EXPERTS are calling for the introduction of a potentially life-saving ‘meat tax’ saying it could end generations of deaths brought on by heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

Scientists claim a huge the hike in price – in the same way cigarettes and alcohol have been targeted - would bring a change of culture in the excessive consumption of red and processed meats has been linked to increase killer diseases.

But the move brought a warning that such a strategy could lead massively increased costs for everyday goods which industry insiders could even lead to a black market in cheaper underground bacon and other cheap cuts of meats.

Scientists at Oxford University set out to estimate the level of health tax needed to make up for healthcare costs associated with eating meat in 149 regions worldwide.

They also calculated the likely impact of a meat tax on death rates due to chronic disease.

Excessive consumption of red and processed meats has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

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For the UK, where meat consumption has been declining, they concluded that the 'meat tax' would have to be levied so as to ramp up the price of processed meats by 79% and red meat - that is beef, lamb, and pork - by 14%.

Processed meats would include products such as bacon, all types of ham, and continental-style sausages such as chorizo, salami, and pepperoni which are heavily salted, cured, smoked, or treated with chemical preservatives.

Traditional Scottish products such as Scotch pies and square sausage could also be hit, although probably less severely.

Lead researcher Dr Marco Springmann said the intervention would be a "health levy" that transmits "a powerful signal to consumers and takes pressure off our healthcare systems".

However, Douglas Scott, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders, said such a move could trigger demand for cheaper black market bacon.

Mr Scott, a former economist, said: "I think most of the comment up until now has been that any link is fairly inconclusive on the health aspects. My concern would be the taxation angle. If the objective is to change consumer eating habits, is taxation the right way to go about it?

"It's acknowledged that red meat has a place in a health balanced diet, so I worry the effect of tax increases on this scale would be regressive and would penalise those with the lowest disposable income.

"With a 79% tax on bacon, you'd end up with illegal 'bacon butty raves' at secret venues or 'grow-your-own' bacon-curing kits, because curing agents could be purchased for people to make their own illicit bacon supplies at home."

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Latest figures indicate that Scotland accounted for 10% of the UK's beef consumption in 2017, roughly in line with its population share, but accounted for comparatively lower intakes of lamb and pork - at 5% and 6% respectively of the UK's total consumption.

The study, which has been published in the journal, Public Library of Science ONE, estimates that a 'meat tax' could prevent around 220,000 deaths globally each year and save £30.7 billion in healthcare costs annually.

The researchers also said that their modelling indicated that consumers would shift away from more harmful processed meats, as a result of the heavier tax burden, in favour of unprocessed red meats such as steaks or lamb chops. As a result overall meat consumption by 2020 would remain unchanged.

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Food Standards Scotland advises eating, on average, no more than 70g of red and processed meat per day - roughly two rashers of bacon or one lamb chop.

A spokeswoman for Quality Meat Scotland said the tax was unnecessary when the latest data from FSS estimates that the average intake of cooked red meat in Scotland is just 56g per day. 

She added: “Avoiding red meat could in fact be detrimental to health – for example around 40% of women and teenage girls have iron intakes which are too low.

“Red meat is a valuable natural source of protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins and essential amino acids and we should continue to enjoy it tax-free in the knowledge that it plays a vital role in our diets.”

The World Health Organisation has classified beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and "probably" cancer-causing when consumed unprocessed.

Dr Springmann, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University, said: "The consumption of red and processed meat exceeds recommended levels in most high and middle-income countries.

"This is having significant impacts not only on personal health, but also on healthcare systems, which are taxpayer-funded in many countries, and on the economy, which is losing its labour force due to ill health and care for family members who fall ill.

"I hope that governments will consider introducing a health levy on red and processed meat as part of a range of measures to make healthy and sustainable decision-making easier for consumers.

"A health levy on red and processed meat would not limit choices, but send a powerful signal to consumers and take pressure off our healthcare systems."

Other nations, with higher average meat intakes, would face much heftier price escalations under the tax.

In the US, the measure would result in red meat costing 34% more and the price of processed meat soaring by 163%.

In Sweden increased the price of processed meat by a whopping 185% and that of red meat by 27%.

Taxing meat in Germany at a level high enough to offset health costs led to red meat being 28% more expensive and the price of processed meat rising by 166%.

The same policy in Denmark resulted in red meat being taxed at 29% and processed meat at 119%.

In contrast, China - which consumes far less red and processed meat as a population - would require only a 7% price hikes for red meat and a 43% increase in the cost of processed meat.