Researchers at the University of Oxford have published a new study, which examines the potential health and financial impact of introducing taxes on processed and red meat. It suggested that in the UK, such a levy could help to prevent almost 6,000 deaths annually, and reduce health spending by £700m.

Unsurprisingly, the results of the study have sparked quite a lively debate between government ministers, economists, health experts and environmentalists.

What would the tax involve?

The study calculated optimal taxation rates in different regions all over the world. In the UK, these rates were:

  • 14% tax on red meat (such as steak and lamb)
  • and 79% tax on processed meat (such as bacon and sausages).

So, to give an example in numerical terms, a 225g steak from Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range, which currently costs £3.50 would rise to £3.99; and a pack of eight back bacon rashers from Waitrose would rise from £3.49 to £6.24.

The tax would not apply to white meat (such as chicken or turkey) and fish.

The optimal taxes elsewhere suggested by the study were much higher. In the US for example, the hypothetical levy would be 163% on processed foods and 34% on red meat.

The authors of the study estimated that, in some countries, the tax could curb processed meat intake by two portions per person, per week.

What would be the benefits of the tax?

The authors suggest that the tax could reduce the likelihood of many people developing cancer, suggesting that it could save almost 6,000 lives per year in the UK alone. They also said that costs to the health service would fall by in excess of £700m. In turn, reduced levels of sickness would lead to a healthier workforce and a stronger economy.

Because red meat is generally more intensive than white meat to farm, using more land and water, and generating higher levels of carbon, it’s also thought that the tax would be beneficial for the environment; reducing carbon emissions and facilitating more green space.

What’s the problem with eating too much red or processed meat?

In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) categorised processed meat as a group one carcinogen (or cause of cancer). In basic terms, group one carcinogens are substances which are known or strongly suspected to cause cancer in humans, such as alcohol and smoking. This doesn’t mean that processed meat is as bad for you as smoking, but rather that there is compelling evidence that processed meat increases cancer risk (as smoking does).

Red meat was categorised as a group 2A carcinogen. This means that ‘limited’ evidence suggests a probable link between red meat and cancer, but that other factors in studies relating to this association could not be entirely dismissed.

The clearest link between red or processed and meat and cancer risk is with bowel cancer specifically.

What are the arguments against it?

Some have criticised the idea, suggesting that it would amount to the government intervening too much in individual lifestyles, and essentially prescribing a diet for consumers to follow.

A spokesperson for the Institute for Economic Affairs described the issue as a ‘nanny state’ battleground, and said that such a tax would increase the cost of living (and in turn, disproportionately affect those on low incomes).

And in a response to a question on whether we should be eating less beef due to the impact on the climate, government minister Claire Perry commented that the state shouldn’t be in the business of telling people how to run their diets.

On the other hand, Marco Springmann who worked on the research stated that current levels of consumption are creating a burden on healthcare provision and public funds, which are ultimately footed by the taxpayer.

Has anything similar to this been implemented before?

Yes. Earlier this year, a ‘sugar tax’ was introduced on soft drinks. In the run up to its implementation, there was quite a similar debate, regarding the impact it would have on consumption and cost of living.

It’s perhaps too early to say whether it has been successful in getting people to consume fewer sugary soft drinks. But a positive outcome has been that many drinks manufacturers have reduced sugar levels in their product lines, so that they don’t have to pay the tax; and with fewer unhealthy options available, this is likely to benefit consumers as a whole.

Could a meat tax happen in the UK?

Given that a sugar tax was introduced earlier this year, it’s certainly possible. It doesn’t look likely to be introduced in the immediate short-term future. However, due to the link between cancer and processed meat, and the impact on the climate, some experts have said that a meat tax is inevitable.

Chatham House researcher Rob Bailey said it would be ‘hard to imagine’ the tax not being introduced in the next ten years.

How much red or processed meat is too much?

Red meat is a helpful source of iron, vitamin B12 and other minerals; so if you eat meat, it can be beneficial from a health perspective to have a small amount of red meat in your diet.

But in addition to the health risks discussed above, red meat does tend to be fattier than white meat, and processed meat even more so; so it’s a good idea to keep intake within sensible limits.

The Department of Health recommends cutting down to 70g per day if you eat 90g or more.

Some other measures to consider if you feel as though you might be eating too much red or processed meat are to:

  • swap it out for fish or chicken where possible;
  • have smaller portions of meat and instead include more vegetables, whole grains or pulses with your meal instead;
  • use chicken or vegetarian alternatives to bacon and sausages.

If you need help or advice cutting down on red meat, speak to your doctor, or take a look at the NHS Eatwell Guide.