Recently, an article in the New York Times made the somewhat surprising claim that “goat is the most widely consumed meat in the world”. Now I’m the first one to go drooling after some top-class mutton, but given how difficult it is to get the goat on menus around the world, this was a somewhat surprising statistic. I turned to trusty a google search for some answers, but except for the odd dissenting voice on a forum everyone seemed to agree that it was, indeed, the case.
I was intrigued but not quite convinced. My diffidence did not prevent me from stating the statistic with great authority to a few more people, but I was met with similar reactions – possible, but a little counter to experience. China is said to account for 70% of the production and consumption of mutton, yet in Chinese restaurants everywhere (even the ones I’d seen in China) had far more chicken, pork and beef than mutton. However, when disagreeing with the New York Times, one had better be sure.
Hence in the interests of truth, knowledge and world hunger, I decided to dig really deep and eventually came across the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). They have a full website dedicated to the statistics of food – FAOStat - and it was particularly comprehensive (if in true government-style rather inconvenient to use). A little clicking about in the middle of a Saturday afternoon finally yielded what I guess must be the final word in the matter, straight from the maw of the United Nations – and its not the goat. Seafood is the number one source of meat followed very closely by pork. Mutton in fact comes out last among all common meats. The pretty graph is my inner consultant expressing, not standard government issue.
The dominance of pork is interesting; its the subject of strong religious taboos that exclude a huge chunk of humanity. Obelix undoubtedly plays a role (pork is Europe’s favourite meat) but the big daddy here is China, accounting for nearly half the world’s consumption. Of the regions where both pork and beef are consumed without religious restrictions, pork usually wins by large margins – except in the USA, which may just be a McDonalds phenomenon. Even Kobe-beefing Japan eats over twice as much pork as beef.
India presents a very different picture, with a couple of surprises. Overall Indians consume very little meat by world standards (I had to change the units in the graph from million to thousand) but what they consume is revealing. Pork, the number one in worldwide is nearly non-existent here. Seafood consumption was expected but the number for freshwater fish was not; obviously we Bengalis eat more than we think. The bigger surprise is beef – nearly twice as popular as chicken (it is, in fact, more consumed than even egg, which does not figure on the graph). As a percentage, 19% of India’s meat consumption is beef compared to a mere 6% in China, which of course reflects the religious biases of the meat-eating populations of the two countries.
There are some interesting theories as to why different traditional centres of civilization (the Middle East, India as opposed to China and Europe) developed such drastically different consumption strategies (ok big words, another expression of my inner consultant). The most interesting one I’ve read, an economic and ecological argument regarding food choices, is a book called Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris.
The New York Times article also made a claim about the health benefits of mutton that also seems a little counter-intuitive. We think of it as rich and heavy, but goat meat is apparently leaner and lower in cholesterol than all popular red and white meats, including chicken! This claim, however, does seem to be borne out – below is a rather detailed chart comparing the meats, and a reasonably authentic-looking study can be found here with references to data from USDA sources (no, I didn’t check it out further; why question a good thing). Go goat!