Tag Archives: meat

A Meat Tax Is Probably a Good Idea

On tax day of this year, the animals rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) revived a hilarious proposal from 2011: put a tax on meat. The idea is a little like something you would come up with if you were a candidate for office secretly trying not to get elected. "My fellow Americans, I promise to put a tax on, uh, meat! And then, ban the NFL and Beyoncé. Vote for me!" It's a nonstarter outside of maybe the vegan wonderland of Portland, and even those folks probably wouldn't go for it.

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk has acknowledged that the her organization's activities are sometimes just in pursuit of "ink and airtime," so it's safe to assume this was meant to rile up anti-tax crusaders like Grover Norquist, the current US president, or, say, your dad. The folks at PETA have also proposed banning women from attending a buffalo wing festival because chicken ostensibly shrinks baby dicks, and they tried to fat shame women into being vegans—to name just a couple of recent examples.

But upon closer inspection, there's more to the meat tax—10 cents per pound of "chicken, turkey, pig, cow, fish, and other animal flesh sold in grocery stores and restaurants"—than just pissing off dads. 

"I actually don't think it's a bad idea," said Dean Baker, co-founder of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, and one of the few economists to correctly predict the 2007 housing crisis. To put it in economics jargon, Baker said, "it seems reasonable to say there's externalities associated with farm animals, so why don't we incorporate those into the cost of the product."

"Externalities" are essentially costs that get passed onto the taxpayer one way or another. In this case, that means the public cost of healthcare, and damage to the environment. But not only do those externalities justify a possible tax, but they make the idea more politically feasible than it sounds.

There are obvious parallels with tobacco. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), taxing tobacco is the "single most effective way to encourage tobacco users to quit and prevent children from starting to smoke." From a global health standpoint, meat is a disaster too. An Australian study from last year surveyed data from 170 countries and found a close correlation between the availability of meat and obesity. And according to the WHO itself, processed meat is a "Level 1" carcinogen, placing it in the same category as tobacco.

According to Katherine Baicker, professor of health economics at Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health, the result of a tax is fairly predictable. Some consumers substitute something else for whatever you're taxing, "in this case, other food—whether that is vegetables or Cheetos," she told me in an email, adding, "Whether you think that that shift is a good thing depends on your views about the optimal 'basket' for people to consume." In other words, with a tax in place, some consumers who otherwise wouldn't have done so, will at least sometimes make vegetarian-leaning choices. But it remains to be seen if those choices would necessarily be healthier.

But of course there's more than a public health argument to be made in favor of the tax. "This is similar to the idea of a carbon tax," Baker said. "Farm animals are part of the story of producing methane gas, and global warming." Indeed, as of 2009 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions came from livestock alone according to a 2009 report out of the Netherlands. That report also found that switching to a low-meat diet globally would bring the costs of carbon stabilization down by about 50 percent. Meat also speeds up the rate at which bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. 

But when it comes to taxing retail goods out of a concern for a global problem, there is one major drawback: "In general taxes on food can be regressive [since] lower income people spend a higher share of their income on food," Baicker told me. In other words: this tax would hit the poor the hardest.

"Someone's going to be hurt, but the point is to make sure that most people are not hurt, particularly not disadvantaged people," Baker said. He wasn't being paradoxical. Taxes are a sticky wicket, and if you make poor people pay them, the idea is that they'll get something out of them. "Suppose you increase the Earned Income Tax Credit somewhat," he suggested, referring to a program that gives out money to low-income people if they're employed. "If someone eats a lot of meat they might still be worse off from [a meat tax] but if you've made most low-income people at least as well off, or maybe somewhat better off, I get the feeling that's a good policy," Baker said.

Still, a tax, and corresponding tweak to the social safety net? That's a tall order. 

But Baker does at least think the idea has better-than-zero odds of gaining momentum, if the activists who support it can get their shit together, and act a little more like opponents of nicotine. Cigarette smoking was more than just normal, he reminded me. "It was considered rude if you didn't have ashtrays in your home," he said. And then a lot of stern, serious medical professionals talking about cancer eventually changed people's minds.

What should meat tax advocates say? "You just say, 'look, there are externalities,'" Baker suggested. "'We're not saying you're horrible people if you eat meat. Just that, you know, we want you to pay the cost.'"

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Working at a Slaughterhouse Is as Gruesome as You Thought

Just like a hospital has a distinctive smell, slaughterhouses smell like warm blood. There's iron in the air all the time—even over the bleach, you can still smell it.

