Could a 'red and processed meat tax' save thousands of lives?


"'Meat tax' which would almost double price of sausages should be brought in to save lives, say health experts," reports The Daily Telegraph.


November 7th 2018



"'Meat tax' which would almost double price of sausages should be brought in to save lives, say health experts," reports The Daily Telegraph.

Researchers have worked out the likely health and economic cost of eating red meat and processed meat.

Both types of meat have been linked to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as cancers of the digestive system, such as bowel cancer.

The researchers looked at how introducing a tax to increase the price of meat might affect consumption, deaths and economic costs.

They estimated taxes would need to be highest in high-income countries like the US and the UK, while they could be much lower in less wealthy countries.

In the UK, that would mean a price increase of about 13% on red meat and about 79% on processed meat.

The researchers say this would translate to about a 22% drop in deaths and nearly a 19% drop in healthcare costs linked to processed meat consumption.

It's an interesting paper that's sure to start a debate. It rests on many assumptions, not least the extent to which red and processed meat causes death.

Many people eat far more red and processed meat than recommended. Higher prices might mean some people choose to switch to a less meat-heavy diet.

Read more about the links between eating meat and some types of cancer.

Where did the story come from?

The research team that carried out the study were from the University of Oxford in the UK and the International Food Policy Research Institute in the US.

The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

It was published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One. It's free to read online.

The study was widely reported in the UK media. The Sun and The Daily Telegraph focused on the cost to consumers of the "meat tax".

The Sun referred to "the levy on family favourites" as evidence of the "nanny state", which it has opposed through its "Hands Off Our Grub" campaign against the tax on sugary drinks.

The Guardian and The Independent focused more on the potential savings, with The Guardian reporting that the proposal "would save many lives and raise billions to pay for healthcare", as well as having environmental benefits.

What kind of research was this?

This modelling study fitted data to mathematical models to estimate the effects of making changes to food prices.

Modelling studies can estimate the potential outcome of a particular policy, but they rely on many assumptions that may not prove to be accurate in real life.

What did the research involve?

Researchers carried out a number of steps, treating red and processed meat as independent risk factors for disease.

They estimated the health impacts of current levels of consumption of red and processed meat, and the projected consumption in 2020, for 149 world regions.

They then calculated the possible costs of these health impacts, and the impact if everyone ate 1 additional portion of red and processed meat each day for these regions.

Using the difference in these 2 figures, they estimated the "marginal health cost" of 1 additional portion a day in each region.

They then added that marginal cost to the price of red and processed meat in each region to estimate the potential impact of people changing how much red and processed meat they ate, and calculated the impact on consumption levels, health and costs for each region.

Each of these calculations was based on information from a variety of datasets.

For example, the health impact of red and processed meat was calculated using data from the Global Burden of Disease project, and the number of deaths from calculating population attributable fractions (PAFS).

PAFS are a statistical tool used to estimate the proportion of disease cases attributable to a specific cause, which in this case was eating processed or red meat.

Information about costs of disease came from an assessment of the economic burden of cardiovascular disease in the European Union, including direct healthcare costs (cost of treatment, use of health service, medication) and indirect costs (reduced or lost productivity of the ill person and their carer).

What were the basic results?

The researchers found that, based on current projections of meat consumption, by 2020:

  • eating red meat would be linked to around 863,060 deaths (95% confidence interval [CI] 220,000 to 1,410,000) and eating processed meat to 1,533,210 (CI 430,000 to 2,470,000) deaths worldwide
  • in high-income countries, specifically, eating red meat would be linked with 167,220 deaths and processed meat with 604,530 deaths
  • the majority of these would be deaths from stroke and coronary heart disease, followed by type 2 diabetes and colorectal (bowel) cancer
  • the majority of these deaths (64%) would be in middle-income countries, with 32% in high-income countries and 4% in low-income countries
  • the overall cost would be $285 billion, with 69% of these costs in high-income countries

They estimated the required price increase brought about by tax to cover the increased costs of meat eating in high-income countries would be:

  • a 13.6% increase in the price of red meat in the UK, 28.1% in Germany and 33.8% in the US
  • a 78.9% increase in the price of processed meat in the UK, 165.8% in Germany and 163.3% in the US

The effect of this price increase in high-income countries, they estimate, would be:

  • very little change (0.8% drop) in red meat consumption, as some people would choose red meat instead of processed meat if the price of processed meat increased
  • a 25.1% drop in processed meat consumption
  • 134,320 fewer deaths attributable to processed meat (22.2% fewer)
  • very little change in deaths attributable to red meat consumption (only about 1,410 fewer deaths, a 0.84% drop)
  • a 21.7% reduction in healthcare costs related to processed meat consumption

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said: "Including the social health costs of red and processed meat consumption in the price of red and processed meat could lead to significant health and environmental benefits, in particular in high- and middle-income countries."

Conclusion

Anyone worried that the price of their sausages is about to double can probably relax.

This research investigated the potential effect of a proposal based on a modelling exercise and is not a government policy.

But it does highlight the potential health risks of eating processed and red meat, especially in high-income countries like the UK.

The consumption of both of these meat products in the UK is higher than recommended by the World Health Organization.

The study has a number of limitations that mean we can only take the results as estimates:

  • it's based on mathematical projections, not on real-life events
  • the mathematical models rely on many assumptions, not least about the actual number of deaths that can be directly attributed to red and processed meat consumption, which is very hard to know for certain
  • the models don't investigate what people might eat instead of red or processed meat, which could be healthy (pulses and vegetables) or unhealthy (refined sugars)
  • the models are unable to take full account of potential confounding factors relating to diet, such as smoking, exercise, alcohol and socioeconomic status

Even if the figures were reliable, there's a big discussion to be had about whether governments should tax food to encourage people to eat more healthily.

For one thing, taxing unhealthy food is likely to have a bigger impact on poorer households, who struggle to make ends meet.

But the study is a useful reminder that eating a lot of processed meat in particular does have an impact on health.

Find out more about healthy eating

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