Academics and farming groups have clashed over suggestions a tax on red meat should be introduced to account for the ‘cost burden’ on the NHS and spur changes in consumption patterns.
Main author and vegan Marco Springmann and researchers referred to a controversial World Health Organisation report which linked beef, lamb and pork to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. But Dr Carrie Ruxton public health nutritionist and dietitian at the Meat Advisory Panel, said meat consumption had declined significantly, with average intakes now ‘well below’ NHS guidelines.
"There is no high-quality evidence linking red and processed meat with heart disease, stroke or diabetes, and a risk of bowel cancer only applies when weekly intakes exceed 700g. As few people in the UK are at this level of consumption, a general meat tax would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” said Dr Ruxton.
"Chronic disease prevention would be far more effective if it focused on smoking, excess drinking, and bodyweight rather than a single food source like meat, which brings many nutritional benefits such as iron, zinc, vitamin D and B vitamins."
Because these nutrients were often in short supply in lower income households, a tax on red meat would be a ‘retrograde step’, she added.
Quality Meat Scotland chairwoman Kate Rowell said studies showed vegetarians and meat eaters had similar rates of colorectal cancer and breast cancer.
“Studies do not often address variables such as alcohol consumption, smoking status, obesity and the consumption of fewer vegetables and fibre,” she said.
Nuffield scholar and Gloucestershire beef and sheep farmer Geraint Powell warned against sensationalist messaging.
He said: "There are so many scientific papers published, all with polarised views and no balance. People need to be aware of why someone is telling us something as well as what they are telling us."
The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers added: "Any report which appears to condemn the production of one form of protein on health or environmental grounds without addressing the production systems and processes used for all other protein sources, is surely flawed and in need of more careful preparation."