You hear stories of people throwing up on their first day or freaking out and leaving right away. But most know what they're getting into. These are rough jobs, so while they're all good, honest guys who work in slaughterhouses, they kill things for a living. You have to have a bit of a different mindset to do this job. I grew up in the Lake District of northwest England, so I was hunting my whole life and used to having my own farm where I'd butcher my own animals. It's an early start—4:30 AM—and an early finish—2 PM—and that suits me.

There are always two parts inside an slaughterhouse: a clean side and a dirty side. Animals have to go through the dirty side first, before they go into where they're going to be prepared for human consumption. The dirty side is where all the guts, hair, and skin's removed. It's a proper production line, really.

First, they get electric shocks. Cows used to be killed with a bolt gun. It was basically like the end of a shotgun barrel, and you'd put that on the forehead of the cow and then hit the top of it with a hammer, and it would send a bolt slowly into its brain. Obviously they could see it happening and were scared shitless. It was quite horrible 20 years ago, but regulations in place make it a lot better. You've got to keep an animal de-stressed, because there's nothing worse than a stressed animal before it's slaughtered. You ruin the meat, so it's worth nothing anyway. Now, they use the electrocution method, which is a lot more humane.

"When you'd fix the pig de-hairer, because of all the fats, oils, and bits of pig on it, as soon as you began welding something, it would basically start smelling like a rotten bacon sandwich."

Then you slit and bleed them—it usually takes four or five hours to bleed a cow or a pig, or something of that size. Then you've got all of this dirty stuff to do, which is quite a nasty process. You have to take all their innards out and throw it together as contaminated waste. So you have barrels of guts basically just sitting around. Next is the processing: de-skin and de-furring. Dice them up and bag them up. If they weren't eating human food—say, cat or dog food—then all the regulations change; everything speeds up, and you could get away with a lot more.

A lot of what I was doing was machinery repairs, which was gruesome. Some were huge band saws, which could cut a whole cow in half easily. I had to fix the pig de-hairer often. Once the pig had been bled, it was put into this cylinder-shaped machine that looked like the inside of a cheese grater but not quite as sharp. The pig was spun in it to take the fine hair off. So you'd have a pig that was bouncing around in this cylinder three to four feet in the air, as it was going around, and obviously that's a lot of weight coming down, so it used to break regularly. When you'd fix it, because of all the fats, oils, and bits of pig that were on it, as soon as you started welding something and putting heat into it, it'd basically start smelling like a rotten bacon sandwich. It was quite grim. Almost enough to put you off—but not quite!

"Like any office, there's banter and practical jokes. It's quite regular that someone will open his or her lunch box and find a cow's tongue in there or something."

To be fair, the hygiene side of it is phenomenal. You literally can't get away with anything. Slaughterhouses are inspected so regularly it's crazy. Most people don't realize that you spend a lot of your day cleaning.

It all sounds awful, but like any office, there's banter and practical jokes. It's quite regular that someone will open his or her lunch box and find a cow's tongue in there or something.

The darkest time was during the foot and mouth disease crisis in the early 2000s, which devastated British agriculture and tourism. So many people lost their jobs, but lots of us were paid a ridiculously huge amount of money to go to the farms and help kill all the animals. You'd be killing 300 to 400 cows a day, for weeks. I was a loader, so I'd load bodies onto the fire, which is the only way you could kill the disease. There were just piles and piles of burning bodies, big black acidic smoke and the smell of barbecue in the air. You had to keep going over to make sure the bodies were still burning. Most didn't make it; they'd end up crying and had to leave.

That was when the bolt guns started coming out again because you just couldn't do it any other way—at its height, there were up to 50 new cases a day. Cows aren't stupid; they could hear the bangs going off, probably thinking, All my friends go through that curtain, and then the bangs go off. Some animals were deep into the foot and mouth symptoms. It attacks the nervous system, and the back legs are usually first to go, so they can hardly walk and are falling over. You had to almost pick them up to take them to get killed.

"We saved thousands of British farms, but it was not the nicest situation for man or beast. I wouldn't want to live through it again."

There was a human side to it, too, dealing with the farmers affected and their families. They were losing their entire stock of animals, literally going bankrupt overnight. I was going back round to my farm very worried about whether I had the disease on me—what if I am carrying it home, bringing it into my area?

We saved thousands of British farms, but it wasn't the nicest situation for man or beast. It was a very hard time because you never really see death on that sort of scale, even if you work at a slaughterhouse every single day. I wouldn't want to live through it again.

But honestly? I find the whole process of the job quite a rewarding thing. You go out, you kill an animal, you butcher it, and then you eat it. It's not got all the chemicals and preservatives. The biggest problem is that people don't know where their food is from; they don't think about the process. Food is all too easy. None of them really know that milk and meat comes from a cow. They don't think of me; they don't think of my job in there.

An account from 36-year-old Brad, as told to Hannah Ewens

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