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Trade and animal welfare

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UK trade agreements could seriously impact animal welfare.

Here, you can find out the latest situation, what is at stake, and what we are doing to help protect farm animal welfare in the UK.

Firstly, a huge thank you to the amazing 77,000 people who signed our open letter to the Prime Minister, calling for him to protect animal welfare in trade deals.

On Tuesday 8th December, we held a virtual event featuring MPs, high profile supporters, and Compassion volunteers to honour all those who signed and send a united message to the Government: the UK must not import cruelty.

You can watch the recording of the event on YouTube.

Why is trade being discussed now?

As the UK leaves the European Union (EU), it will be able to set its own trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years – previously trade policy has been set by the EU, as a result of the UK being a Member State.

Setting trade policy includes determining the rules on what food products can be imported into the UK. Whilst the UK’s farming standards could certainly be improved, they are higher than most other countries (aside from those within the EU, because the majority of our farm animal welfare rules derive from EU Regulations and Directives).

What are the choices facing the UK?

The UK has a considerable body of legislation on the welfare of farm animals. Many of the countries the UK is seeking an FTA with do not – in some cases, regarding farm animals, there is almost none!

As the end of the EU transition period approaches, the UK is faced with two choices. HM Government could opt to maintain existing standards and requirements that need to be met for certain products to be permitted into the UK – an option that would leave open the possibility of further improving our domestic animal welfare legislation. Or the UK could opt to lower the bar on the products allowed onto our supermarket shelves, ultimately entering us into a race to the bottom where we seek to compete on who can produce at the lowest price.

This decision alone will have a bigger impact on the UK’s standards of animal welfare, food safety or environmental protection than any other single policy area – and the ramifications could be felt for decades to come: it will impact upon both the food UK citizens may end up eating as well as having a knock-on effect on the livelihoods of higher-welfare farmers within the UK.

How far have trade talks progressed with our major trading partners?

The UK is currently in the transition period of leaving the EU – this is set to end on 31st December 2020. From that date, a new trading relationship will come into effect with the EU and all other countries.

HM Government is in the process of negotiating that new relationship with the EU. A number of rounds have already taken place and discussions are ongoing despite the failure to reach agreement on a number of issues – particularly the ‘level playing field’ and fisheries.

FREE TRADE AGREEMENTS

Alongside the EU talks, several other Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are being negotiated. One of the priorities for the UK Government is securing an FTA with the USA. Talks take place every six weeks, with each round lasting two weeks. These are only likely to conclude well into 2021, once the implications of the November US elections have become clear.

Negotiations are also ongoing with countries including Australia and New Zealand.

We are concerned that the deal with Australia, where hormone-treated beef and battery eggs are still common, may involve concessions that may then form a precedent for the US talks. It is vital that the Australian deal does not act as a Trojan horse for undermining our higher standards in the potentially much larger US FTA.

A deal with Japan has been concluded, although still needs to pass through the Japanese Diet (Parliament).

Is Northern Ireland a special case?

Yes. If the talks with the EU maintain the Northern Ireland Protocol, then Northern Ireland will remain subject to European Union trading rules, and therefore probably outside any other arrangements that are made for Britain, although details of how this will work remain to be clarified.

What is happening in Parliament?

In addition to the FTAs being negotiated by the UK Government, a number of Bills that will impact upon farming standards in the UK are going through Parliament. Most notably, the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill. Both these Bills could have serious implications for farm animal welfare.

The Agriculture Bill seeks to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) area-based subsidy scheme with payments for farmers who deliver on areas such as animal welfare and the environment – a shift in priorities welcomed by Compassion.

But there is a major risk that the improvements the Bill could bring in are entirely undermined by the trade deals the UK secures. Compassion, alongside a wide range of NGO and industry bodies, and MPs from all parties, have been calling for the Bill to protect our existing standards and prevent imports that do not meet them.

'PING PONG'

The Agriculture Bill has completed its normal House of Commons and House of Lords stages and is now going through the process known as 'ping pong'. One of the issues that is being debated between both Houses is that of which food imports will be of an acceptable standard to be included in a FTA. Despite an amendment, tabled by the Environment Select Committee, to protect against low-standard imports, the Government insist these measures are unnecessary and that we already have those protections in place.

