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17 September 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:50pm

Why it’s time for a meat tax

We already tax sugar, tobacco, and alcohol – so why not burgers? 

By Sam Pugh

If we accept that public policy should reflect public opinion, social need, and scientific evidence, then now is the time for a tax on meat.

Recent conclusions from the United Nations, World Health Organisation, NHS England, and others are clear; meat is not the angelic staple it was once thought to be. Yes, within a balanced diet meat can provide important nutrients and play a part in a healthy lifestyle, but that is not the debate nor what needs to be addressed.

What does need addressing is the excessive consumption of this potentially carcinogenic product, which not only causes cancer and life-threatening illnesses, but is damaging our environment, antibiotic effectiveness, and the NHS.

Indeed, it is the excessive consumption of meat that we should be acting to reduce.

Consuming just 50g of processed meat (a hot dog, for example) a day raises the risk of developing bowel cancer by 18 per cent over a lifetime. With the average UK adult consuming 70g a day and one in four now obese, the burden of meat consumption on the NHS is real. More funding is needed.

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In this regard, the tax on tobacco and cigarettes is strikingly similar. Before the modern science consensus emerged, received opinion was that cigarettes weren’t only harmless, but smoking actually provided health benefits. The scientific community inevitably caught up and public policy soon followed, despite a furious backlash from many with vested interests. 

A meat tax could also be seen as a policy sibling to the sugar tax, introduced in the UK as a levy on high sugar soft drinks. With the sugar tax, we rightly accepted that sugar can play a role in a balanced, healthy diet but the over-consumption of it in our everyday lives is a social problem deserving of government action. If we throw in the mix the devastating environmental and other impacts of animal husbandry we must ask ourselves: how is meat any different?

It isn’t. Not only would Britain be gently nudged in a healthier direction but the UK could see a 17 per cent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions. With the Paris Climate Agreement stipulating that global temperatures should rise no more that 2C, introducing a meat tax would position the UK as a committed and leading nation in halting climate change. Indeed, Denmark and Sweden are already having this conversation and the UK should be too.

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And public opinion is clearly shifting in the direction of supporting a meat tax. Research conducted by Chatham House and Glasgow University has strongly suggested that, when framed as a matter of public interest, people support a tax on meat. What’s more, in a recent Ipsos MORI poll, 80 per cent of the UK’s public were found to be either supportive or indifferent to the sugar tax with only 20 per cent of people explicitly opposed.

It follows suit that receipts raised from a meat tax should be used to offset the many societal problems caused by excessive meat consumption. That could include much-needed funding for the NHS, environmental protections, food education, or subsidies and incentives for UK meat farmers to move towards producing meat-free products.

In terms of implementation, numerous ways to tax meat have been put forward. Some support a tax based on greenhouse gas emissions per kg, whilst others insist on applying the full VAT rate (20 per cent) to meat products.

Through removing meat’s exemption to VAT, the liability of a meat tax will principally fall to its retailers. The dizzying profits and fierce competition of the UK supermarket industry should surely give us confidence in their ability to adjust to the expected changes in demand. Moreover, the general acceptance of paying VAT on other harmful and everyday products should help the palatability of the tax to its critics.

Yet there is a slightly bizarre attitude of some towards this issue – an unhinged, uncompromising, blood thumping defence of all things meat-related. To this often loud crowd we need to be clear and articulate of our motives: we are not proposing meat consumption controls, we are not considering banning meat. This is a considerate, progressive, and evidence based policy step forward that is essential in responding to negative outcomes from our personal choices.

As meat-free alternatives improve, becoming more varied and cheaper we should expect to shift away from the over-reliance and over-consumption of meat products. With this shift we can also expect to tackle the significant health inequality in the UK through improving the nation’s diet.

With any new major policy, framing and definition is crucial in winning broader public and cross-party support. We should not allow ideology nor sentimentality to get in the way of this 21st century policy.

Sam Pugh is a freelance writer.