A home cooked comfort meal of meatloaf. A burger on the go from a fast food joint. A sumptuous steak at a five-star restaurant. Beef has been what’s for dinner for years. It can be a satisfying entrée or as one ingredient incorporated into recipes. It’s the foundation of increasingly popular high protein diets, is enjoyed globally, and is often considered a symbol of affluence and success.
But beef has its unsavory side, critics say. Eating too much beef is unhealthy, with links between red meat — including beef, lamb, pork, lamb, veal and mutton — and cancer and heart disease. Producing beef puts a strain on the environment. The World Resources Institute, a nonprofit environmentalist organization, says that beef production requires 20 times the land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gases than plant-based proteins like beans or lentils.
But is beef getting a bad rap? Industry experts say that today’s beef is healthier than ever. Particularly in the U.S., they say, cattle are raised and produced on family ranches that focus on sustainability, since special attention to the environment is essential for their own long-term success as well.
The mixed messages consumers get about beef may be why consumers, despite the health and environmental warnings, still make room for it on their plates. Even as consumers say they want to eat a healthier diet, beef production and overall meat consumption continue to rise.
Where’s the beef?
The average consumer will eat a record breaking 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On average, that’s 10 ounces of protein a day — well over the 5 to 6.5 ounces recommended by the USDA for a healthy diet. On top of that, the U.S. exported a record setting 2.8 billion pounds of beef in 2017, up 6% from 2016 for a value of $7.27 billion.
It’s a good place to be for the beef industry. Production, demand and profitability are high, while prices are low, Kevin Good, senior analyst for CattleFax, told Food Dive. That’s a vastly different scenario from most of the last quarter century, he said. The mid-1990s began a drought that reduced beef production for 20 years.
“We came out of it in 2014; this is the fifth year of expansion,” Good said.
It takes the beef industry longer to recover from downturns because of the life cycle of cattle, Don Close, senior analyst, animal protein at Rabobank told Food Dive. There’s a three-year period for the animal to be born, grow and become mature enough to be used for food — versus an eight-week or 12 month life cycle for other meats.
“There’s a lot of long-range planning and vulnerabilities to that sector that other species don’t have,” he said.
Today’s hamburger: a better beef?
Part of that long-range planning the industry has done is to improve animal health and food safety, Close said.
“Eating quality and wholesomeness of that product is the best it’s ever been,” he said.
This change was initiated by the beef industry in the 1970s as beef sales declined, Close said.
“The industry collectively got together and came to a conclusion that we’re going to have to make changes and be more responsive to product quality and consumer input,” he said. Those changes led to better genetic selection, cattle that gain quicker and use less feed per pound gain, leading to higher production expectations, he said.
Today’s beef is healthier and more sustainable than ever, Season Solorio, senior executive director of brand marketing and communications for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, told Food Dive via email.
"Consumers today want it all — they want food that tastes great, that is raised responsibly and that is good for them."
Senior executive director of brand marketing and communications, National Cattlemen's Beef Association
“Consumers today want it all — they want food that tastes great, that is raised responsibly and that is good for them and they’re choosing beef as a food that can deliver on all of these expectations,” she wrote.
Solorio said that in addition to reviewing the latest science on health and sustainability, the organization works to be increasingly transparent with consumers on their efforts, and is reacting to consumer demands.
“Farmers and ranchers who raise cattle and beef around the country are reading signals from consumers and the marketplace and they’re realizing that people want more beef, so they’re responding to those signals and are raising more cattle to help meet this growing demand for beef,” she wrote
The popularity of eating regimens like the paleo diet, which emphasizes eating lots of protein — particularly beef —may factor into increased consumer demand. Differentiating the protein through products like craft hamburgers or grass-fed beef may also draw additional consumer interest — but the specialty areas represent a small amount of total consumption, Good said. The primary growth comes through non-specialty beef in U.S. growth and exports, he said.
Health and environmental concerns still exist
Regardless of the beef industry’s claims to be healthier — or at least healthier than it was in the past — medical experts still warn that consumption of beef is at consumers' own peril.
“Not everyone is trying to eat in a healthy way,” Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Food Dive. “Many people don’t understand that what they eat may affect their risk of heart disease." Consumers can get plenty of protein and still eat a lot less beef, she said.
And the impact of changes the beef industry has made to increase sustainability are not nearly enough, Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology, nutrition and medicine at Harvard University told Food Dive in an email.
“Even if there are some reductions in the environmental impacts of beef production, it would still have by far the greatest contribution to greenhouse gas production and climate change of any major protein source”
Professor of epidemiology, nutrition and medicine, Harvard University
“Even if there are some reductions in the environmental impacts of beef production, it would still have by far the greatest contribution to greenhouse gas production and climate change of any major protein source,” he wrote. This is from the strain that producing the grains to feed cattle has on the environment, he said. The highly potent greenhouse gas methane is also continually produced in cattle's gastrointestinal tracts. “What they are talking about is like chopping a few feet off Mount Everest and saying you have significantly shortened the mountain.”
Changes in the beef industry ahead?
Even as industry analysts like Close and Good predict strong results for beef in the next few years, some shifts may be on the horizon. While beef consumption may be increasing, consumers are also eating more chicken. In 2017, for example, consumers ate 56.9 pounds of beef per capita, but 92.2 pounds of chicken. Consumption of both types of proteins is projected to increase over the next two years.
In addition to consumers eating more chicken, beef also is getting competition from beef alternatives. Plant-based meat substitutes, such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, are making small forays into the hamburger market. Ethan Brown, CEO and founder of Beyond Burger said plant-based substitutes answer the health and environmental concerns beef raises, while satisfying the consumer.
“If I told you that we could make simultaneous and dramatic progress against chronic disease, climate change, natural resource depletion, and animal welfare objectives by replacing animal protein with plant protein at the center of the plate, would you invest heavily in an effort to build meat directly from plants? I think for the overwhelming majority of people the answer is yes,” he wrote in an email to Food Dive.
Adapting to eating plant-based burgers may take some time, Brown wrote, but each iterative improvement of the burger makes the transition easier. Plant-based burgers and lab-grown meats could represent potential options for those who want a burger feel and taste — without the health and environmental concerns.
“If we can deliver on the taste, nutrition, and satiating qualities of meat through 'meat' from plants, and grow the supply chain to realize lower cost inputs, things will get particularly interesting as we will be able to under price animal meat," he wrote. "That’s a ways off, but something we aspire to achieve.”
Beef may still be what’s for dinner, and may be a staple for many more years. But as tasty new options enter the market, consumers may find it easier to think of it as an occasional treat instead of a meal staple, and to make non-beef choices that are healthier and less stressful for the environment.