That amendment was defeated in the Commons, before a similar amendment was adopted by the Lords. That amendment was also rejected by the Commons, despite being supported by MPs from all sides of the House. The House of Lords has, yet again, inserted an amendment on food import standards – this one requiring an import to be of an ‘equivalent’ standard (meaning equivalent in effectiveness, rather than of an identical standard).

This amendment was defeated in the House of Commons in favour of a Government amendment. That amendment offered Parliament a modest increase in the scrutiny of trade agreements. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, it is not the same safeguard as a legal protection that prohibits the imports of products not raised to our standards. Indeed, it suggests the Government can permit those imports and then merely submit a report to Parliament as to why it has chosen to do so.

PROGRESS

However, there was some progress in terms of the Government placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing (to be reviewed every three years), rather than the six months originally envisaged. We await the details of that, as it will be enacted through the Trade Bill rather than the Agricultural Bill. We hope that it will involve a broader membership of civil society groups – particularly in the areas of animal welfare, food and environment – compared to the narrow membership it has now of farming bodies.

The amendment to the Agriculture Bill will go back to the House of Lords on Monday (9 Nov). We’ll be monitoring the situation and are also looking towards the Trade Bill for further details of the TAC when that returns to the House of Lords later this month. We’re continuing to engage Parliamentarians to ensure that we have strong protections in place.

TRADE BILL

The Trade Bill, which focuses more on rolling over FTAs that the UK is party to because of EU membership and the establishment of the TAC, also offers the opportunity to secure protections against lower standard imports. It would potentially ensure that Parliament is fully involved in setting out the negotiating position, scrutinising and then ratifying FTAs. Again, something that has broad cross-sectoral support but has been opposed by Government.

What is the UK Government's position?

The Government has said that we will not see our animal welfare standards diluted as we leave the EU - indeed, when Michael Gove was Defra Secretary, he committed us to being a global leader on animal welfare. And the 2019 Conservative Manifesto stated that, “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards,” a commitment that was most welcome.

However, as things stand, the FTAs we strike with 3rd parties pose a serious threat to that commitment to uphold our standards and we feel the Bills going through Parliament do not contain sufficient protections for the UK’s higher welfare farmers or our animal welfare standards.

TARIFFS

The UK Government has proposed using ‘dual tariffs’ to resolve this issue. Tariffs are effectively ‘taxes’ that are placed on goods entering our market. The Government’s proposal would involve charging a higher rate for products entering the UK that do not meet our standards, and a lower rate for those that do. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, tariffs should be one of a host of mechanisms used to protect our standards – in addition to import bans – not the only one.

A significant concern is that these tariffs would merely become a starting point for any trade negotiations (with the USA or others), rather than an end point – once the principle has been accepted that low-welfare, low-quality food can be imported, even with a high tariff, there will be steady pressure to reduce the tariff over time. The solution to that situation would be legislation that prevents certain products being imported under the terms of any FTA in the first place – something that the defeated amendment to the Agriculture Bill sought to achieve.

What is Compassion calling for?

When negotiating trade agreements, the UK must not permit the import of meat, eggs and dairy products that are produced to lower animal welfare standards than those of the UK.

The UK has a considerable body of legislation on the welfare of farm animals. Many of the countries the UK is seeking an FTA with do not – in some cases, regarding farm animals, there is almost none!

The UK should resist calls for regulatory coherence with countries which have lower welfare standards. How does one do that when there are no regulations to align with? If the UK were to seek a level playing field with lower standard nations, it will make it very difficult for the UK to adopt good new legislation on farm animal welfare and may well create pressure on the UK to dilute its existing standards.

To avert this danger, the UK must insist on the inclusion of a clause in these FTAs permitting it to require imports to meet UK animal welfare standards. Such proposals are likely to meet with resistance – particularly by the US negotiators.

The overall impact of any FTA that the UK ratifies should not be that it makes it more difficult for the UK to improve its animal welfare standards – and certainly should not create a downward pressure on existing UK standards.

