Meat tax unlikely but alternatives gaining ground

Consumers are being offered more plant-based proteins and adding more of them to their diets, says expert

A tax on meat was the story d’jour at the start of the new year, and although the prospects of such a tax seem slim, the livestock industry risks losing market share to plant-based products, says an expert.

The call for a tax came from Jeremy Coller, founder of one of the world’s largest private equity firms. He bankrolls an organization called Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return Initiative which recently released “a white paper” claiming it’s “highly probable” that governments will one day tax meat just as they do tobacco.

“The pathway to taxation typically starts when there is global consensus that an activity or product harms society,” the document states. “This leads to an assessment of their financial costs to the public, which in turn results in support for some form of additional taxation. Taxes on tobacco, carbon, and sugar have followed this playbook.”

However, there’s no sign of that happening any time soon, said Sylvain Charlebois, a well-known commentator on the food sector, and a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain Charlebois.
photo: Supplied

“Statistics show that demand for meat in Canada is still stubbornly robust,” Charlebois recently wrote in one of his widely published columns. “The average Canadian would typically consume about 87 kilos of meat products in one year, which is just slightly lower than the amount from five years ago.”

Thanks to stable beef prices, consumption might actually go up this year, Charlebois said in an interview.

“That’s good news for beef producers,” he said.

The top official with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association also points out there is strong demand, with 2017 being one of the highest years on record for meat consumption in North America.

Moreover, veggie burgers and plant-based proteins have been around for a long time — everyone thought tofu was going to take off, but it didn’t, said Dennis Laycraft, the association’s executive director.

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The sector has made great strides in showing beef is sustainable, and is working with organizations like the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Ducks Unlimited to get the story out about how critical grazing is for the health of grasslands.

But the consumer landscape is rapidly changing, and consumers are more curious and willing to try new foods, said Charlebois, who was in Alberta before Christmas and will be speaking to beef producers here this month.

“What I’m telling them is it’s not about ‘this or that’ for consumers — try to advocate or even present options where animal protein coexists with other types of dietary options as well,” he said.

“I know that there’s lots of advocacy going on and frankly, there’s some denial. … What we need to do is look at what makes consumers buy what they’re buying.”

That means the beef sector needs to consider other things that consumers want, he said.

“Sustainable beef is of value, but you also need to look at health options,” said Charlebois. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a study that told people to eat more meat.”

The beef sector has a good story to tell on that front, replied Laycraft.

“Beef is one of the most nutrient-dense foods there is and in terms of meeting requirements, it’s also one of the most affordable ways of doing that.”

But he agrees consumers have an increasing number of choices and the sector has to listen closely to what they want.

“We have to produce products that are available in a form that consumers want when they want it,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot more e-commerce and we’ll work with our partners on that.

“At the same time, it does come down to the best dining experience. And if the best dining experience and something they crave each week is beef, then we’re doing our job really well.”

Expect that job to get tougher, said Charlebois.

The needle is shifting for industries offering animal protein, including dairy products, and more people will be including more plant-based foods in their diets both for health reasons and because they’re concerned about humane treatment of livestock, he said.

“Demand is becoming more fragmented and more complicated,” he said, adding the industry also needs to focus more on transparency since ethical treatment of animals is an increasing concern for consumers.

Livestock producers have done the right thing by engaging consumers through social media, but there needs to be even more transparency, he said, pointing to Cargill and Tyson Foods slaughter plants in the U.S. that are allowing cameras into their operations.

Still, many new plant-based protein products won’t find a market and will quickly fade away.

And despite headline-grabbing stories like the one predicting a meat tax, Canadians will continue to love their burgers and steaks, he added.

“I don’t think the demand for Canadian meat is going to die any time soon.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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