U.S. intake of red meats has declined for four years

For the first time on record, U.S. per-capita meat consumption has declined for four consecutive years, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 6 percent drop between 2006 and 2010 is the largest sustained decline since record keeping began in 1970.

Reasons for the decline are at least partly economic: rising prices and a bad U.S. economy have made meat less affordable for American consumers. But there are intriguing signs that a cultural shift may be underway, as well.

Joe Yonan grew up in the ranching town of San Angelo, Texas, where beef steaks are a staple food. Now, he’s a vegetarian.

This certified judge of barbecued meat started noticing his tastes shifting while digging in to some Texas brisket a couple years ago.

“It tasted really great,” he said, “But I didn’t find it satisfying on a primal level the way I used to. And that was surprising to me. And I thought, ‘Wow! Something definitely is changing.’”

Something also is changing in the food landscape. This year, for the first time, chefs named vegetarian entrees as a top-10 hot trend in an annual survey by the National Restaurant Association.

Yonan, the award-winning food editor of The Washington Post, noticed the trend at work. His column explaining his conversion to vegetarianism drew mostly positive responses, and not just from vegetarians.

“I got a lot of e-mails from people saying, ‘I’m not a vegetarian but I’m trying to do more of that at home,’” he said.

While about 7 percent of Americans identify themselves as vegetarians, it’s the “flexitarians,” people who eat occasional meatless meals, that market research firms have just begun to explore.

One such firm, Packaged Facts, found that eating along the meatless spectrum is popular among college students, who will carry those eating habits into their adult years.

“Young people today are just not so meat-and-potatoes oriented as earlier generations were,” said environmental researcher Lester Brown at the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute.

Health concerns are one reason. Many studies link heavy consumption of red meat to higher risks of heart attacks, strokes and cancer.

A nationwide “Meatless Monday” campaign encourages people to eat vegetarian at least once a week.

But while meatless meals are catching on in the U.S., the demand for meat in emerging economies has grown along with rising prosperity.

Brazil ate 43 percent more meat in 2009 than two decades earlier, and China consumes 58 percent more, according to the most recent U.N. figures.

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