Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Meat Highway

A couple of weeks ago my lovely wife and I were watching old episodes of Man VS. Food aghast at how much food some people try to pack away in one sitting. It isn’t just that Adam Richman eating 18 chili dogs or slugging down 5 gallons of milkshake at some random tavern is disturbing. That’s a given. It’s the normal portion sizes that everyone else is eating at the restaurants which he showcases that are equally disturbing. We notice the same phenomenon when we go out to eat, watching the wait staff wheel out a three-inch thick steak and a nine-pound double-baked potato covered in bacon (mmm…bacon) to some guy sitting at the bar by himself. Why do Americans eat so much? Why do we even try? This post isn’t going to attempt to answer these questions which are undoubtedly rooted in our hunter-gatherer genes that still haunt us by urging us to store fat away for the “lean” times. Sometimes our genes are mean to us. A trait that would likely be very useful if we lived life in the wilderness causes us to turn ourselves into sedentary Jabba the Hut protégés in modern times. Anyway, as we sat on the couch spilling Chex Mix and booze all over ourselves at 11:00PM my wife posed the brilliant question: How many animals do we kill for food and then just throw in the trash because our portion sizes are way out of whack? It’s a great question on many levels. We pump massive amounts of energy and human effort into the animal husbandry industry just to throw some portion of it away (which consumes still more energy) because a normal person can’t finish a 40oz. porterhouse without wanting to commit suicide after they force down the last bite. This isn’t something that my wife necessarily worries about since she is a vegetarian because she doesn’t want to support the meat industry. Actually, to be totally correct she is a pescetarian which means that she still eats seafood, just not mammals or poultry. I guess since fish don’t breastfeed it’s OK to drown them and freeze them alive. Anyway, as you may know I don’t eat beef or consume milk (a.k.a. #3) so I have my own suitably arbitrary dietary ethos as well. Still, let’s see what damage we can do to the question at hand - how many animals do Americans throw in the trash every year?

In order to determine how many animals we chuck it’s critical to know how much food we consume and how much food we waste. According to the USDA and other independent research, every year Americans produce somewhere on the order of 356 billion lbs. of edible food. Of that ~96.3 billion lbs. are thrown out, or fully 27% of all of the food that gets produced. Take a look at the chart for a complete breakdown. The main factors that increase the amount of food waste in households include the following: seasonality - more waste occurs in summer months; age of children in the household - younger children waste more food than older children; gender - females waste more than males; racism – if you’re racist you don’t give a damn that people are starving in China; income - higher-income individuals waste more than lower-income individuals; setting - more waste is associated with hospitals and military mess halls than with school and company cafeterias; and size of household - larger households waste more than smaller households because of a greater number of children in the household. I consider this as proof positive that kids and women are destroying the planet. At any rate, fruits, grains and vegetables make up the lion’s share of the waste, but the main focus here is on the roughly 8.2 billion pounds of meat that we waste annually. These numbers are truly staggering especially when you consider that these estimates do not include food wasted on the farm, in fisheries, and during processing. I’ll touch on that a bit later. For now let’s just consider some of the implications of those numbers, other than the fact that we’re a caste of slovenly, overfed, entitled, ignorant, elitist bastards.

On average, each of us consumes about 3-5 pounds of food each day. If even 5 percent of the 96 billion lbs. of wasted food were recovered and redistributed freely, that quantity would represent the equivalent of a year’s food for each of 9.6 million people. Why is 9.6 million an important number? It is roughly the number of people in the U.S. that go to bed every night hungry and/or underfed. If we somehow managed to save 100% that would be enough food to feed the entire population of Germany for a year. Of course they would grind it all into sausage; that goes without saying. Instead, we throw it in the garbage. Speaking of garbage, the EPA reported that food waste accounts for about 8.5 percent of municipal solid waste collected from households and businesses. If 5 percent of retail, food-service, and consumer food losses were recovered rather than chucked into landfills, about $84,262,500 annually could be saved in solid waste disposal costs for landfills alone. These savings would increase to $421,312,500 with a 25-percent recovery rate. At 100% it would be ~$2 billion or $16 per household. OK. That isn’t too impressive, but if anyone has $2 billion dollars lying around that they want to give me…

While we’re on the subject of money, let’s look at this another way. Go to the bank and pull $6362 out of your kid’s college fund. They are never going to use it anyway. Now take $1720 of that and light it on fire. Trust me; this is a well though-out experiment. How’d that make you feel? Crappy? Maybe a little stupid? Admittedly, I probably should have suggested that you leave the bank before committing arson. Now perform this experiment every year until you die or the kids disown you. The average U.S. household spends $6362 per year on food (~12% of annual income) including both groceries and restaurant expenses. 27% of that goes into the trash. That adds up to around $181 billion per year across the nation. Can you think of anything useful to spend $1720 on every year? Nah, me either, might as well throw it out.

