Britain is Addicted to Red Meat. A Tax Could be the Only Intervention.

Red meat on a butcher’s counter (CC) @lukasbudimeier via
A November 2018 report from Oxford University has found that implementing a ‘health tax’ on red and processed meats would save billions of pounds which would otherwise have been used to pay for healthcare and help reduce the impact of meat production in contributing to global climate change. If applied in the United Kingdom, it could prevent nearly 6,000 deaths and save the NHS over £734m each year.
The report comes off the back of years of reports, notably the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, describing how processed meat products such as bacon and sausages contain chemicals which have such as strong link with certain types of cancer that they have been classified as Grade 1 carcinogens (meaning that they definitely cause cancer in humans). This would put processed meat in the same carcinogenic category as tobacco smoking and asbestos, but does not mean that they are all equally carcinogenic, just that there is a definite link between its consumption and an increased risk of some cancers. Red meat such as pork and beef has been classed as Grade 2A, meaning that there is a likely link between its consumption and the development of certain cancers.
The study recommends that red meat and processed meat products will each be taxed at different rates, and the rate of these taxes differs from country to country. In the United Kingdom, the study suggests that the price of red meat products be raised by 17%, and processed food by 79%. Analysis by The Independent has estimated that such a tax would increase the price of a full-English breakfast by 54%.
As with any suggestion for new taxes, it was immediately met with opposition from the right-wing press, with The Sun declaring it to be a ‘levy on family favourites’. Similar outrage was caused by the UK Government’s implementation of a sugar tax in 2018 and although it is too early to declare wether or not the tax been a success, with companies such as the manufacturers of Scotland’s ‘other national drink’ Irn-Bru halving the sugar content of their products by 50%. In reaction to a report by the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) which recommended that consumers should reduce their meat consumption and adopt a ‘flexitarian’ diet in order to reduce their impact on the environment, the UK Climate Minister Claire Perry said that government “should not be in the business of prescribing to people how they should run their diet” and in the same interview with the BBC refused to say wether she believed the conclusions of the scientists that meat consumption needed to fall.
(CC) @stijntestrake via
The British people eat a total of 5.5 billion kilograms of meat per year, which has serious consequences for the environment as well as our health. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has found that a third of the entire ice-free land mass of the earth is given over to raising animals for slaughter once you factor in that a third of all crops grown are used to feed livestock. It is a very inefficient way of producing protein: it requires 25kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef and the United States could feed 800 million people per year with the grain which is fed to livestock (it should be noted that this data is from 1997 and the figure has likely since increased). With the world population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, meat consumption threatening to rise by 75%, and climate change threatening to radically alter current farming practices and threaten global food security, humanity is going to have to radically reassess how to meet the demands of billions of hungry mouths demanding easy access to food – especially food which is high in protein and meat enjoyed by many in the developed world.
The British Green Party MP Caroline Lucas proposed a tax on meat products in January 2019 to reduce the carbon output of British agriculture, which received heavy criticism from the meat industry, labelling her ‘ignorant’ and ‘prejudiced’ against those who eat meat. Ms Lucas’ suggestions differ from those outlined in the Oxford University report since she advocated for a blanket tax over meat products instead of just red and processed meat. The suggestion was met with opposition by some in the agricultural sector including Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association who contrasted the energy-intensive method of farming used in the United States of America with the less intensive ‘grass-based method of sheep production’ used in the United Kingdom, which he claimed was a natural part of the carbon cycle. It should be noted that in the twelve weeks leading up to April 23 2017, lamb made up only 11.5% of the £1,387,600,000,000 of meat sales in the UK.

Dr Marco Springmann, who contributed to the Oxford University report, stated that he recognised that consumers may object to the government telling them ‘what they can and can’t eat’, but argued that the levy could make decision making easier for consumers. While any practice which enforces a financial cost to a consumer’s decision can be labelled ‘punitive’, that does not automatically mean that such an action will be unpopular or ineffective. The 5p charge on single-use plastic bags, which has been in force across the United Kingdom since 5 October 2015, enjoys 80% public support according to YouGov and reduced plastic bag use from ‘the big seven’ supermarkets (Asda, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsburys, The Co-operative Group, Tesco and Waitrose) 86% in the time since the levy was implemented. The 5p levy does not go to the government, but is used by retailers to support ‘good causes’ such as the environment, the arts and health organisations. The government estimates that over the next ten years the levy will provide a benefit of £780 million to the UK economy, save £60 million in litter-cleaning costs and £13 million worth of carbon savings.

(CC) @jonigutierrez via
Of course, in order to have an impact on mitigating climate change, measures to reduce the consumption of red and processed meat would have to be implemented globally. But that is not an argument against any single country taking action, since the study suggests that such an intervention would save almost one million lives in high-income countries and global tax revues would cover 70% of health costs caused by the consumption of red and processed meat.
The Oxford University study is not perfect, since it is based on mathematical projections; does not take into account the health effects of other lifestyle choices, such as smoking and exercise, and does not investigate the impact of the consumption of alternatives to the taxed produce. However, the strong scientific consensus around the link between meat consumption and disease and the impact of meat production of greenhouse emissions makes a compelling case for more dramatic intervention. A 2015 report by The Royal Institute for Economic Affairs analysed the attitudes of 12 countries – including the UK, US, China and Brazil – towards meat consumption. It found that public support for punitive measures such as a tax on consumption could enjoy increased support if it was justified by having health and environmental benefits. In the UK, this could involve using money raised by a tax to support the NHS, which 87% of Britons are ‘very proud of’, indicating high public support.
The issue of changing the British public’s attitude to meat consumption is unlikely to be on the UK Government’s agenda any time soon. But with time running out for the goals set by the 2015 Paris Climate Accords to be reached, and the NHS under ‘unprecedented pressure’ according to the BMJ, action will have to be taken soon to avoid playing catch up to issues which should have been dealt with years earlier. 


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