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Tobacco tactics could help reduce meat consumption

Cigarette-style graphic warning labels could reduce people’s meat consumption, according to research published in the journal Appetite.

Previous studies have shown that warning labels using images are effective at curbing smoking and reducing the consumption of sugary drinks and alcohol. 

Researchers at Durham University applied this concept to hypothetical selections of meals containing meat. The 1,001 adult meat consumers were randomly placed into one of four experimental groups in which they were shown either a health pictorial warning label, climate pictorial warning label, pandemic pictorial warning label, or a control (no warning label). 

All warning labels reduced the proportion of meat meals selected “significantly” compared to the control group, the researchers concluded. Reductions ranged from −7.4% to −10%. “There were no statistically significant differences in meat meal selection between the different types of warning labels,” they wrote.

They also found greater support for the introduction of climate warning labels compared to the health and pandemic warning labels. Climate warning labels were also rated as most credible (along with health warning labels). 

The authors suggested that “policymakers and practitioners may wish to further explore the most effective ways to communicate the impact of meat consumption on the climate when devising policies to shift meat selection and consumption amongst the public”.

The Climate Change Committee, which advises the UK government, has recommended a 20% reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 2030.  The government has shown little appetite to intervene with new policies.

However, data released by the government in October showed UK citizens consumed less meat last year than at any point since records began in the 1970s. Cost of living, covid-19 and wider lifestyle trends are all playing a part, though it isn’t clear which has had the most significant influence. Fewer burgers, kebabs and meat pieces were also eaten in 2021-22, though the pandemic will likely have influenced such purchases.

The reductions are promising, said experts, but not deep enough.