Reading through a new report from the European Commission on the prospects for meat production and consumption across the European Union felt like going back in time a couple decades ago.

“In 2103, [Europe] experienced the lowest per capita meat consumption in a decade,” according to Tassos Haniotis, director of economic analysis for the EC’s directorate general for agriculture. Haniotis explained the drop as a combination of lower production, which led to higher prices, coupled “some income pressures because of the economic crisis.”

Total consumption of meat and poultry was 64.7 kg (147.84 lbs.) per person per year — the lowest in a decade. Haniotis said that will slowly increase, but only to 66.1 kg (145.4 lbs.) by 2023.

That doesn’t exactly jive with the hard-hitting headline on the news reports of the EC study, which blared “EU economist predicts fall in meat consumption.”

Mutton consumption will continue to decline in Europe, but it only represents less than 3 percent of total meat consumption. Pork consumption is projected to remain stable, but production will increase only about 2.8 percent by 2023. Why? “Environmental constraints in some of the main producing countries,” including Holland and France, according to the report.

Beef production will decline about 7 percent by 2023, compared with 2012 levels, again due to a combination of production constraints and changing consumer preferences. Poultry, on the other hand, is expected to be “dynamic” over the next decade, with consumption growing by about 1.5 percent annually through 2023, thanks to competitive pricing and consumer perceptions that chicken and turkey are healthier foods.

Okay, you’ve probably had enough statistics for now, especially when they’re as flat and boring as these.

Pork is popular? Check. People are switching from beef to chicken, because people think it’s healthier? Check. And environmental regulations will curtail significant expansion of the continent’s livestock industry? Duh.

This so-called “major economic analysis” sounds like it was written by a college freshman back in 1980s. Is Europe just now waking up to the reality of “changing consumer preferences?” Is it really news that people are eating less mutton, or that higher prices for beef tend to drive poultry sales, or that pork production cannot expand dramatically, given the regulatory structure Europeans have put in place across the EU?

By the way? Those are rhetorical questions. Just so you know.

I’m sure that the economists working for the European Commission’s directorate general for agriculture are all well-educated, knowledgeable and competent. But other than crunching a few numbers, this report provides very little insight concerning the real questions regarding the meat and poultry industries in Europe or in North American, for that matter.

Looking ahead

What matters more than slicing and dicing meat consumption trends are these questions:

  • Is the European Union committed to remaining a major livestock producing region in the future, or will Europe cede that role to other parts of the world?
  • Has a balance been achieved between environmental protection and the opportunities to raise livestock, or is it necessary to further tighten the regulations that drive up costs and drive out producers?
  • Have Europeans ended their one-time love affair with red meat, or is declining consumption merely reflective of ongoing trends among the continent’s affluent consumers?

I would argue that researching the answers to those questions would be far more valuable for both Euro consumers and producers.

It’s practically self-evident that people across the developed world are eating less beef, partly because they’ve switched to alternative proteins and partly because of the relentless drumbeat demonizing red meat. You don’t need an advanced degree in economics to figure that out. All you need is an afternoon hanging around a supermarket and maybe some casual conversation at the next couple parties and social events you attend.

The dilemma facing both Europeans and Americans is this: We can no longer pretend that food will always be cheap, that we can afford to buy whatever we like, and that putting tighter regulations in place for food safety and environmental protection doesn’t carry a price tag that hits us directly at the checkout counter.

We can’t have it all. We can’t impose strict rules at every step of production and processing, and then complain that groceries are too expensive.

We can’t buy into activist rhetoric about the horrors of “industrial agriculture” and then bemoan the cost of a trip to the supermarket.

And we certainly can’t decide that the meat industry is just too dirty, too abusive or too problematic in terms of conserving the planet’s diminishing resources to even exist, and then wake up in 2023 or any time thereafter and wonder what happened to our domestic food producing capabilities.

The end point of that game is where Japan already is — a wholly dependent importer of even the basics needed to feed its people — and where Europe may soon be headed.

We can’t wait for a bunch of economists to spell out the consequences of that disastrous path.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.