Column Road Comment

Processed red meat: the steaks are high

Red meat tax: public health initiative or poverty attack? Source: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (via Flickr)

By Karis Pearson

Red and processed meat has become a big part of our everyday diets. Steak and chips, sausage baps, shepherd’s pie, these are all things many of us eat every day, under the impression that they’re forming a part of a balanced diet. So, what if you were told that by eating meat that is red or processed, you could actually be harming not only yourself, but the NHS and even the economy? The public-health cost attributable to red and processed meat has been predicted in a study by Oxford University, and the findings are enough to make you think twice about that extra sausage.

In the study, Oxford University researchers found that meat eaters were increasing the burden on an already strained public health service. Their findings predicted that by 2020, around £218 billion would be spent on health-related issues caused by processed meat consumption. Their proposed solution? Put a tax on red and processed meat, making it more of a luxury item and deterring people from eating it so consistently.

Off the bat, this sounds like a pretty solid way to combat the concerns. However, while the toll taken on the NHS because of obesity is huge, more extraordinary is the link between obesity and social inequality, as food choices are largely spurred by factors like income and knowledge.

Taxing these products would hit lower incomes the hardest, and if obesity (a problem at least partly exacerbated by processed meat products) is most prevalent in the lower income social classes, this seems an effective way to tackle the issue. Well, if we want to become a nation of manipulation, then it certainly is.

Processed foods are choice for families with less money, because they are relatively cheap and easy. If a packet of eight pork sausages from Sainsburys rose in price from £1.50 to £2.69 it would become less readily available to people with less to spend. But is forcing lower income households to look elsewhere for their meals, preferably away from processed meats, the most ethical way to tackle the problem?

Using taxes as a deterrent overwhelmingly affects those with less money in their pockets. More should be done by the government to ensure that taxes on products posing a public health concern do not disproportionately affect one group more than another. A brilliant example of a government who has achieved this in one way or another, is Finland.

In Finland speeding fines are calculated according to income, meaning millionaires caught speeding can face fines of thousands. This proves much more effective as a deterrent than giving all those caught the same fine, regardless of how much spare cash they have at the end of each month. That being said, while there should be a fairer way to decide taxes which are imposed on the everyday cost of living, red meat should not be an everyday expense.

The age-old excuse for the obsession with red meat is that our ancestors ate it and they were in prime shape, right? Well, it’s true that if you look at popularized images of how our early ancestors’ diets evolved, meat has certainly played a starring role. Writing in the 1950s, Raymond Dart, who in 1924 discovered the first fossil of a human ancestor in Africa, described our hominid ancestors as “carnivorous creatures, that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death … slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.”

While carnivorous we certainly were, it was not always like this. In the Palaeolithic age, our hominid ancestors’ diets varied according to season, geography and most importantly, opportunity. They would eat what they could find, (and while meat would’ve played a crucial part), nuts, seeds and berries were more commonly found, and plants actually featured more frequently than meat. Humans would not opportunistically take down a mammoth every week and there would be long periods when there was no more than a handful of red meat available to feed each mouth on a weekly basis. With no Tesco or Lidl at their disposal, they would not eat red meat nearly as often as we modern humans, who hunt the supermarket aisles for juicy steaks in plastic packets. In reality, we were not the ravenous meat eaters many of us put down our excessive meat consumption to.

Red meat has been linked to cardiovascular diseases for years and while I would personally recommend just cutting it out entirely if you can, reports from the NHS recommend no more than 70g of red or processed meat per day. Getting mathematical for a moment, 70g equates to 2.5oz, meaning a 10oz steak is four times the recommended daily portion. While your packet of bacon may outline this 70 g serving size using a very (small) informative sticker, this doesn’t stop people from exceeding the guidelines and going meat mad.

The World Health Organisation classifies beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and as probably carcinogenic when eaten unprocessed. With cancer killing millions of people a year, we’d best be doing everything we can to minimise its risk. Beef, lamb and pork have also been linked to increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. While other products which are considered a concern for public health, like cigarettes, are regulated by the state, should we be doing the same with red and processed meat?

Despite the potential benefits a red meat tax could bring to the environment, climate minister Claire Perry told the BBC that it isn’t the governments place to tell people they can’t eat steak for dinner, regardless of its impact on the planet. Other attempts to use tax as a deterrent include the infamous sugar tax, and if that has taught us anything, it’s that most people don’t like being told what to do. Fears of becoming the spoon-fed ‘nanny state’ that Margaret Thatcher so feared keeps us from wanting restrictions on our purchasing freedom, such as a red-meat tax.

I suppose an important question is, where do we draw the line? There are countless things which are bad for us, do we want the government tax them all, knowing we might benefit from longer, healthier lives? Or, do we decide for ourselves what to eat, drink and smoke, accepting the consequences in the process. The problem with a red-meat tax is that it would make that decision for those of us without the financial privilege to decide for ourselves.

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