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Meat Tax: A Possible Solution for Environmental and Public Health

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

Nick Webb looks into what the potential benefits a 'meat-tax' could have on public health and the environment.

Photo by Chi Chen

Scientists are recommending governments impose a new “meat tax” in order to help lighten the burdens on global health services.

New research from the University of Oxford shows how consumption of red meat vastly exceeds suggested levels in mid to high income countries, reaching an extent of consumption which can cause serious health risks. 

Significant Health Risks 

In 2015, the World Health Organisation confirmed that eating large quantities of processed red meats such as beef, lamb and pork can be carcinogenic to humans, meaning it can exacerbate the risk of getting cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has also linked unprocessed forms of these meats to increased risk of strokes, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and overall mortality. 

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The suggestion raised in the new paper, published in PLOS, calls for red meat to be treated the same as some countries treat sugary drinks and fatty foods. In the UK alone, a meat tax could save the NHS more than £700 million annually and save around 6000 lives by encouraging people to consume it less frequently. 

Dr Marco Springmann, the lead author on the paper “Health-motivated taxes on red and processed meat: A modelling study on optimal tax levels and associated health impacts, has suggested that the optimum levels of taxation added to products would be 14 per cent for red meats, and up to 80 per cent on processed meat. He claims these increased prices on meat products could lead to a 22 per cent drop in deaths and 19 per cent drop in healthcare costs currently linked to excessive consumption of processed meats.

“The consumption of red and processed meat exceeds recommended levels in most high and middle-income countries. This is having significant impacts not only on personal health, but also on healthcare systems, which are taxpayer-funded. It is a similar argument to taxing smokers. We are not saying do not have any meat, just pay a fair price for it that reflects the cost to your health and the pressure on the NHS.” – Dr Springmann

This research comes after 11,000 scientists at the Alliance of World Scientists co-signed a letter which, among other things, has suggested that the raising and consumption of livestock is a major factor in serious global warming.  Substantial scientific evidence has proved that humans eating meat has negative effects for both the environment and human health, and both suggest that a more plant-based diet would be better for everyone. 

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A Viable Change?

While it is easy to see the benefits of reducing the amount of meat consumed, many critics of the ‘meat tax’ claim that it would hit less-wealthy groups the hardest. Processed meats are typically the cheapest, making them the most easily available for lower-income households, so some say that taxing such products most severely would make “taxing food the next battleground for the nanny state.”

Ultimately, as Dr Springmann has said, “a health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems.”  The question remains how such a tax could be instigated realistically without further disadvantaging already-struggling members of society.


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