Drumsticks replacing chops but Australians still love their meat.

Published 20160121

All the controversy over the Australia day advertisement promoting lamb has highlighted the reported increase of vegetarianism in Australia, which has been strongly promoted by animal welfare groups and others as a more ethical and healthy diet. Irrespective of the health and animal welfare merits of different diets, available statistics indicate that Australians are still pretty keen on meat, although have changed the type of meat they are consuming.

The annual Meat and Livestock Australia advertising campaign for lamb has a history of creating a bit of controversy, and this years effort was certainly no disappointment. The main contention was about a scene where a vegetarian is rescued from an overseas location, with the rescuers using a blowtorch to destroy the bowl of kale he was eating. The scene apparently triggered 600 complaints to the Advertising Standards Board, which fortunately decided that the advertisement was not offensive and could continue to be broadcast.

The response to the advertisement would appear to indicate that vegetarianism is growing in Australia. A survey in 2010 apparently estimated that 5% of Australians were vegetarians, while Roy Morgan Research in 2013 reported that 10% of Australians identify as vegetarian. The difficulty with these statistics is that responses can vary depending on how questions are asked, and they also are a snapshot in time, and don’t identify how long people have been vegetarian, or whether they are likely to permanently remain vegetarian.

Irrespective, if the broad trends indicated by these surveys are correct, then it would be anticipated that per capita meat consumption in Australia would be decreasing. However, statistics published by ABARES based on ABS data shows that not to be the case. Per capita meat consumption (mainly beef) increased for a period during the beef crisis of the 1970s when cattle prices slumped, but since that time has been remarkably steady and slowly trending upwards, and was estimated to be 110 kilograms per person per year in 2014. 

These statistics seem to contradict the reports of increasing vegetarianism, unless those remaining meat-eaters are steadily consuming more and more meat each year. The only other explanation is that perhaps some of those claiming to be vegetarians are secretly chewing on a drumstick or a lamb chop when no one is watching!

What has changed, and quite markedly over the period, is the share of total meat consumption held by each of the four major meats currently consumed in Australia. Per capita consumption of beef and lamb has been dropping (especially lamb) while the per capita consumption of chicken has been growing quite rapidly since the 1980s, and pigmeat consumption has also been growing, although to a lesser extent.

The trends in per capita consumption of the different meats are closely correlated to relative prices, with lamb consumption declining quite quickly as lamb prices have increased in relative terms from the mid 1990s. Consumption trends are also probably driven by perceptions of the relative health merits of the different meats, with the white meats certainly favoured by health conscious consumers. It is also possibly the case that someone aspiring to be vegetarian would be more likely to eat white meat than red meat on those occasions when the protein temptation becomes too great.

The above figures might cause a bit of dismay for those animal welfare groups which have been strongly promoting vegetarian diets. Australians have actually dramatically increased their per capita consumption of chicken and pork – both of which have been targeted by these groups. Despite the campaigns over recent years, Australians are eating more of these meats, rather than less.

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