The red meat tax does not fit the bill

If the current modelling of red meat tax is made a reality, red meat would be 20 per cent more expensive, and processed red meat would more than double in price in high-income countries. But is this price hike warranted? The idea of red meat tax is too simplistic an approach to health and sustainability.

The proposals of red meat tax have caused quite a stir, with strong reactions on either side of the argument. A study by the University of Oxford in November 2018 sparked the debate when it claimed, “a health tax on red and processed meat could prevent more than 220,000 deaths and save over $40 billion in healthcare costs every year”.

The proposed tax levels in the study differentiate between two types of product, red meat and processed meat, but meat processers know it isn’t this black and white. Would pre-marinated beef steaks be put in the same category as hot dogs just because of added ingredients? Health-wise, these products are worlds apart. Categorising them as the same is punishing innovation in a sector that bolsters the economy, with little gain to public health.  

The potential tax is proposed primarily from a health perspective, which is debatable considering good quality red meat eaten in moderation can be an excellent source of iron, vitamin B12 and other nutrients. Some studies have found links between red meat consumption and negative health effects, but it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation.

Even more complications are present in the environmental issues related to red meat. The proposed tax also aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions in red meat production. However, properly pasture-reared animals feed on grassland that is unsuitable for arable farming and is watered by rain. As the Guardian recently reported, there is a strong case that pasture-fed ruminants are in the long run carbon neutral, or close to it.

Most industrially produced meat, however, is heavily dependant on commercial fertilisers and imported crops like soya. That said, adding a tax to this consumption is likely to make consumers switch to poultry instead. Which, unlike pasture-reared red meat, is almost always reared on unsustainable feeds. Any red meat tax must take this into account.

With taxes such as this, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the plastic waste issue. The plastic tax is imminent, set to charge producers using packaging with less than 30 per cent recycled plastic content. With taxes and bans like this implemented in a matter of months, some people expect a similar rate of change for red meat.

In May 2019, the Food Ethics Council explored and scrutinised the emerging red meat tax policy ideas as part of a mock trial. Commenting on the jury’s findings, Dan Crossley, executive director of the Food Ethics Council said: “We shouldn’t lump all meat into the same basket, which is why a blunt tax on meat won’t work.”

The red meat tax is arguably far too simplistic and generalising. While the approach works well for plastic, where cause and effect are as clear as our oceans used to be, the red meat debate is more complex.

If both the red meat and plastic tax came into play, what would happen for red meat packaged in non-recycled plastic? This tax upon tax would be a lot for the industry to contend with. While one tax is paid for by the producer, the other is paid for by the consumer. Yet, if less consumers are buying the product due to higher costs, then the producer’s bottom line suffers.

To ease this double tax, red meat processors should switch to more sustainable packaging, such as aluminium. Ironically, this means the red meat tax could have a positive effect on sustaining the environment, but in a very indirect way. Whether the red meat tax is put in place or not, taking plastic out of the food supply chain could have a far greater impact on the environment than reducing red meat intake.

While the government endeavours to protect public health and the environment, doubling the price of certain red meats isn’t the way to go. The plastic tax is an exception, and will only be effective because of the clear establishment of cause and effect. Plastic causes death to aquatic life, no questions asked. The picture isn’t as clear for the red meat scenario, and while the proposal is so strikingly generalised, a blanket tax isn’t appropriate.

For red meat processors concerned about the possibility of ‘double tax’, time is of the essence to make the transition from plastic packaging. Aluminium is compatible with many existing production lines and sealing techniques, making it a straightforward switch for businesses.

To check the aluminium equivalent to the plastic trays you may currently use, check out Advanta’s guide here or email