It said the Government should review introducing a levy on processed and red meats that were high in fat or used preservatives such as nitrites associated with cancer to encourage reformulation of processed meat products.
However, the report admitted there were “some drawbacks” to taxing unhealthy foods under a Harmful Processed Meats Levy, such as it not impacting consumers or disproportionately impacting people on lower incomes.
Independent dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton, who was formerly on the Meat Advisory Panel, said there was no evidence mere consumption of red and processed meats contributed to obesity. As a result, measures to tax meat were unlikely to have any impact on consumers’ body weights.
“In contrast, it’s well accepted that moderate amounts of red meat, especially lean options, have a positive role in the diet by providing B vitamins, high quality protein, selenium, vitamin D and iron,” she said.
“An unintended consequence of taxing meat would be to limit this dietary option for elderly people, children and those on low incomes, which could have negative impact on nutrient adequacy.”
“In the UK, we already have clear guidance from experts that we should be eating no more than 500g of red and processed meat weekly and most consumers are within this limit. Given this, I do not believe that there are any advantages to adding a layer of taxation to discourage consumption.”
She added on the specific issue of nitrite/nitrate use that pressure on industry to reduce these additives needed to go hand-in-hand with research on cost-effective alternatives that still protect the public.
Professor Robert Pickard, member of the Food Advisory Board said consumers should be eating a balanced diet. “The International Authority for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recognised that no one food group causes cancer,” he said.
“Safe consumption levels of nitrates were set by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2017. EFSA established that consumer exposure to nitrates solely from food additives was less than 5% of the overall exposure to nitrates in food, and did not exceed the safe levels. Nitrates are also found in high concentration in certain vegetables and through contamination of water.
“The greater risk of exposure to unsafe levels of nitrates comes from NOx [nitrogen oxide] gases in the traffic pollution of urban areas. These form soluble nitrogenous salts on the surface of the lung. This is where we should focus our attention if we want to have the biggest impact on human health, as far as nitrogen uptake is concerned.”
The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said this was a complex issue. It stressed that ingredients such as sodium and potassium nitrite and nitrate were authorised as food additives in the EU, performing important technical functions such as inhibiting microbial growth and extending shelf-life.
“They are important in maintaining food safety, which is the number one priority for meat processors,” said Anna Profitt, BMPA technical policy manager.
“The industry has made significant historical progress on reformulation and continues to invest in research & development to reformulate different products, always ensuring they make safe, healthier and tasty products. The BMPA would always advocate for a varied and balanced diet.”
“Any tax or levy on processed and red meats is likely to increase food prices for consumers; something the industry would like to actively avoid.”
The BMPA this week revealed it was working to persuade the Food Standards Agency to support extending chilled red meat shelf life to beyond 10 days.