Food Politics: Should Meat be Taxed like Sugar?


by Dr Michelle de la Vega, PhD — Get free science updates here.

You’ve probably seen the news that researchers from the University of Oxford are proposing a tax on red and processed meat.

But this isn’t the first time that a tax on food items has been proposed. In April 2018, a sugar tax was introduced in the UK, on drinks containing more than 5 grams of sugar per 100ml. Many countries also tax alcoholic beverages and tobacco products.

The connection between all these consumables? They are all said to have negative effects on our health, increasing the healthcare cost burden. 

What Are the Health Risks of Meat Consumption?

In 2015, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (meaning it can cause cancer in humans) and red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen (which means it probably causes cancer in humans).

But just because something is labelled as a carcinogen, that doesn’t mean it will definitely cause cancer. The amount consumed, how often it is eaten, and individual genetics all play important roles. You can learn more about the link between red meat and cancer in this Red Meat and Cancer Risk course.

It’s also not just cancer risk we need to think about. High red and processed meat consumption may also increase risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

How Much Would the Proposed Tax Be?

Since processed and red meat consumption varies globally, the tax would depend on the country and their healthcare cost burden from red and processed meat. For example, in high-income countries (like the US), the researchers predict that a 111.17% price change for processed meat would be necessary to offset the healthcare costs, whilst in upper-middle income countries (like the UK) a 46.85% price increase would be necessary.

For red meat, the price change would be smaller: 21.36% for high-income countries and 6.51% for upper-middle income countries.

The proposed tax varies from 0.2% to 185% for processed meat depending on the region (Springmann et al., 2018).

What Do YOU Think?

There is evidence to suggest that taxing processed and red meat could change behaviour, lower consumption, and reduce cancer risk. But we don’t actually know if it will work in practice.

Plus, should the government be the one to decide which foods we should eat – or should it be an individual’s decision?

Should processed and red meat be taxed?

Take our poll below and let us know what you think!

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