The Hidden Cost of Hamburgers, the latest animated short from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) — the folks who brought you last summer’s The Price of Gas — takes a big-picture look at the web of problems associated with industrial beef production. The video hits all the most important points, but what’s most noteworthy is the actual number the reporters arrived at when calculating the hidden — or externalized — costs of the average burger: $1.51 (or $72 billion for the 48 billion burgers Americans eat every year).
On the CIR website the video’s co-reporter Sarah Terry-Cobo explains how she and co-reporter/producer Carrie Ching arrived at this number with an environmental consulting firm called Route2 Sustainability. The annotation reads:
We looked at a range of ways beef is produced and came up with an average that is close to how a cow would be raised in Fresno, Calif.: about 1 pound of greenhouse gases per ounce of beef, or about 6½ pounds of greenhouse gases per quarter-pounder. We looked at studies that showed the health costs of treating overweight people and associated illnesses, such as high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes — that’s about 75 cents per burger. Then we looked at how much water it takes to produce a pound of beef — that’s about 50 cents per burger. We also looked at the price of a ton of carbon — that’s remarkably small for the U.S., less than one-hundredth of a penny. But in the European Union, because it has a functioning carbon market, the price would be about a nickel per burger. Daniel Lopez Dias, the lead economist on the calculations, notes that these figures are conservative and don’t include effects from air and water pollution, effects of low wages that slaughterhouse workers receive and the high risk of injury they face, or general effects of urban sprawl.