Meat tax stoush

A recent study from the University of Oxford that puts forward the case for a meat tax has gained significant media coverage. Most of the coverage has presented the results of the study – that the “optimal” tax could prevent 220,000 deaths and save over US$40 billion in healthcare costs globally every year – uncritically.

The optimal “health tax” calculated by the study would be different for countries based on their meat consumption and income, as well as the costs associated with the “associated” chronic diseases. Therefore health taxes on sausages in Germany, and bacon in the US would increase prices by a massive 160%. Whereas prices for processed meat in China would have to increase by 40%, and those in Ethiopia by less than 1%. Due to its relatively modest healthcare spending the UK is somewhere in the middle with an 80% increase. The benefits are deemed to be that people would substitute meat for less harmful foods – reducing average body weight. That of course assumes that people do in fact eat more fruit and veg rather than more processed foods – which itself seems a stretch, particularly for low-income households.

The coverage has been mostly positive, based on the premise that everyone know we should all be eating less meat – amirite? Most media reports, as does a write-up by the study author Dr Marco Springmann in The Conversation, use as the foundation of the study the fact that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that processed meat causes cancer and red meat increases the risk of cancer.

What the WHO actually says, according to their website is that red meat was classified as a Group 2A carcinogen – which means there is “limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence”. Processed meat was classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, which DOES put it in the same classification as tobacco smoking and asbestos, but that doesn’t make it as dangerous to health. “The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.” It appears many of the risks associated with processed meats are to do with salt and nitrates used to preserve the meat, rather than the meat itself.  The WHO IARC findings so pivotal to the meat tax study generated many headlines about killer bacon which had to be hosed down later by the WHO itself, as well as more considered commentators.

A meat tax in this study is therefore equated with regulation of other carcinogens such as tobacco, asbestos and sugary drinks. There is no distinction made between the other consumed products that provide little (sugary drinks) to no (tobacco) nutritional value to humans.

Of course, there have been the predictable defensive responses from the meat industry itself, which have been treated with some distrust – understandable given the vested interest there. The clashes have been framed by the media as “academics vs farming groups” implying the academics are only on one side of the argument. However Springmann – the lead author of the study is a proud vegan – and his beliefs probably played a part in the way the study has been designed and reported. Springmann’s work has also assessed the impacts on climate change of reducing meat consumption – and guess what it’s all upside – especially if everyone turns vegan!

It’s unlikely that this study, which has generated plenty of clicks and publicity for Oxford University and Springmann will generate a policy that would be so politically onerous. However, it does have an influence on community sentiment and is based on shaky assumptions about cause, effect and behaviour. Work like this should be challenged, and often isn’t because the vegan utopia is gaining traction and seems unassailable.