Meat of the Matter: Calculate this

Hey, they were close give or take a thousand birds.

A vegan group has created an online tool called the Vegetarian Calculator, and it's making waves with a pronouncement meant to shock our modern sensibilities that meat-eaters are responsible for killing OMG, hold your breath more than 7,000 animals over the course of their lifetimes!

Problem is, a slew of idiot wanna-bes, those 20-something pseudo-journalists who post video clips of themselves spewing nonsense on dozens of entertainment-only websites, has picked up the story and run with it. Some make fun of the numbers, imagining all the dead animals lying around while we overfed Americans bitch about the characters on The Bachelor. Others righteously decry our gluttonous appetite for giant slabs of bloody red meat.

None of them bothered to perform the first and most essential function of anyone who even pretends to be a professional journalist: Check the facts.

Here's what the Vegetarian Calculator asserted to get to the number 7,000: Over their lifetimes, "average Americans" will consume 11 cows, 27 pigs, 2,400 chickens, 80 turkeys, 30 sheep and 4,500 fish, for a total of 7,048 dead animals.

When you access the VC website, interestingly enough, the very first Facebook comment that's prominently displayed on the home page asks, "For verification purposes, can you please provide the background calculations and backup data used to create the calculator and its various values and elements?"

Great question. Allow me to do exactly that.

Let's start with beef. Using USDA data, per capita consumption of beef is about 55 pounds a year. Let's assume that people consume that annual amount of beef for 70 years, the typical U.S. lifespan (minus a few infant and toddler years, during which 55 pounds a year would be a bit of a stretch). That equals 3,850 lifetime pounds of beef. Give the average dressed weight of a market steer at about 700 pounds, that equals 5.5 cows, not 11. And that doesn't account for the trend of declining per-capita beef consumption, which has been heading south for 40 years now, not to mention that we're talking about disappearance data, not actual amounts of meat actually eaten.

With pork, current annual per capita consumption is about 46 pounds a year. Since the average market hog dresses out at about 175 pounds, that means 70 years of eating one's average share of pork would total 3,220 pounds per lifetime, or about 18.5 hogs, not 27.

Let's move on to poultry. The average annual per capita consumption of chicken is about 84 pounds. Given that the typical dressed broiler weighs about 4 pounds, that totals 5,880 pounds of chicken, or approximately 1,470 chickens, not the 2,400 birds Vegetarian Calculator estimated.

Hey, they were close give or take a thousand birds.

With turkey, the calculation is pretty simple. Average per-capita consumption is about 15 pounds a year, or about one average turkey. That equates to 70 turkeys in a lifetime.

Next up are sheep. Since mutton consumption is pretty much nil here in the USA, we must use the calculation for lamb. That's about three-quarters of a pound per year per person, or 52 pounds over the average lifespan. With a typical dressed weight of market-weight lambs being about 40 pounds, that means lamb eaters are consuming slightly less than 1½ animals, not 80 head, as Vegetarian Calculator pretends.

Finally, let's analyze fish consumption. According to USDA, total fish and shellfish consumption in the United States averages about 14.4 pounds a year, or about a thousand pounds per person over a lifetime.

Now, it's unclear how that total breaks down between shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels, etc.) and the rest of the seafood and freshwater aquatic species, but one thing's for sure: A thousand pounds does not translate into 4,500 creatures.

No way, no how.

In fact, since the primary source of fish for most Americans is either canned tuna or various processed forms of "whitefish" such as pollock, cod, or halibut a significant portion of that lifetime half ton of fish food probably equals about a dozen actual fish. But since that clams, shrimp and oysters are considerably smaller, let's be generous and estimate that each American fish-eater "kills" about 1,200 animals over their lifetimes.

That brings the actual total for the average American meat eater to 2,765.5 animals, not 7,048. And since a third of that total consists of shellfish, which don't possess a central nervous system nor a face and thus cannot be lumped into the category of sentient creatures whose deaths are cause for grief and guilt, we're talking about an actual livestock total that's less than one-fifth of what Vegetarian Calculator is claiming.

Of course, the death of one single creature is one too many for committed vegans. They stoke their extreme lifestyle choices with the false props of compassion for all animals, as if the worst outcomes in the animal kingdom occur on farms and ranches, and a naïve and willful ignorance of the impact on land use, resources and economic viability were the world's seven billion omnivores to make wholesale shift to a strict plant-based diet.

Here's a shorthand summary of the Vegetarian Calculator: If it were it to be adopted worldwide, the vegan diet would be an absolute disaster for the one animal species we're supposed to care the most about: people.

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