Sunday, June 28, 2009

Breaking the Beef Habit

When energy prices spiked last year, one the most shocking increases was in the price of beef. Beef is ten times as energy-intensive as other foods, and prices went up to levels that surprised consumers and restaurants. As a result, many people stopped viewing beef as an everyday food, and started saving it for special occasions.

Beef prices have stabilized this year, rising slightly in some countries while falling in North America, but the price relief hasn’t convinced people to start eating beef again. Instead, people are eating less beef than last year. Having broken the habit of eating beef regularly, people are not inclined to go back. The economy is also a factor. Beef is seen as expensive, as indeed it is compared to almost any other whole food, and people think of it as an expense they can do without when money is tight.

U.S. wholesale beef prices continue to fall as producers did not cut production enough to match falling demand. Exports to Asia have not picked up as the industry had hoped — Asian consumers continue to worry about mad cow disease, a problem that the U.S. beef industry still has not effectively addressed. Meanwhile, in Australia, most cattle farmers may be losing money again this year, as wholesale beef prices remain at low levels.

There really is no reason for beef to be an everyday food. It is fundamentally a junk food, with health risks that far outweigh its minimal nutritional value. After movies such as Super Size Me and the new Food, Inc., consumers may be more aware of the health risks of food such as beef. The heavy environmental impact is a negative for beef, as more consumers consider the environment in their food choices. And the huge advertising campaigns that made beef popular were more than a generation ago. And so, while beef is sure to remain a familiar food in most of the richer countries of the world, it is hard to see anything that could stop its recent decline in popularity.