Is It Time to Tax Meat?
- Feb 12, 2014 | Gail Cole
Raw cuts of meats are not usually subject to sales tax. A ready-to-eat sandwich from the deli section is often taxable, as is slice of meat loaf, heated. The Thanksgiving feast from the salad bar is probably subject to sales tax, too. But the tender steak you’re looking forward to grilling tonight? It is probably tax exempt.
Sales tax revenue funds state and local government programs, like schools and health clinics. Taxes fund roads and fire departments and police. As an added perk, taxes may help curb behavior that has a cost to society. For example, alcohol is subject to high rates of tax because folks who drink a lot of it may have health problems, or drive drunk and hurt people, or brawl and vandalize. Cigarettes and other tobacco products are subject to high rates of tax because folks who smoke a lot may be more likely to suffer health consequences like lung cancer. Candy tends to be taxed at a higher rate than other foods, because eating too much of it can cause obesity and diabetes, which have a high cost to state and local governments. And so on. Such taxes are called sin taxes or, less judgmentally, Pigouvian taxes. They're decried by some, and embraced by others.
Now People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA), an organization that tends to frown upon eating animals, is “calling for an excise tax on meat to help cover the health and environmental costs that result from using animals for food.” A 10-cent tax on every pound of cow, chicken, pig, turkey, “and other animal flesh sold in grocery stores and restaurants could help reduce Americans’ skyrocketing annual health-care costs by encouraging people to eat less meat.” The tax could also “help prevent future climate change and related natural disasters.”
PeTA is not a lone voice in the wilderness: some scientists think we should tax meat, too, because “a tax on meat is a measure meant to get humans to, like it or not, change their ways.”
Say the scientists: “Meat should be taxed to encourage people to eat less of it, so reducing the production of global warming gasses from sheep, cattle and goats….” They claim methane emissions can be cut by increasing the cost of meat. As reported by The Guardian, these scientists recognize that changing human behavior is tough. “Implementing a tax … could be an economically sound policy that would modify consumer prices and affect consumption patterns.”
It seems that methane from the digestive systems of ruminants “is the single biggest human-related source of the greenhouse gas, which is more short-lived but around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet.” The theory is that less demand for meat will lead to fewer ruminants and, consequently, less methane.
Simple, right? Well, maybe not. According to Nick Allen, who represents beef and lamb producers in England, “Simply reducing numbers of livestock—as a move like this would inevitably do—does not improve efficiency of the human process, which takes naturally growing grass that we cannot eat and turns it into a protein to feed a growing human population.”
A time-honored practice
Sin taxes aren't new. “Taxing undesirable commodities is a time-honored practice,” says Forbes. Yet the same article notes that “taxes function best when they try to do the least.” The more we try to tailor taxes to fit our each and every need, the more “complicated and burdensome” they become.
Sales tax is complicated and burdensome. In the United States alone, there are at least ten thousand tax jurisdictions, and every state has its own sales tax rules, regulations, and exemptions. It’s enough to give anyone indigestion.