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Meat Eater's Guide ranks foods by environmental, health effects

July 17, 2011 |  9:01 pm

CowLamb, beef and cheese generate the most greenhouse gases of 20 popular meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins, according to a new study from the Environmental Working Group. The Meat Eater's Guide, released by the Washington-based environmental research firm, used a cradle-to-grave life-cycle assessment to determine each food's rank, including the amount of fertilizer used to grow animal feed, as well as data on each food's processing, transportation and disposal.

"There's been a lot of information out there about all the various impacts of meat production and consumption," said EWG senior analyst Kari Hamerschlag. "We wanted to consolidate and highlight the most important things consumers need to know to make better choices."

The guide considers the effects of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable consumption on the environment and the climate, as well as human health and animal welfare. Ruminant livestock, such as sheep and cows, "release substantial amounts of methane," a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, according to the guide. In the U.S., 149 million acres of cropland, 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer are used just to grow livestock feed; U.S. livestock generate around 500 million tons of manure annually, which contributes to groundwater and air pollution, the guide said.

Citing data from a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, the guide said 20% of uneaten meat in the U.S. ends up in landfills, though percentages of thrown-away meat vary by type: 40% of fresh and frozen fish were tossed, 31% of turkey, 25% of pork, 16% of beef and 12% of chicken. 

"People don't really consider that there's a tremendous amount of resources that went into food that's wasted," Hamerschlag said.

The Meat Eater's Guide includes a chart that shows the carbon footprint of each food, equating the consumption of four ounces of each item with its equivalent in car miles driven. Eating a four-ounce serving of beef, for example, generates the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as driving a car six miles, according to the Guide. A four-ounce serving of organic, free-range eggs is equivalent to driving one mile. A four-ounce serving of lentils -- the food with the smallest carbon footprint in the guide -- is equivalent to driving one tenth of one mile.

While the report acknowledges that meat, when eaten in moderation, provides healthy and complete proteins and other nutrients, it cites a 2009 National Cancer Institute study that found people who ate the most red meat were 27% more likely to die of heart disease than those who ate the least.

"Americans consume more meat and dairy than any other country in the world, and have the high rates of colon cancer, heart disease and diabetes to prove it," said physician Andrew Weil, adding that the "Meat Eater's Guide is an easy-to-use tool for those consumers looking to improve their health through shopping better for themselves and their families."

The author and professor of public health at the University of Arizona is one of several celebrity advocates of the Meat Eater's Guide. Liberal foodie author and activist Michael Pollan and TV chef Mario Batali also endorsed the new guide.

"Most people in the U.S. eat way more meat than is good for them or the planet," said Batali, "but even knowing this, the chances are little that we are all going to become vegetarians, much less vegans. Asking everyone to go vegetarian or vegan is not a realistic or attainable goal, but we can focus on a more plant-based diet and support the farmers who raise their animals humanely and sustainably."

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-- Susan Carpenter

Photo credit: Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / Getty Images

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