First published Spring 2019


 

Could a proposed tax on meat benefit both our health and the environment? Alice Ball reports

 

Researchers from the University of Oxford and from the International Food Policy Research Institute in the USA recently proposed a tax on red and processed meats which could, if implemented, increase the price of some cheap foods that many low-income families rely upon — but which, the researchers say, could improve health and help the environment.1   

Worldwide, the study had linked eating red meat with more than 167,000 deaths, and processed meat with more than 600,000 deaths. Primary causes of death included stroke, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.

According to Dr Marco Springmann, a senior researcher on environmental sustainability and public health at the University of Oxford, such diseases put a substantial economic burden on the NHS. He told Optimum Nutrition that a tax on red and processed meat would steer people away from consuming it, in turn raising revenues to pay for the health costs needed to treat the diseases associated with its consumption. “We estimated that consumption of processed meat could go down by about two portions per week if the tax levels we estimated — 79 per cent tax on processed meat and 14 per cent on red meat — were implemented,” he says. “One could imagine even bigger reductions if the tax scheme were to be complemented by public information campaigns and changes in supermarkets and canteens.” 

Level of risk

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meats (e.g. ham, bacon, salami and sausages) as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means there is strong evidence that they can cause cancer. Red meat such as beef, lamb and pork was classified as Group 2a — a probable cause. Whilst these classifications do not indicate how likely a person is to develop the disease, they do indicate how certain the WHO is that these foods may lead to it. 

The exact mechanisms underlying the association are unclear. One possible explanation is the effect of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), chemicals produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures (between 120-230C) that trigger cancers to form.

Jessica Fonteneau, a registered nutritional therapist, also suggests farming practices, which have changed as demand has increased, could influence the health quality of the product. “In the past, meat was free-range and grass-fed,” she says. “Now meat can come from [intensively farmed] animals who are fed grain-based diets rich in antibiotics.”

However, Fonteneau says that research into the harmful effects of red meat on our health can be limited. “In observational research there are many confounding factors that influence the research such as smoking habits, alcohol intake, sugar intake and activity level.

“The newest study also doesn’t distinguish between what is a processed and unprocessed meat.”    

Environmental benefits

Health benefits aside, however, Springmann, himself a vegan, says that the proposed tax would also have environmental benefits. “The food system is responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “The majority of those emissions are due to animal products. Beef has the greatest emissions — about 100 times as many per kilogram than legumes — and pork and poultry have about 10 times more.”

According to Springmann, if the government were to tax greenhouse gas emissions then animal products would need to become much more expensive, with beef prices in particular increasing by 40 per cent. “Without dietary changes towards healthy and more plant-based diets,” he says, “it will be very hard to avoid dangerous levels of climate change and stay below a global warming of two degrees Celsius.” 

Nutrition

Concern for the environment is already leading many to reduce or cut out animal products. According to the Vegan Society, 600,000 people in the UK classified themselves as vegan in 2018; more than four times the number recorded in 2014. 

However, Fonteneau says that the main concern for anyone adopting a more plant-based diet is that they do not become deficient in key micronutrients.

“These include vitamin B12, zinc, iron, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine and vitamin A in particular,” she says. Vitamin B12 — derived from animal products — is necessary for the production of red blood cells. “For anyone following a flexitarian diet, the occasional consumption of sources of animal protein including dairy, eggs and potentially fish would ensure that the risk of deficiency is low. For a strict vegan, I would recommend [taking] a quality B12 supplement, omega-3s and a multivitamin and mineral.” (B12 is also available through yeast extract such as Marmite, nutritional yeast and some fortified foods.)

Fonteneau says that the same considerations apply for a child who is following a plant-based diet, but deficiency in key micronutrients may have a greater impact on a growing child. “A very carefully balanced diet needs to be planned for a child who is following a plant-based diet to ensure that a minimum of deficiencies occur,” she says. Supplementation should also be carefully considered, particularly calcium for building strong bones.

Cost

However, although plant-based protein sources such as legumes can be very cost effective, Fonteneau says that for lower-income families, the cost of supplementation may outweigh the cost benefits of a solely plant-based diet. “Meat is also very nutritious and contains healthy protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.”

If implemented, the proposed tax would dramatically increase the prices of low-cost foods. For example, a £1.00 packet of processed meat, such as ham, would raise to £1.79. A £2.00 packet of mince — often a versatile, low-cost source of protein — would raise to £2.28. And whether families who could no longer afford such products would be driven towards healthy vegetarian ingredients or better cuts of meat would remain to be seen.

Without dietary changes towards healthy and more plant-based diets, it will be very hard to avoid dangerous levels of climate change and stay below a global warming of two degrees Celsius

Food taxes are also never popular, and some will find ways to avoid them completely if possible. In 2012, Denmark scrapped its short-lived ‘fat tax’ (a tax on foods with more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat) because although some people did switch to lower-fat products, many Danes simply popped over to neighbouring countries to shop there instead, avoiding the tax completely. From the UK, this would not be an easy option, regardless of Brexit (which at time of writing remains uncertain), because it means buying a ferry or train ticket first. But it does raise questions of whether a meat tax would have the desired effect, whether some people would find ways around it, and whether some families would simply fall further into food poverty.

Food for thought

There are no concrete plans to implement a meat tax in the UK just yet, but the proposal has highlighted the fact that we are facing health and environmental problems that could potentially be eased by reducing our meat consumption, or choosing more eco-friendly sources of meat.

Currently, the recommended intake of red and processed meat stands at no more than 70 g per day — that’s around two rashers of bacon or five tablespoons of cooked mince.

Springmann says: “Even a mostly plant-based flexitarian [occasional meat] diet that contains meat occasionally goes a long way. We estimated that if everybody would limit red meat consumption to one serving per week, then we would be able to stay within the emissions limit of the food system.”

Additional reporting: Optimum Nutrition staff.

LIVING MEAT-FREE

 

Emma’s family follows a pescatarian [eats fish] /dairy-free diet. “Physically my [two-year-old] daughter was always on the 50th percentile for height and weight. She reached development milestones on target or earlier... she has only recently had to undertake a course of antibiotics for a chest infection, which I have been informed is unusual not to have had already by her age.

“The key is to mainly cook from scratch, experiment, find simple recipes and batch cook and freeze. We also keep frozen food available for when we don’t have much time to cook.”

Kelly and her 10-year-old daughter are both vegan. “I’ve noticed that my [vegan] eldest daughter has a larger appetite than before. It means that she eats every two hours, which luckily isn’t a problem as my children are home-schooled. I also have a vegetarian daughter who is a very picky eater so I try to sneak iron-rich food like chopped spinach into her meals and encourage her to eat iron-fortified cereals for breakfast.

“It can be expensive if you buy only the free-from or vegan branded foods. If you do your research you can find many foods that ... don’t contain any animal ingredients but they don’t have a vegan logo on them so they are more budget-friendly.”

Liza follows a flexitarian diet. “I will eat everything but I don’t eat a huge amount of meat or fish. I’ll eat fish once a week, probably, and meat a couple of times a week. Most of my meals are vegetarian and I tend to rely on lentils and legumes because I’m not keen on meat substitutes. I’ll buy big bags of lentils and make large pots of stews or curries which I’ll portion up and freeze. My biggest friend is a packed-out spice cupboard so I can vary the types of recipes I make.”

 

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References

  1. Springmann M et al (2018). Health-motivated taxes on red and processed meat: A modelling study on optimal tax levels and associated health impacts. PloS one, 13(11), e0204139.