Should meat be taxed to improve health and fix the environment? Adapted from a feature by Alice Ball first published in Spring 2019.

Would taxing meat be a fast-track towards improving health and helping the environment?

That’s what researchers from the University of Oxford and the International Food Policy Research Institute in the USA proposed in 2018.

Worldwide, the study had linked eating red meat with more than 167,000 deaths, and processed meat with more than 600,000 deaths, primarily due to stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and bowel 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 says 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% tax on processed meat and 14% 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.”

Is meat unhealthy?

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 [as] 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%.

“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 2°C.”

Nutrition: key nutrients in meat

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.

Find out more about how to support children on a vegetarian or vegan diet

Rising costs

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 packet of processed meat, such as ham, would raise to £1.79. A £2 packet of mince — often a versatile, low-cost source of protein — would raise to £2.28.

And it remains to be seen whether families who could no longer afford such products would be driven towards healthy vegetarian ingredients or better cuts of meat, or whether they would simply be worse off on the same diet.

Food for thought

There are no concrete plans to implement a meat tax in the UK just yet.

However, 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.

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.”

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