How Much Suffering is in the Standard American Diet?

We all know that “the standard American diet” is unhealthy, and bad for the environment, and all sorts of things. But, as we know, it also contains a lot of suffering due to the consumption of factory-farmed meat. I’m not going to argue for the ethics of a vegetarian diet here (I’ve done that elsewhere). Instead, I’m interested in some quantification – just how much suffering is in the standard American diet?

As a caveat, at the moment I’m not looking at environmental impact, though I might expand the analysis later. As another caveat, it’s worth pointing out that the standard American diet may not really exist in any particular person, but it’s a useful statistical generalization to talk about. As a third caveat, this analysis ignores the fact that there is an elasticity to supply and demand (e.g., by not eating one pound of cow, you do not cause precisely one pound of cow to not be produced, but rather just a large fraction of it, since a drop in demand leads to a corresponding drop in price, which leads to a corresponding yet smaller re-increase in demand.)

To begin, we need to know three things: (a) how many animal products are in the standard american diet, (b) how many animals does it take to produce that much meat, and (c) how much suffering is brought about by each kind of animal?

Let’s go!

American Meat Consumption

Luckily for us, the USDA is pretty obsessive with cataloging our food consumption. The USDA’s Profiling Food Consumption in America p15 says that in 2000, Americans consume, on average, per year:

  • 64.4 pounds of beef
  • 47.7 pounds of pork
  • 52.9 pounds of poultry
  • 13.6 pounds of turkey
  • 15.2 pounds of fish and shellfish
  • 250 eggs
  • 29.8 pounds of cheese
  • 27.8 pounds of frozen dairy products (e.g., ice cream)
  • 22.6 pounds of milk

Animals Needed to Produce Each Kind of Meat

In Brian Tomasik’s “How Much Direct Suffering Is Caused by Various Animal Foods?”, Brian has a very similar goal to ours here, so we only need to extend his analysis to match up with the entire American diet, rather than individual animals.

Brian says that:

  • …one beef cow produces 339kg of beef (747 pounds)
  • …one pig produces 91.1kg of pork (201 pounds)
  • …one meat chicken produces 1.83kg of poultry (4 pounds)
  • …one turkey produces 10.3kg of turkey meat (22.7 pounds)
  • …one egg chicken produces 15.3kg of eggs
  • …one dairy cow produces 50,420kg of milk (111,157 pounds)

These numbers are good for our analysis, but a bit more work needs to be done to make the numbers work for us.

Eggs

First of all, how many eggs is 15.3kg of eggs? Wikipedia gives a list of egg sizes, and says that the typical egg is “large” sized, or 57g. 57g is 0.13 pounds, which means that 15.3kg of eggs (34 pounds) is 262 eggs.

Dairy

Second, we know that dairy cows produce 50,420kg of milk, but what is that in terms of cheese and frozen dairy products? If we could convert cheese and frozen dairy products into milk equivalents, we could make a cleaner calculation. The Moomilk FAQ pegs 1 gallon of ice cream at 12 pounds of milk and 1 pound of cheese at 10 pounds of milk.

But how much does a gallon of ice cream weigh? Now we’ve descended to Wiki Answers (sorry!), but we come out with something: 4.5 pounds.

So we can take the 29.8 pounds of cheese and convert it to 298 pounds of milk equivalent. Similarly, we can take the 27.8 pounds of frozen dairy products and convert it to 74 pounds of milk equivalent. In total, that’s 394.6 pounds of milk per year for the average American.

Fish

Last, and the most troublesome, is working out fish. 14.2 pounds of fish and shellfish is not very helpful, because these animals are vastly different in sizes (and presumably suffering capacities). For this analysis, I’m really only interested in factory farmed aquaculture fish, so I’ll switch over to Counting Animal’s estimate of 1.3 aquacultured fish.

Note that the aquaculturing of fish means that up to 225 wild fish are being caught to feed the aquacultured fish, but I’m uncomfortable including this number because I’m not sure that reducing the demand for fish will result in any significant reduction in suffering for wild fish. While certainly fishing is painful for wild fish and there are great environmental concerns with overfishing, I’m choosing to not include them in this analysis.

American Animal Consumption

Now that we have these statistics, we can find out not how many pounds of animal meat is consumed each year by a typical American, but rather how many animals are consumed.

drumroll please…

  • 0.09 cows for beef
  • 0.004 cows for dairy
  • 0.24 pigs
  • 13.2 chickens for meat
  • 0.95 chickens for egg
  • 0.6 turkeys
  • 1.3 aquacultured fish

But How Much Suffering is That?

Obviously quantifying suffering is very tricky, so I’m going to be careful about it here. Stay with me. Let’s first look to how many days of suffering each animal undergoes, sort of like a DALY metric would do for quantifying suffering in humans.

