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Germany's meat tax: Step forward, or wurst idea?

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Germany's meat tax: Step forward, or wurst idea?
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Germany, famous for its love of sausage, is debating a special tax on meat. The aim? To improve the welfare and conditions of livestock.

But would it work? Has it been considered elsewhere in Europe? And could there be other reasons to change consumer behaviour when it comes to meat?

It’s a big deal in a country where meat matters. The average German eats 80 kilograms of meat per year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) — twice the global average. (The U.S. is highest.)

Who proposed a higher meat tax in Germany?

The idea originally came from the German Animal Protection Association, which suggested a levy in order to pay for better animal husbandry.

"Meat and other animal products are too cheap and sometimes sold at low prices, so animal welfare is not possible, and price pressures are forcing farmers to keep more animals in ever smaller spaces,” the association’s president, Thomas Schröder, told Euronews.

He said animals are forced into are spaces too small for their welfare. “They are castrated without anaesthetisation, cattle have their horns cut off just so that the animals can be kept in a small space.”

A small levy on the price of meat, he said, could be used specifically for improving farming standards, whereas a higher tax would simply generate more revenue for the government.

“Unlike a tax that is not earmarked and simply flows into the federal budget, a levy could be used directly for more animal welfare in farm animal husbandry, such as more space for the animals," Schröder said.

However, politicians — including some with the centre-left SPD and Greens — have advocated raising VAT instead. Meat in Germany benefits from a reduced rate of 7%, and it has been suggested that this could be raised to the standard VAT rate of 19%.

Friedrich Ostendorff, agricultural policy spokesman for the Green Party, said he is in favour of ending the reduced rate for meat “and earmarking it for more animal welfare."

German Minister of Agriculture Julia Klöckner said that, whatever the method, it was necessary for consumers to bear some of the higher costs involved in better facilities for livestock.

What do Germans think?

The immediate concern with the VAT proposal is that extra revenue would not be earmarked for animal welfare — a fear confirmed by the Ministry of Finance, which said it did not have a mechanism for separating VAT revenues based on meat sales from revenue on other transactions.

Many politicians in Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU, as well as the FDP and AfD parties, are also opposed to the change.

Secretary General of the German Farmers' Association, Bernhard Krüsken, said a meat tax was in any case not enough to compensate for the changes that farms would need to make.

Besides, Krüsken said, German government policy is currently to limit the construction of new agricultural facilities.”We need a binding strategy for livestock, which is thought through to the end," he said.

Forcing shoppers onto cheaper meat

Critics say a side-effect of higher meat prices would be that consumers would switch to cheaper meat likely to be less healthy or have lower production standards. This effect would be magnified when it comes to already-expensive organic meat.

Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, chairman of the Bund Ökologische Lebensmittelwirtschaft, Germany’s organic food association, also sees this as a problem.

“With a flat-rate meat tax, one achieves the opposite of what one intends,” he said. “The demand is directed precisely to products made under the lowest standards."

Instead, he suggested, organic or less environmentally-harmful products of all kinds should be given the reduced VAT rate.

However, Schröder of the German Animal Protection Federation said the cost to consumers of its original proposal had been estimated at no more than 60 euros per household per year.

Other meat tax plans

The idea of raising meat prices has been considered before, but in the context of dampening consumer demand because of the environmental impact of intensive livestock farming.

There are also health considerations.

In 2015 the World Health Organisation said that processed meat, such as sausage and bacon, and unprocessed red meat was putting consumers at higher risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

A study by Mike Rayner, professor of population health at Oxford University, suggested a red meat tax of about 20% and a processed meat tax of 100% to offset healthcare costs. Under those conditions, he said, the consumption of processed meat would drop by an average of 16%.

While higher tax is never popular, measures to change consumer behaviour have proven successful in Britain.

In Scotland, the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing has seen a drop in alcohol consumption, while the use of plastic carrier bags from supermarkets has been significantly reduced by the introduction of mandatory charges.

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