U.S. consumers eat a lot of meat, and last year that added up to a record amount. Total per capita meat consumption of all red meat and poultry by U.S. consumers is expected to approach 219 pounds [retail weight] whent the final 2002 numbers are in, which is a new record.

Looking back, U.S. consumers ate 166 pounds of total meat and poultry per person in 1960. In 1980, per capita consumption reached 195 pounds. Ten years later, it hit 199 pounds, points out James Mintert, Kansas State University agricultural economist.

"During 2002, Americans consumed about 32 percent more meat than in 1960, 12 percent more than in 1980, and 10 percent more than in 1990," he adds.

However, most of the consumption growth during that period came from the poultry sector. Chicken [broiler] consumption on a retail-weight basis jumped to nearly 80 pounds in 2002, a 240 percent increase since 1960 when per capita consumption was 23.5 pounds. In contrast, U.S. beef consumption rose just 6 percent over that period, and pork fell 14 percent.

However, meat consumption figures are a good news/bad news issue for livestock and poultry producers. Frankly that's because of the old "eat it or smell it" adage. In some way, shape or form– and at some price– the United States either eats or exports all of the meat the country produces. Also, consumption should not be confused with demand, because with consumption patterns you also have to look at the price under which it occurred.  

The increased meat consumption in 2002 was not good news for U.S. meat and poultry producers. Record consumption occurred because domestic meat supplies were record large, and that drove animal prices lower, resulting in financial losses for beef and pork producers.

Per capita meat consumption rose about 2.5 percent in 2002 compared with 2001 levels. Beef, pork and chicken accounted for 1.9 percent, 1.6 percent and 4.5 percent of the increase respectively.

Looking at the year ahead, tighter U.S. livestock and poultry supplies should support higher prices. Analysts estimate a 1.5 percent decline in total meat and poultry supplies. Add in population growth, and supplies could be down as much as 2.5 percent. That would mark the first annual decline in meat and poultry tonnage since 1981.

"U.S. beef supplies [net of imports and exports] in 2003 are expected to decline 2 percent compared to 2002, which should drop domestic beef consumption back to 2001 levels," notes Mintert.

Pork supplies are expected to drop below 2002 levels by as much as 2 percent.

Even poultry producers are pulling back, with numbers reflecting only a modest production increase instead of the typical annual growth of 4 percent. "The bottom line is that domestic chicken consumption could actually fall about 1 percent below 2002 levels, which would mark just the third time in the last two decades that U.S. chicken consumption fell below the prior year," notes Mintert.