Looking to Brian’s table, we get the following information:

  • Cows for beef live 402 days on average
  • Cows for dairy = 2009 days
  • Pigs = 183 days
  • Chickens for meat = 42 days
  • Chickens for eggs = 365 days
  • Turkeys = 126 days
  • Aquacultured fish = 730 days

So the average American is producing, each year on average…

  • 36 days of suffering via beef
  • 8 days of suffering via dairy
  • 44 days of suffering via pork
  • 554 days of suffering via chicken meat
  • 347 days of suffering via eggs
  • 76 days of suffering via turkey
  • 949 days of suffering via aquacultured fish

…That means there’s a total of 5 years, 6 months, 5 days of animal suffering in each standard American diet, per year. Yikes! …And this doesn’t even include the suffering from the slaughter of the animals themselves.

Adjusting for Product Elasticity

However, as is commonly known by economists, when you choose to not buy a product, you lower the demand ever so slightly, which lowers the price ever so slightly, which turns out to re-increase the demand ever so slightly. Therefore, forgoing one pound of meat means that less than one pound of meat actually gets prevented from being factory farmed. So vegetarianism does have an effect on reducing the amount of animals farmed, but a little less than we might naïvely think. F. Bailey Norwoord’s Compassion by the Pound gives the following figures:

  • If someone gives up one pound of beef, the product falls by 0.68 lbs
  • One Pound of Milk… 0.56lbs.
  • One Pound of Pork… 0.74 lbs
  • One Pound of Chicken… 0.76 lbs
  • One Egg… 0.91 Egg.

Cheese, Turkey, and Fish Elasticity

However, Norwood is missing figures for the rest of dairy, and for turkey and fish, so we need to add a bit more information. Luckily, the organization Animal Charity Evaluators has done some more research on this.

ACE cites this paper for a dairy elasticity of 0.65, such that if someone gives up one pound of dairy, the product falls by 0.65 lbs.

For turkey, this paper gives an elasticity of 0.26.

For fish, this paper gives an elasticity of 0.75.

Though it’s important to note that this science is somewhat imprecise, and ACE cites figures that conflict with some of Norwood’s figures. It’s also curious why turkey elasticity is so low compared to Norwood’s estimates for chicken.

Putting it together…

With these adjustments, in actuality, the average American is producing, each year on average…

  • 20.1 days of suffering via beef
  • 5.2 days of suffering via dairy
  • 32.6 days of suffering via pork
  • 421 days of suffering via chicken meat
  • 315.7 days of suffering via eggs
  • 20 days of suffering via turkey
  • 711.7 days of suffering via aquacultured fish

Adjusting for Context

That isn’t all the adjusting I think we should do, however. We can get a bit more precise at the cost of being a bit more speculative, if you don’t mind me experimenting, because I don’t think that each animal suffers the same. Instead, each animal has (a) different intensity of farming conditions and (b) a different capacity for suffering.

First, let’s do differences from intensity of farming conditions. Brian’s table takes this into account, and suggests the following adjustment ratios (higher ratio means more suffering from the farming):

  • Beef - 1
  • Dairy - 1.8
  • Pork - 1.8
  • Chicken (meat) - 1.8
  • Chicken (eggs) - 2.5
  • Turkey - 1.8
  • Aquacultured Fish - 0.9

I’d like more research into this, but right now I’m willing for Brian’s work to be taken at face value.

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Second, we need some estimates of the differences of capacity to suffer. Again, these are just my rough intuitions, should not be taken at face value, and can be easily disagreed with. Feel free to substitute your own numbers. I arrive at these ratios (higher ratio means more capcacity for suffering):

  • Beef - 1
  • Dairy - 1
  • Pork - 1
  • Chicken (meat) - 0.3
  • Chicken (eggs) - 0.3
  • Turkey - 0.3
  • Aquacultured Fish - 0.2

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Taking these ratios into account, we adjust to the new totals:

  • 20.1 adjusted days of suffering via beef
  • 9.4 adjusted days of suffering via dairy
  • 58.9 adjusted days of suffering via pork
  • 227.3 adjusted days of suffering via chicken meat
  • 236.7 adjusted days of suffering via eggs
  • 10.8 adjusted days of suffering via turkey
  • 128.1 adjusted days of suffering via aquacultured fish

(The adjustment is technically in units of “days of beef suffering equivalents”.)

Relative Importance

I think these adjustments are important not for coming to a more accurate total of years of suffering caused per year of American diet, but rather for more accurately determining which food groups are the most important to target. For example, based on these adjusted numbers, we can tentatively (and perhaps naively) conclude:

  • Giving up beef is ~2.1x as important as giving up dairy.
  • Giving up beef is ~1.9x as important as giving up turkey.
  • Giving up pork is ~2.9x as important as giving up beef.
  • Giving up chicken meat is ~11.3x as important as giving up beef.
  • Giving up eggs is ~11.8x as important as giving up beef.
  • Giving up aquacultured fish is ~6.4x as important as giving up beef.

So this gives a pretty good approach for a “meat reduction” diet, with the most ethical bang-for-the-buck for each animal product given up. Maybe consider eating all the beef, turkey, and dairy you want, but spare the really important ones – chicken, eggs, and fish!

In fact, a diet where you only avoid chicken, eggs, and fish is 85.6% as impactful at preventing animal suffering as a fully vegan diet!

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Updated 21 Jul to add information about elasticity.