Australians have always been among the world's most enthusiastic meat eaters. But changing consumption patterns suggest health, environmental and ethical considerations are playing a greater role in decisions about what Australians put on their plates.

While Australians remain among the biggest per capita consumers of meat – second only to the US – the latest government agency figures show Australians are increasingly favouring chicken and pork over red meat, which has traditionally been considered a centrepiece of the dinner table. For decades, beef has been the most widely consumed meat in Australia. But estimates by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences show per capita consumption of beef in Australia has halved over the past quarter century while consumption of pork and chicken have doubled and tripled respectively.

In Australia, meat is seen as men’s food. It’s heavy, it requires a lot of digestion, it’s dead animals ... Whereas women’s food is food like salad. 

Professor Deborah Lupton, sociologist

These trends are in line with global figures, which suggest chicken is poised to overtake pork as the most widely consumed meat in the world. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, pork accounts for more than 36 per cent of world meat intake, followed by poultry at 33 per cent. The poultry sector, however, is the fastest-growing meat sector worldwide, consistently expanding at a rate of more than 5 per cent a year since the 1960s, according to a 2011 FAO working paper.

Different tastes: The statistics show that Australians are favouring poultry over red meat.
Different tastes: The statistics show that Australians are favouring poultry over red meat. Photo: iStock

A nation of meat eaters

Although the hierarchy of the meat consumed in Australia has been turned on its head, Australia remains among the world's most enthusiastic carnivorous nations. With an average per capita intake of about 115 kilograms a year, Australia is second only to the US, where each person consumes about 124 kilograms a year, according to the FAO.

Food historian Professor Barbara Santich of the University of Adelaide says Australia's long-standing appetite for meat largely derived through the intersection of colonial attitudes towards meat, which were developed in a home country where it was scarce, and its relative affordability in Australia.

“In England, it was always a prestigious food and still is a prestigious food,” Santich says. “You can grow vegetables yourself but red meat, especially, is more scarce, which gives it a luxury value.”

Unlike England, however, meat in the new colony has historically been "incredibly cheap", Santich says, with mutton "often cheaper than bread on a pound-for-pound basis".

Given the importance of meat to the first settlers, it is not surprising that meat has developed powerful social and cultural connotations. Sociologist Professor Deborah Lupton of the University of Sydney says meat in Australia, particularly red meat, plays an important role in popular conceptions of male identity.

“In Australia, meat is seen as men's food," Lupton says. "It's heavy, it requires a lot of digestion, it's dead animals, so it's associated with masculinity. Whereas women's food is food like salad, which is light, easy to chew and so on.”

Consumption falls

Despite this historical and cultural backdrop, Australia's overall meat consumption has plummeted from the high rates of the early 20th century.

At the same time, health concerns, price fluctuations and immigration have helped to fuel a dramatic change in the hierarchy of meat consumption.

In constant dollar terms, chicken and pork have become cheaper while beef and lamb have become more expensive, mirroring a trend in much of the developed world.

Nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton of the University of NSW says the changing ethnic composition of Australian society and the various waves of migration have altered Australia's "foodscape" over time.

“If we go back to the days when I grew up, we had meat three times a day – sausage or bacon with eggs for breakfast, meat sandwiches for lunch and meat again for dinner,” Stanton says.

The spread of Asian and Mediterranean cuisine in particular has introduced a greater range of meals in which meat is not the centrepiece, she says.

Santich says health concerns are driving the shift from red meat.

“Another thing is the negative publicity given to red meat from the 1970s, when the cholesterol spectre was first raised," she says. "Subsequent links have been made, that may or may not have been proven, between red meat consumption and cancer and red meat consumption and heart disease."

Negative publicity about red meat has been matched by marketing campaigns promoting the health benefits of chicken, pork and, more recently, kangaroo. Food ethics researcher associate professor Rachel Ankeny, of the University of Adelaide, says another major trend is the uptake, particularly among younger Australians, of looking to native sources of meat, such as kangaroo.

