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The Public Health Dilemma of Excessive Meat Consumption

posted on Thu, May 9 2013 12:14 pm by Adam Spiers

Americans eat a lot of meat. Despite being less than one-twentieth of the world’s population, Americans consume about one-sixth of the meat in the world. Unsurprisingly, according to the Food and Agricultural Organizations of the United Nations, Americans have the second highest per capita meat consumption rate in the world.

Meat is comprised of protein, which is in every living cell in the body and is needed to build and maintain bones, muscles and skin. Protein is a necessary part of a person’s daily diet because the body does not store this vital nutrient well. Although a person can get protein from a variety of sources including dairy products, nuts, certain grains, and beans, the protein in meat is the most complete for human nutrition.

But there is a fine line between healthy consumption and overconsumption of protein, particularly when it comes from meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the average American consumes approximately 82 grams of meat a day — about 30 percent higher than the total daily recommended value of protein. Excessive meat consumption contributes to a wide array of health issues, such as cancer and diabetes. In particular, high consumption of red meat and processed meats has been linked to cardiovascular disease, heart disease and early death. These meats contain a large amount of calories and contribute to our country’s growing obesity problem.

Currently, there are laws that significantly subsidize the meat industry, encouraging the overconsumption of meat products. Between 1995 and 2009, the federal government spent approximately $250 billion to subsidize the agricultural industry — approximately 63 percent of these expenditures supported the meat and dairy industries.

Subsidies to meat producers are both direct and indirect. The federal government directly subsidizes the meat industry by 1) significantly funding corn and soy production, the primary foodstuffs fed to livestock; 2) purchasing substantial quantities of meat, in effect providing financial incentive to produce more meat than otherwise would be produced or consumed; as well as 3) providing insurance and compensation programs that pay meat producers for losses due to disease, adverse weather or other loss conditions. The federal government indirectly subsidizes the meat industry by neglecting to impose meaningful regulations that require full accounting for cost of production. For example, livestock production generates nearly one fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases (more than transportation), but the farm industry does not pay for this environmental damage.  

The current Farm Bill — the colloquial term for the comprehensive legislation Congress passes every five years on agricultural policy — is set to expire later this year. However, it’s not clear that its successor will reform the current system due to entrenched interests.

Perhaps the best way to achieve real reform may be through collaboration between public health professionals, environmental protection advocates, animal rights organizations, and consumer protection advocates. If these groups work together, we may see laws, policies and programs in the future that help Americans to reduce their consumption of meat — reducing waistlines and health problems as well. 

This blog was prepared by Adam Spiers, student attorney in the Public Health Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, supervised by Kathleen Hoke, director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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