Imagine buying a steak emblazoned with a warning that livestock farming is contributing to global hunger, or pork sausages, bacon or burgers with a picture of clogged up arteries on the packet. Um, think we’ll give the meat-heavy barbecue a miss this year, thanks.
New research on the psychology of meat eating suggests that putting warnings on meat – similar to the health warnings already used on tobacco in the UK – could help encourage people to eat less meat, a key part of the country’s drive to curb its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. And it’s encouraging to see that concern for the environment has the most impact in terms of getting people to rethink their shopping and eating habits.
In the same way that smoking rates have nosedived since smokers have been forced to confront graphic images on their packets of cigarettes and rolling tobacco of the health consequences of their addiction, psychologists at Durham University tested pictures of the effects of meat eating alongside a range of written warnings relating to different harms caused by the meat and livestock industry, including raising the risk of pandemics and damaging the health of people and planet.
A thousand and one meat-eaters were asked to make choices of different meals that carried health warnings and asked to rate how anxiety-provoking and credible they were. All the warnings achieved their aim of discouraging shoppers, decreasing demand by as much as 10 per cent, but appeals related to the environmental impact gained the most traction.
The government’s independent climate watchdog, the Climate Change Committee, has already advised that the UK needs to cut its meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent by 2030, and by 35 per cent by 2050, to meet the overall net zero target, but earlier this year was damning about the progress that had been made. PhD researcher Jack Hughes, who carried out the Durham research with his supervisors, believes labelling has a role to play.
“Reaching net zero is a priority for the nation and the planet,” he said. “As warning labels have already been shown to reduce smoking, as well the drinking of sugary drinks and alcohol, using a warning label on meat-containing products could help us achieve this, if introduced as a national policy.”
It remains to be seen how the meat and dairy industries, which are employing increasingly aggressive tactics to head off the challenge posed by plant-based alternatives, would respond to attempts to introduce such labelling. But it’s interesting to note, as anti-tobacco-style measures are mooted for meat, how similar are these twin evils. Indeed, in 2021, a five-year investigation found that global food brands that supplied the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda were using the same dark arts employed by Big Tobacco. As one expert noted: “Tobacco didn’t challenge the existence of lung cancer, but they kept denying and deflecting the causal link [with smoking] – and that’s what we’re seeing with beef and dairy.”
One thing’s for sure: if Big Meat is up in arms and funding a rear-guard action to protect its interests – as happened in the recent EU battle over renaming meat-free products – it’s likely this is the right path to change our diets, and our world, for the better.