“Think back 15 to 20 years," Ankeny says. "You couldn't get kangaroo. It wasn't even legal to sell it as meat in some places. Now we hear quite a lot in focus groups, especially among young people, that they prefer it because it's less fatty and it's cheaper.”

Seeking the broader picture

While several studies show that in developed countries, health concerns provide stronger incentives than environmental concerns, some experts believe the two are converging in Australia to produce a gradual shift in diets.

Leading epidemiologist and public health researcher Tony McMichael has contributed extensively to both national and international assessments of climate change and human health. He is a member of the science advisory panel to the government's Commission on Climate Change and retired as professor of the national centre for epidemiology and population health at the Australian National University last November.

He says the social, economic and environmental repercussions of meat consumption are beginning to weigh more heavily on Australians.

“I think there's a growing awareness of the cruelty of many aspects of intensified meat production," he says. "There's the increasing influence of other less meat-intensive cuisines on Australian cooking and dietary preferences. There's certainly a growing awareness of the environmental consequences, including now the methane and greenhouse gas story.”

“At the fringe we've overcome our squeamishness about eating kangaroo and realised in any sensible sustainable ecological system the first choice for meat eaters really should be those animals that are indigenous to the local environment.”

As red meat consumption rates continue to fall in Australia, producers will look increasingly to foreign markets to maintain profit margins, he says.

There is plenty of demand. Between 1995 and 2005, per capita meat consumption grew at an annual rate of 2.6 per cent in the developing world – more than four times faster than the developed world, which grew at 0.6 per cent, according to the FAO.

“There's an international moral dilemma we face here,” McMichael says. “Even if consumption of red meat is falling in Australia we are still a major exporter, so we are producing many more animals than we need to eat and boosting our greenhouse gas emissions for the sake of export sales.”

Judith Friedlander, a postgraduate researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, says it is widely accepted among researchers in the field that the world would benefit from reduced meat intake in high-income countries.

“The ridiculous thing is that we have an epidemic of obesity and the overweight in the developed world – an estimated 1 billion – and another 1 billion malnourished,” Friedlander says. “This is why we should be striving to reduce our meat consumption – to allow the developing world to increase theirs.”

Changing attitudes

The prospect of the international community adopting this strategy – known in academic circles as "contraction and convergence" – of developed and developing nations "meeting halfway" are admittedly slim, but evidence suggests Australians are increasingly interested in the origins and impact of their food.

For example, market research company IBISWorld reports that last year Australia's organic farming industry had grown 11.6 per cent per year over the previous five years, fuelled “by growing consumer interest in sustainable food production and rising disposable incomes”.

Similarly, the growth in fair trade sales reflects increased concern about the impact of consumer choices on developing countries. According to Fair Trade Association Australia and New Zealand, retail sales in Australia and New Zealand in 2011 reached $202 million, an increase of 35 per cent on 2010.

Fair Trade sales in the region nearly trebled between 2009 and 2010, from $50.7 million in 2009 to almost $150 million in 2010.

Australian attitudes indicate a desire to expand their plant-based food intake which is why, Friedlander suggests, we are likely to see greater interest in meat substitutes, also known as meat analogues or novel protein foods.

“A trend to watch is 'flexitarianism', so anything from a 'part-time vegetarian' to someone who just likes more balance in their diet in terms of meat and non-animal proteins,” she says.

Vegetarianism in Australia is low compared with other countries – the rate hovers below 6 per cent or less depending on how it is defined, according to Ankeny, compared with about 9 per cent in Britain and 10 per cent in Italy.

However, says Ankeny, the bottom line is that there has been a shift because of all these concerns – health, environmental, cultural and moral – are colliding.

But ultimately, what influences consumers could be cold, hard cash.

“At the end of the day people say they try to do the right thing but price does make a difference,” she says.

“A lot of these product lines remain out of the range of the average consumer and people are not going to not eat meat just because they can't buy the idealised, pasture-fed, organic, ethically-raised animal product.”