Spotlight | Taxing turkeys for AMR?

As festive times draw near, the Spotlight is on turkeys. For many families, the turkey is the centrepiece of a Christmas feast. However, as with other meat products mass produced via intensive farming systems, turkeys on the dinner table have been subjected to significant use of antibiotics for disease control and growth promotion. Pointing out that Christmas turkeys arrive “already stuffed with antibiotics” [1] is a bit of a bah-humbug thing to do—even Scrooge in the end appreciates the joy that a turkey can bring to a family and gifts one to the Cratchits—but as antimicrobial resistance threatens to take humanity back to the Victorian times, it’s true that we can’t afford any more fowl play in the use of antibiotics in animal farming, where the vast majority of use takes place.

Lack of regulations and enforcements on the supply side contributes to the problem, but ultimately the pressure on the livestock sector to produce more meat at greater speeds is driven by consumer demand. A recent research paper suggests that limiting meat intake could potentially reduce consumption of antimicrobials in food animals by a staggering 66%, and proposes reasonable downward adjustments of national nutritional guidelines for meat intake as a possible solution [2]. Another proposition, highlighted by a new analysis this month, entertains the idea of taxing meat consumption by consumers. The report points out that introducing meat tax is not only essential to tackling climate change, but also a neat way of killing several birds with one stone and tackle the public health challenges of antimicrobial resistance and rising obesity and NCDs at the same time [3].

Notwithstanding the complexities and controversies generated by debates around the ethical and moral basis for and against meat consumption in the modern world, and around the possible design of the tax and its potential economic, socioeconomic and nutritional implications, the scientific rationale for curbing meat consumption is indubitably and increasingly compelling. And to be fair, the idea of eating less meat to save the world from global warming and antibiotic apocalypse would likely strike at least the base note of the public good chord lying dormant in even the most hardcore meat fans.

However, much as antibiotic use in animal farming—which roughly takes up to 80% of total antibiotic consumption—requires addressing, the impact of a reduction of antibiotic use in animals and the prevalence of resistance in the general human population remains unclear [4], even if meat tax was to meet no political or practical resistance from government and farming industry from all around the world, and was to successfully achieve its desired effect possibly at the help of a bunch of complementary policy interventions such as those aimed at improving public awareness, coming up with impossibly awesome alternatives [5] and restructuring farming industry. The meat tax idea is not simply in the clouds: Denmark, Sweden and Germany are all looking at it, but the details are sketchy for now.

Which is good tidings for meat fans for the moment: an average 4.5-kilo turkey is not about to be £10 more expensive this Christmas [6]. Tackling a red-hot, burning public health problem in the shape of antimicrobial resistance is an irresistible duty for many reading this letter; so is tackling a red-hot, burning Christmas turkey with the family. So before digressing to a discussion about turkey recipes or its vegetarian or vegan alternatives, the AMR Centre would like to thank you all for your support over the past year, and we wish you a merry Christmas. Keep warm, stay healthy, and don’t take antibiotics for presents if you catch a Christmas cold. See you next year!

[1] How your Christmas turkey arrives already stuffed – with antibiotics

[2] Reducing antimicrobial use in food animals

[3] The meat levy: are regulators considering taxes?

[4] Restricting the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals and its associations with antibiotic resistance in food-producing animals and human beings: a systematic review and meta-analysis

[5] Impossible Foods CEO: we want to eliminate all meat from human diets

[6] Your Christmas turkey could cost £10 more after ‘inevitable’ meat tax