Take a look at the chart again. The far right column is an estimate of how much energy was put into the production, transportation and processing of that wasted food. Approximately 2030 trillion BTU of energy were embedded in wasted food in 2007. This energy embedded in wasted food represents approximately 2.78% of annual energy consumption in the United States. Doesn’t seem like that much does it? Well, that’s twice as much power as was produced by wind and solar sources combined last year. Nice work, hippies. Turns out that rather than investing billions of dollars into some renewable energy portfolio and shoehorning infrastructure where it isn’t wanted we could do more for the environment by being more efficient eaters. Typical.

OK. Now let’s finally get to the question at hand. How many animals are wasted every year because we don’t know how to order, serve or prepare food properly? Based on the average size of processed cattle, pigs, and poultry it turns out that somewhere in the ballpark of 700 million animals (not counting seafood) are essentially raised and killed for food then transported directly into landfills each year without passing through anyone’s colon first. That’s right, 700 million – more than two for every man, woman and child in the U.S. Approximately 5.5 million cattle and 12 million pigs get chucked into the dumpster with the rest being filled up with chickens and turkeys. That is enough meat to pave a two-lane highway with 1” thick steaks for 8800 miles…over 1/3 the way around the planet. If you take seafood waste into account the road extends to 9600 miles and gets a lot smellier. Remember that’s just consumer and retail waste. These estimates do not include food wasted on the farm, in fisheries, and during processing.

When an animal is killed or dies for whatever reason before it gets sold for slaughter it is considered a “death loss” to the farmer. Death losses can be from any number of causes including weakness, illness, disease, getting squashed by their mother, suffocating in mud, predation, etc. The USDA keeps very good records of these death losses for all major animals used for meat in the U.S. Seems like if we care about the waste we should care about these ones too, right? So how many animals does this turn out to be? The death losses for cattle and calves in 2009 added up to ~4.1 million animals. For pigs that number was 8.9 million. I’ve pretty much ignored waste and losses from sheep and lambs in this post because they are only about 1% of the meat that we consume, but if you’re curious their death losses were ~610,000 animals. For the lowly non-mammals that we eat every day the situation is much worse. Chicken losses added up to a staggering 107 million animals. Oddly, the death loss numbers for turkeys wasn’t immediately available, but they most likely aren’t much better off than chickens. Assuming the same proportion of losses as chickens, that puts the turkey number at around 20 million. Oh, and let’s not forget seafood. There are no solid estimates at the overall number of seafaring critters that we kill, but it is estimated that worldwide approximately 23% of fish landings are by-catch, which are thrown back into the ocean, usually already dead or dying, instead of being sold and consumed. In 2008 Americans consumed over 4 billion pounds of seafood which implies over a billion pounds of seafood was dumped back into the sea. How many fish, shrimp, dolphins, crabs, eels and whateverthefuckelse are there in over a billion pounds? One shitload.

So, all told somewhere in the ballpark of 840 million animals in the U.S. alone (not counting seafood) die every year, basically for no reason. They are raised for food and they either are too sick or weak to make it to the slaughterhouse, or we pitch them in the trash because we are horribly inefficient consumers. What can be done to prevent all of this carnage? I have no idea. However, instead of looking for the magic green pill that will make all of our energy problems disappear perhaps we should start to get real and ask the hard questions regarding our personal efficiencies. Always ask yourself how you could be doing the task at hand more efficiently, and only then will we be able to begin to help other beings and move away from the path we are on today.

Jesus! I feel like "Kum Bah Yah" should be playing in the background. Excuse me while I give myself a grundy...


tomatologic said...

That's one of your best Redneck. I'm going to personally attempt to increase the amount of lamb we eat, not waste any of it, and make it the greenest animal to consume.


scott forbes said...

Dan, great blog very informative the problem i have is going to the store and buying food for two people you end up buying for a family of four. If i have items (non perishable) that we havent used in awhile. which says alot in itself, we donate to the local food depository here in chicago.