Forget a meat tax: ultra-processed food should be the target, according to experts

The Food Ethics Council has debated the merits of a sin tax on meat, arguing that a bigger overhaul is needed for the food system, including climate-friendly farming.

30 May 2019

Targeting meat via a ‘sin tax’ would be simplistic and “too blunt” a policy tool to tackle health concerns in the UK, according to the Food Ethics Council.

Instead, it called for a tax on ultra-processed foods to steer people towards better choices.

Its scrutiny over the introduction of a meat tax was part of an event organised by the council called Food Policy on Trial, which heard from four expert witnesses.

The panel included Professor Mike Rayner from the University of Oxford, which released a report last year urging the UK Government to introduce a health tax on red and processed meat to prevent deaths and save money on healthcare. Rayner argued that a meat tax was a natural step on from the soft drinks levy.

Meanwhile, Jody Harris from the Institute of Development Studies gave evidence of the negative health impacts of consuming processed and ultra-processed meat, which include higher mortality rates, especially cardiovascular disease.

In the opposite corner were Stuart Roberts, National Farmers' Union vice president, and Richard Young from the Sustainable Food Trust, who both challenged the idea. Young highlighted the environmental benefits that grazing livestock can bring.

These witnesses were questioned by a Food Ethics Council jury that included philosopher Julian Baggini and Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning.

All meat isn’t made equal

While the majority of the audience felt that a nuanced meat tax might work, the jury believed that it would have to be within a broader framework tackling health and environmental issues.

It found the idea of a tax on ultra-processed meat promising, although ideally it should be extended to cover all ultra-processed food, particularly as the UK has the most ultra-processed diet in Europe – with new studies just this week finding that it put people at a greater risk of heart attack, stroke and early death.

“We shouldn’t lump all meat into the same basket, which is why a blunt tax on meat won’t work,” said Dan Crossley, executive director of the Food Ethics Council. “The clearest evidence is against ultra-processed meat and other ultra-processed foods, which have been allowed to dominate our daily diets. It’s time to challenge this and seriously consider the idea of an ultra-processed food tax.”

To mitigate the impacts of such a tax, the jury proposed ringfencing any revenue towards two main areas. Firstly, for general public support, including helping those on low incomes to eat healthier diets in a dignified way. Secondly, to support farmers and food producers to transition towards healthy, sustainable food and farming systems.

Climate-friendly farming

It was noted during the public policy debate that eating meat in moderation can have nutritional value, while sustainable livestock production can benefit people and the environment.

However, there are serious animal welfare concerns relating to intensive livestock farming and major environmental impacts from animal feed and food production, including greenhouse gas emissions and widescale biodiversity loss.

From a global equity perspective, the UK is one of the many rich countries where the level of meat consumption is far in excess of what would be a fair share, with the UK currently eating twice the global average of meat, Harris pointed out.

The Food Ethics Council wants the UK government to respond to climate change and the biodiversity crisis with financial measures to incentivise climate-friendly livestock production and penalise those that contribute to global warming. Examples worth considering, it said, include import tariffs on feedstuffs, carbon taxes, nitrogen taxes and subsidies.

With Brexit lurking, this could also signal a raft of changes to UK food and farming policies, including providing new opportunities.

“Whatever happens with Brexit, we must get on with transforming our food system,” added Crossley. “We urgently need interventions that can put livestock farming and the food we eat in the UK onto a healthy, sustainable footing. More food policy ideas need to be put on trial. Only by having a respectful dialogue about these critical issues can we make the urgent progress we need.”

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