Oxford University researchers have found that Australia would be among the countries hardest hit by a meat tax – with steaks and chops costing up to a third more, and the price of bacon almost doubling.
But we would also benefit most in terms of lives saved and reduced costs to the healthcare system.
The Australian analysis was part of a complex and wide-ranging study by population health scientists who calculated that a hefty meat tax would save 220,000 lives a year globally, and cut about $US41 billion ($56.66 billion) from the world’s annual healthcare costs. The move would also lead to a drastic reduction in greenhouse gases.
The idea is to recognise meat as a carcinogenic – like tobacco and alcohol – and legislate a market-based response by imposing taxes that significantly increase prices to encourage reduced consumption.
The bacon paradox: Cured but carcinogenic
In 2015, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, classified the consumption of red meat, which includes beef, lamb, and pork, as carcinogenic to humans if eaten in processed form, and as probably carcinogenic if eaten unprocessed.
In addition to being linked with cancer, the consumption of red and processed meat has also been associated with increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and overall mortality
Published this month in the journal PLoS One, the study focused on calculating optimal levels of taxation for red and processed meat in 149 world regions – in other words, how much tax would need to be imposed – to offset the cost burden to healthcare systems, and to facilitate change in consumer behaviour.
The researchers found that in high-income countries, red meat would need to be at least 20 per cent more expensive, and processed meat such as bacon, sausages and jerky, would need to be more than double their current price to pay for the health costs associated with their consumption.
Nearly $400 billion in health costs
They estimated that in 2020 there would be 2.4 million deaths attributable to red and processed meat consumption, as well as $US285 billion ($393 billion) in costs related to healthcare.
The study was led by Dr Marco Springmann, of the Oxford Martin Programme, on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford.
On the university website he said: “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 in many countries, and on the economy, which is losing its labour force due to ill health and care for family members who fall ill.”
The study suggests that if the health taxes were introduced, consumption of processed meat would decline by about two portions a week in high-income countries and by 16 per cent globally, while unprocessed red meat consumption would remain steady, due to consumers substituting it for processed meat.
Tax revenues would amount to $US172 billion ($238 billion) globally and cover 70 per cent of the health costs that red and processed meat consumption puts on society. To fully cover the costs, the health taxes would have to be doubled.
Hopes for government support rudely dashed
“I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers,” said Dr Springmann.
Reduced consumption of processed meat was also identified by the study as having positive knock-on effects on climate change and body weight. The researchers found it would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by over 100 million tonnes, mainly due to lower beef consumption.
Dr Springmann’s hopes for a sober discussion of the issue by world governments were immediately dashed. In the UK Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, declared on Twitter: “What a claptrap. Bacon is an important contributor to my wellbeing. Hands off.”
Australia’s Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has said that comparing red meat to cigarettes is “ridiculous”, and characterised the Oxford researchers as out of touch.
“These institutions aren’t living in the real world,” he said. “Red meat is essential to a healthy diet. Suggestions a red meat tax would result in less overweight people are garbage.”