A tax on red meat would be a ‘retrograde step’, according to a leading public health nutritionist.
The question of a ‘meat tax’ has been hotly debated across the media, after researchers at the University of Oxford claimed it could prevent almost 6,000 deaths per year and more than £700m in healthcare costs in the UK. Globally, the study from researchers at the Oxford Martin School found that a health tax on red and processed meat could prevent more than 220,000 deaths and save over US$40 billion in healthcare costs every year.
The researchers pointed out that the World Health Organisation classifies beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and as probably carcinogenic when eaten unprocessed.
The consumption of red and processed meat exceeds recommended levels in most high- and middle-income countries, which has significant impacts not only on personal health, but also on healthcare systems and on economies, which are losing workers due to ill health.
The study found that red meat would need to be 20% more expensive and processed meat, like bacon, sausages and jerky, would need to be more than double its current price to account for these health costs.
“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,” said research leader Dr Marco Springmann, of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.
But public health nutritionist and dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, said meat consumption had already declined significantly, with average intakes now well below NHS guidelines.
“Red meat provides valuable nutrients, such as iron, zinc, vitamin D and B vitamins. These are often in short supply in the diets of young children, teenage girls and women, especially those from lower income households.
“A tax on red meat would be a retrograde step, both for overall diet quality in women and girls and for health inequalities
“There is no high-quality evidence linking red and processed meat with heart disease, stroke or diabetes, and a risk of bowel cancer only applies when weekly intakes exceed 700g. As few people in the UK are at this level of consumption, a general meat tax would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
“Chronic disease prevention would be far more effective if it focused on smoking, excess drinking, and body weight rather than a single food source like meat, which brings many nutritional benefits.”
NFU national livestock board chairman Richard Findlay said: “Scientific and medical communities both agree consuming recommended quantities of red meat is beneficial to human health and provides the body with a ready source of essential vitamins and minerals.
“British farmers will therefore continue to provide safe, traceable and affordable food for us all to enjoy, whatever our preference, as part of a healthy, balanced diet.”
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “Pork remains an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. British pork is much loved by British public, who would not take kindly to being told to pay more for it and eat less of it.
“We believe a meat tax is unnecessary and unhelpful in public health terms for the reasons mentioned above, while such a tax would also discriminate against lower income families. The Great British public is more than capable of making up its own mind!”
Among those to dismiss the idea on social media was former Defra Secretary Liz Truss, who tweeted: “What claptrap. Bacon is an important contributor to my wellbeing. #handsoff”