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The UK government has consistently made it clear that post-Brexit, it wishes to trade globally but, at the same time, preserve high quality standards for all UK produce.
In relation to British farming and animal welfare, that message has been pretty consistent. On 8 February the prime minister said the UK must retain its high animal welfare standards. She told the House of Commons: ‘We should be proud that in the UK we have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world — indeed, one of the highest scores for animal protection in the world. Leaving the EU will not change that.’
That position was also endorsed by her ministers. In October last year, the (then) environment minister Andrea Leadsom said she regarded British welfare standards as a unique selling point both at home and abroad. Her successor Michael Gove has also insisted that there should be no erosion of our welfare standards.
Yet despite this clear position and Brexit some 18 months away, the prospect of a compromise on animal welfare standards dominated news headlines last week. It now seems that a lower threshold of acceptable welfare standards could apply to imported goods and this, in turn, could threaten our own thresholds.
The House of Lords EU energy and environment sub-committee reported its assessment of the likely impact of Brexit on farm animal welfare. Its report ‘Brexit: farm animal welfare’ found widespread concern among experts that welfare standards would come under increasing pressure once the UK leaves the EU.
‘Our evidence strongly suggests that the greatest threat to farm animal welfare standards post-Brexit would come from UK farmers competing against cheap, imported food from countries that produce to lower standards than the UK. Unless consumers are willing to pay for higher welfare products, UK farmers could become uncompetitive and welfare standards in the UK could come under pressure,’ the report concluded.
In the same week, there was already evidence that such pressure was biting. International trade secretary Liam Fox triggered a high-level Cabinet dispute by suggesting that a future UK-US trade deal could see the introduction of cheaper chlorine-rinsed chicken meat on UK supermarket shelves.
The prospect of cheaper US imports flooding our domestic market understandably unsettled British poultry farmers. But it will also signal alarm for discerning UK consumers – could it be that the government is willing to sacrifice our high welfare standards for cheaper prices after all?
Using chlorine to disinfect chicken carcases before they are packaged to sell is banned by the EU. Instead, higher poultry welfare standards apply, which emphasise good farm hygiene practice (hence no need to disinfect chickens after slaughter). Post-Brexit, the UK would no longer be obliged to respect these standards.
Asked about the possibility of chlorinated chicken being introduced to the UK market, Gove was adamant that no chickens that had been washed in chlorine would be allowed in the UK as part of any trade deal. ‘We are not going to dilute our high animal welfare standards or our high environmental standards in pursuit of any trade deal,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last Wednesday. ‘This is something on which all members of the government are agreed.’
By the weekend, the story had moved on – to the same issue, just a different meat. This time we learned that post-Brexit, the UK could find itself under pressure to accept US beef.
The USA is the largest beef producer in the world – most of it goes into its domestic market but about 10 per cent goes for export. Cattle are produced on an industrial scale, grain-fed, indoor-housed on rubber floors and given hormone growth promoters (banned in the EU beef market since the 1980s).
UK farmers are overwhelmingly opposed to using hormones to boost growth (94 per cent in a recent survey by the National Beef Association) and see their hormone-free status as a valuable point of difference in the international marketplace.
However it will require more than industry surveys to hold back the appeal of a significant trade deal. Just weeks into its first round of Brexit talks and uncertain about what sort of deal it can broker with European partners, it is no surprise that the UK government is looking to secure future trade with other significant markets. It knows we could exit the EU with significant price inflation – last month Justin King, former CEO of Sainsbury’s, predicted that when we exit we can expect a hike in food prices – so it will be looking to keep prices as low as possible.
But if the UK government sacrifices animal welfare protections in a US-UK trade deal and UK farmers are left competing in their own domestic market on price alone, the US will surely dominate? The scale of its farming operation is huge (in Iowa, for example, pigs outnumber people 7:1) and it can simply produce more for less.
The real hope for British farmers, therefore, is that the British public will support them. That doesn’t seem a wholly unlikely prospect, given that the majority of Brexit voters were partly attracted by the rhetoric about taking back control and boosting British business. But whether British consumers will put their money where their mouth is and pay more for British products is yet to be tested on a significant scale.
Research recently carried out by Kent university should make us feel optimistic. The study investigated the buying habits of over 30,000 households and found that consumers are now on average willing to pay up to £2/kilo extra for meat products with an origin label from Britain.
But, if the UK’s real market differentiator is going to be high animal welfare standards, then consumer awareness of those standards will be key in informing their buying decisions and driving demand for higher quality products. So as well as buying British, consumers will need clear labelling with information about method of production and slaughter. According to the BVA, this should be mandatory and the recent Lords report seems to agree.
The UK has a proud history of backing animal welfare – indeed it was one of the first countries in the world to legislate on farm animal welfare. Irrespective of a US trade deal, we should expect UK Farming PLC to position itself as a quality brand with animal welfare at its heart.