For the first time ever, according to USDA data, per-capita meat consumption in the United States has declined for four consecutive years. Overall, from 2006 to 2010 (the latest year for which complete data are available, 1 6% drop in consumption represents the largest sustained decline since forever.

Well, since 1970, anyway.

And that was a long time ago (before Watergate, before the gas crisis, before M*A*S*H—the TV series, anyway—and while Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were still going strong).

The explanation for the decline in consumption is partially a simple one: rising prices and a weak economy have made meat less affordable.

But as an intriguing commentary by the Voice of America website explained, there are signs that “a cultural shift may be underway.”

What does that mean? It means that, once again, some influential thought leaders are spouting off about their newfound love of vegetarian cuisine—that’s what it means.

The VOS essay details the story of Joe Yonan, the Washington Post food editor, who grew up in San Angelo, Texas, “where beef steaks are a staple food. Now, he’s a vegetarian,” the reporter, Steve Baragona, almost gleefully announced.

“This certified judge of barbecued meat started noticing his tastes shifting while digging in to some Texas brisket a couple years ago,” Baragona wrote. He noted that while Yonan admitted the brisket still tasted great, he was quoted as saying, “I didn’t find it satisfying on a primal level the way I used to. I thought, ‘Wow! Something definitely is changing.’ ”

Indeed. For the first time this year, vegetarian entrees were named as a “Top-10 Hot Trend” by chefs in an annual survey by the National Restaurant Association.

For his part, Yonan penned a column explaining his conversion to vegetarianism and said he received many positive responses—and not just from vegetarians, but from a growing group of consumers that foodies have dubbed “flexitarians.”

Since only about 5% to 7% of Americans actually follow a bona fide vegetarian diet, many market researchers are wooing these flexitarians, meaning people who eat occasional meatless meals.

A college cult

One company, Packaged Facts, determined from surveys that college students often develop the habit of “eating along the meatless spectrum,” a dietary excursion that often turns into a lifelong habit.

Is that a problem for industry? Not from where I sit.

First of all, one of the basic tenets of a healthy diet is variety. Vegetarian foods not only don’t’ harm anyone, there quite beneficial. In fact, if there is one singular problem with the “Standard” American diet, it’s not the amount of meat and poultry we consume, it’s the lack of fruits, vegetables and whole grains that we don’t eat.

Second, total production of meat and poultry domestically continues to remain stable to slightly increasing, as the U.S. population increases. So even though individually we’re eating less, there are more of us, and thus a need for a continuing supply of animal foods.

Even as per capita consumption decreases, overall production—for the foreseeable future—will remain strong. And overseas, the growth is far more dramatic, especially as incomes rise.

 In other parts of the developing world, meat consumption is rising very fast. Brazil would be a case in point,” said Lester Brown. “And in China we’ve seen enormous growth in meat consumption over the last couple of decades.”

For example: Brazilians have increased their per capita meat consumption by 43% since 1990, while China’s consumption has risen 57%, according to UN figures.

The bottom line is that we would all benefit from expanding our dietary selections, maybe not to the point we go pure veggie, of course, but certainly by adding more of the healthful foods currently crowded out by our national indulgence in snacks, junk food and convenience products.

The problem I have with the “Meatless Monday” crowed isn’t the switch to tofu or pasta or some sort of soy analog once a week, but the intellectual dishonesty its promoters indulge in as they pretend that skipping the beef will heal the planet.

That’s a load of bull.

Going flexitarian—especially one meal a week? No problem.

Propping up Meatless Mondays as an antidote to the phony eco-scourge that is animal agriculture?

That’s a big problem.

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