What is the real cost of a burger?

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Carlos Laforet Coll

If externalities were supported by meat producers, and not by consumers or by society at large, the meat industry would no longer be as highly profitable. It would cease to exist

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In 2005, the House of Representatives passed an act banning consumers from suing fast-food operators for weight gain. They nicknamed him “Cheeseburger Bill” (formally, "personal responsibility in place of food consumption") and established that the costs of fast food are personal, not social, and certainly not a consequence of selling harmful foods at low prices.

It all started with a class-action that accused McDonald of causing obesity in children. But the reality is very different from what the political decision makers wrote 8 years ago, as demonstrated Mark Bittman del New York Times, that he wanted calculate the real costs of the hamburger, after years of dangerous food for us, for animals and for the environment.

Whatever the product, in fact, some costs are borne by the producers, but others, called external costs - or "externalities", as economists teach us - are not; nor are they represented in the price. To give an example: if the cheeseburger is wrapped in a piece of paper, and you throw that piece of paper on the sidewalk, it will eventually have to be picked up by a paid garbage collector; the cost of such an act is an externality. And only by calculating all the externalities it is possible to arrive at a real cost of a product or an activity.

Let's start with some data. Americans are estimated to eat approx 16 billion burgers a year, of all shapes and sizes. The "average" product costs about $ 4,49. But its external costs vary from 68 cents to 2,90, including only expenses that are relatively easy to calculate, such as CO2 emissions, whose monetary value could range from 15 cents (according to the government's official rate) to 24 cents (conservative independent sources) and $ 1.20 (independent high). The average of these three estimates, however, brings us to 53 cents per burger.

Also costs for chronic diseases are calculable. Studies tell us that red meat intake can increase cardiovascular disease risk and mortality, but like many of the speculative externalities discussed in the analysis, it's impossible to assign a cost for it. However, a major factor in the growth of obesity has been the increase in the availability of high-calorie foods, and burgers have played an important role in this process. Between 1970 and 2000, per capita calorie intake increased by 24 percent, and the fst food and take away sector has grown by more than half compared to all the other foods we eat.

Between 2007 and 2010, 11,3 percent of American adults' daily calorie intake came from fast food. Burgers, therefore, certainly played an important role in increasing calorie intake. To estimate the share of obesity-related costs resulting from the consumption of burgers, the share of calories from fast-food burgers was then estimated. Assuming that 11,3 percent of calories is proportional to the incidence rate of obesity (which may be even greater), the health-associated risks, and its treatment costs, are aattributable to hamburgers for 15 percent of the share of direct and indirect costs resulting from obesity (about 1,65 percent of the total).

The link between obesity and chronic fatal diseases - arthritis, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, among others - is well documented, as is their enormous economic burden. This is about $ 231 billion a year. These numbers indicate that the cost of burgers is around $ 4 billion a year (fast food burgers only!), Averaging 48 cents per burger.

Some other costs, then, are only vaguely calculable. There are high nitrates in the resulting water supplies chemical fertilizers used for growing corn to feed livestock; the cost of meal vouchers and other public welfare programs; the role of the beef sector in increasing antibiotic resistance; soil consumption, pesticide residues, accident rates in slaughterhouses, and so on ... Even more difficult to calculate are the "costs" of a shortened life, or value of biodiversity loss resulting from the destruction of rainforests to provide land for livestock or for food.

Each of these costs adds pennies and cents to the external costs of a burger. But while they may be trivial individually, it is when they add up that problems arise. Last year, hamburger chains grossed about $ 70 billion in revenue. So it is not a stretch to say that the external costs of a hamburger can even outweigh the "benefits" (if there really are any, to the profits of companies).

If such externalities were supported by producers, and not by consumers or by society at large, the meat industry would no longer be so highly profitable. It would cease to exist. In this discussion, the hamburger is simply the symbol of a wrong food system, that of industrial food, which has manipulated prices to deceive us: low prices do not indicate real "savings", but many problems to be solved, in the face of equity, sustainability and health.

Roberta Ragni

Read also:

Do you know what's inside a hot dog?

The true costs of meat production

9 good reasons not to eat at McDonald's

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