STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As some of you already know, it is meat week here at MORNING EDITION. As summer heats up, we're thinking about what's on the grill and how much meat we consume in this country. It's a lot. Per person, more than almost anyone else in the world, and certainly a lot more than our bodies really need. Today, NPR's Dan Charles tries to figure out why.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: There's a huge range in the amount of meat that people eat around the world. Go to Africa or South Asia, and in some countries, the average person eats less than 20 pounds of meat in a year. The average American or Australian eats that much every month. But you can't really say it's because of differences in taste or national character. Marc Rosegrant, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute, says meat consumption follows a predictable trajectory in country after country.

MARC ROSEGRANT: All countries eat more meat when their incomes grow and they have the economic wherewithal to eat more meat.

CHARLES: It's almost like a law of human behavior.

ROSEGRANT: Yes. It really seems to be a preference that's built into people.

CHARLES: So, Americans eat a lot of meat because they're wealthy enough to afford it.

JAYSON LUSK: Economics explains a lot of it.

CHARLES: That's Jayson Lusk, a professor of economics at Oklahoma State University. Americans do eat more meat than people in other rich countries, too, but even that may have an economic explanation. Meat is relatively cheap here. Lusk says he experienced this firsthand last year while living in Paris.

LUSK: We literally spent twice as much each month on food, and it wasn't because we were living high on the hog - if you'll pardon the pun - but it really because things were just much more expensive, meat included.

CHARLES: Now, even though Americans have been eating more and more meat as they've gotten wealthier, it hasn't always been the same kind of meat. The American appetite for beef actually hit a peak 40 years ago.

LUSK: Each person in the U.S., in about 1976, ate about 94 pounds of beef per person, per year.

CHARLES: Today, that number is down by about a third. Instead, each American, on average, is eating twice as much chicken. Health warnings about the dangers of eating too much red meat played a part in this, but chicken was taking over even before the government started issuing those warnings. A big reason is economics again.

Over the past 60 years, chicken got a lot cheaper. Frank Perdue in Maryland and Don Tyson in Arkansas turned raising these birds into an industry. And those industrial operations brought down the price. So that's one explanation for America's meat-loving ways. It's all about income and prices. And that's fine as far as it goes, says historian Roger Horowitz of the Hagley Museum and Library in Greenville, Delaware. But he says you should dig a little deeper and ask why meat is so central to American life and why this country has led the world in making meat cheap. Go back a couple of centuries, he says. Meat was one reason why immigrants found America so amazing.

ROGER HOROWITZ: When the Irish come in the 1840s - and we know this - they write letters back saying, I eat meat every day. And they get letters back saying, you must be kidding. It can't be true.

CHARLES: Back in Europe, Horowitz says, the meat trade was often organized in a way that funneled the meat straight to the wealthy or the landed aristocracy. In the new world, though, meat was much easier to find. Grazing lands were close to cities, sometimes right inside cities. Farmers quickly realized that raising animals was a good business, and cities set up markets for them.

HOROWITZ: And the result, really, is a flourishing of the livestock industry very early in American history.

CHARLES: So then when new technology came along, like railroads and refrigeration, American entrepreneurs could jump right in and use it to turn beef into a centralized, national industry.

HOROWITZ: Why could they sell chilled beef in New York City in the 1880s? Because New Yorkers had been used to getting beef for at least 100 years in their markets and butcher shops in New York City. And here was new meat coming in. Yeah, it's a little cheaper. Let's give it a try.

CHARLES: And ever since, that has been the story: technological innovation, more efficient meat production, and Americans kept saying, hey, it's a little cheaper. Let's give it a try. Now, though, there are hints that things may be changing. Each year, for the last four years, Americans have been eating less meat per person. There's no consensus on the reasons why. Economist Jayson Lusk thinks it's mostly the recession and high food prices. Ground beef, for instance, is 30 percent more expensive today than it was just two years ago.

LUSK: If the price of something increases 30 percent, we certainly would expect consumers to buy a whole lot less of it.

CHARLES: Yet there's evidence tastes are actually changing, too. In a new poll conducted by NPR and Truven Health Analytics just out this week, 39 percent of the respondents say they're eating less meat than they did three years ago. And the main reason, they said, was a desire to eat healthier food. In another historical shift, rich Americans no longer eat more meat than poor Americans. They do still eat more expensive meat, though. Historian Roger Horowitz says they always have.

HOROWITZ: If you're a wealthy person in New York in the 1880s, you would not put barreled pork on the table when guests came over. You'd put a roast on the table, or else you were humiliated. That's not different than people, say, in New York City today. If you have guests over, maybe you get your lamb from Niman Ranch, make sure that it's grass-fed, that it's humanely slaughtered, and you pay 70 dollars a pound for it.

CHARLES: What hasn't changed at all, he says, is the significance of meat. If it's a special occasion in America, there's meat on the table. Dan Charles, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Well, this must be a special occasion, because meat is on our menu the rest of the week. And you can be sure to check out NPR's food blog, The Salt, at npr.org.

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