monitor in the coming months.
- One lesson to keep in mind from the Great Recession is the duration and magnitude of adjustments. Thinking about the current reality, one must wonder if the impacts of COVID and 2020 will also linger for years to come.
David Widmar is an agricultural economist with Agricultural Economic Insights. Visit aei.ag for more information.