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Could cigarette-style warning labels reduce meat consumption?

The climate warning label on a small flag sticking in a burger.
The climate warning label on a small flag sticking in a burger. Copyright Durham University
Copyright Durham University
By Luke Hurst
Published on Updated
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Graphic images warning of the dangers of smoking had an impact on persuading smokers to quit but could the same work for meat?

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Health warnings on cigarette packets - including graphic images of diseased organs - have had an impact on cutting down the number of smokers around the world, and increasing people’s understanding of the health risks involved. 

Now researchers are suggesting using the same style of warning labels could reduce people’s meat consumption. The European Parliament, along with many governments, are advocating for a reduction in the amount of meat citizens consume.

Eating too much meat is associated with health issues such as increased risk of certain types of cancer, and the meat industry is a big contributor to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

A study conducted by a team at Durham University in the UK has found using warning labels, similar to those on cigarette packets, could have an impact on cutting down on meat eating.

Publishing their findings in the academic journal Appetite, the researchers tested a range of warning labels on food products containing meat. The labels included a graphic image alongside text, with some warning of damage to the climate, health, and also the risk of pandemics.

A sample of 1,001 adults who do eat meat were split into four groups, and shown pictures of hot meals you might buy in a canteen - such as meat pasta bake, fish pasta bake, vegetable pasta bake, or vegan pasta bake. They either had a health warning label, a climate warning label, a pandemic warning label, or no label.

They were then asked to make 20 decisions on different meal choices, answering questions on how anxiety provoking and how believable the labels were.

The researchers also measured the future intentions to buy and eat the meal options, as well as how appealing the meals were.

All the labels were effective at discouraging people from choosing meat in their meals, they found.

“Reaching net zero is a priority for the nation and the planet. As warning labels have already been shown to reduce smoking as well as drinking of sugary drinks and alcohol, using a warning label on meat-containing products could help us achieve this if introduced as national policy,” said Jack Hughes, who carried out the study as part of his PhD research with the psychology department at Durham University.

The labels reduced meat selections by seven to 10 per cent, and participants were found to be most in favour of the climate warning ones, which they found most credible.

According to a recent YouGov poll, 72 per cent of the UK population classify themselves as meat eaters. The UK has set a target of reducing meat consumption by 30 per cent by 2032 as part of its national food strategy.

Senior author on the paper, Dr Milica Vasiljevic from Durham University’s Department of Psychology said: “We already know that eating a lot of meat, especially red and processed meat, is bad for your health and that it contributes to deaths from pollution and climate change. Adding warning labels to meat products could be one way to reduce these risks to health and the environment.”

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