SCRUTINY

Furthermore, there is very little scrutiny of trade negotiations – something the Trade Bill could and should address. This is particularly the case when it comes to setting tariffs: parliamentarians have no mechanism to challenge the tariffs that the executive lodge with the WTO (or amendments by the Government to existing tariffs). So, over a period of time, the Government could choose to gradually reduce these tariffs – potentially to zero. This, of course, would then offer no protection against low standard imports whatsoever.

If the UK were to go down the tariff route, the challenge would be:

  • making sure that any tariff is sufficiently high to effectively keep a given product permanently off the supermarket shelves
  • ensuring that tariff isn’t removed as part of any FTA. 

The Government should legislate to protect UK standards, through amendments to several Bills currently going through Parliament (such as the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill). It should also make clear that it will treat any request for access for lower standard imports to the UK as a red line that is not going to be crossed in any trade agreement.

What has Compassion done so far?

Earlier this year, Compassion representatives gave evidence to the Agriculture Bill Committee and the Environment Select Committee on the animal welfare implications of the Agriculture Bill. These sessions also examined the potential impact of trade agreements on the standard of imported foods.

Following these evidence sessions and many discussions with individual MPs, several important amendments were tabled to the Bill. Most importantly, on the issue of trade, amendments were tabled that aimed to prohibit imports that don’t meet our standards: if adopted, these amendments would have helped to prevent higher welfare British farming being undermined by poor trade deals, and it gained strong cross-party support. This included New Clause 2 to the Agriculture Bill, in the name of the Environment Select Committee.

277 MPs voted for the amendment, including 22 Conservative politicians who defied the Whip and rebelled against the Government by joining with their opposition colleagues to vote for much-needed protections.

Unfortunately, the amendment was defeated. The House of Lords voted by a majority of 95 to protect standards in trade deals, but this was defeated in the Commons (14 Conservative MPs rebelled against the Government and backed the Lords amendment on that occasion). The most recent vote in the Lords was won by a majority of 38, again with cross-party support. The Government amendment passed in the Commons by a majority of 59, with just 6 rebels on the Conservative benches.

OUR FIGHT CONTINUES

In addition to the ‘public’ lobbying of Committees, we have also sent multiple briefings at the various stages of the debates / Bills progress through Parliament, and had a number of meetings with MPs from all parties.

We are continuing to work hard for the amendments to be secured in the Bill and are in touch with a range of Peers on all sides of the House about this.

Last year we secured a similar change to the Trade Bill that would have replicated trade deals the UK had, through EU membership, with countries such as Canada, Switzerland and South Korea. However, because of the general election, this Bill did not become law. A new Trade Bill has now been published and we are once more demanding that it requires imports to meet UK welfare standards.

YOUR SUPPORT

Supporting all of this has been Compassion’s dedicated army of supporters, who sent supporter emails to their MPs and signed our open letter to the Prime Minister. Over 18,000 emails were sent to MPs about the Agriculture Bill, and a further 17,000 emails to MPs on the issue of animal welfare standards in trade deals - not to mention the 77,000 signatures on the open letter.

Compassion will continue to lobby MPs on this issue as we move into 2021. 

What animal welfare issues of concern are likely to arise in a UK-US FTA?

Beef

The concerns about the import of hormone-treated beef are well known. The problems of US beef are not confined to the use of growth-promoting hormones. US cattle are usually kept in feedlots for the last few months of their lives. Feedlots contain thousands of cattle kept in crowded, often dirty conditions. Hormone-treated beef from US feedlots will undercut UK pasture-based beef farmers on price.

Pork

Ractopamine is a beta agonist feed additive used to promote growth in pigs. Its use is permitted in the US but prohibited in the UK. There is evidence that it has a detrimental impact on pig welfare; the Humane Society of the US states that it “causes death, lameness, stiffness, trembling and shortness of breath in farm animals”.¹

Pork imported from the US is likely to come from herds where sows are confined in narrow stalls during pregnancy. The use of sow stalls has been illegal in the UK since 1999 due to concerns about animal welfare.

Dairy products

BST (bovine somatotropin) is a genetically engineered lactation-promoting hormone that is injected into cows in the US to increase milk yields. The use of BST is prohibited in the UK on animal welfare grounds. Imported US dairy products from BST-treated cows would undercut UK farmers on price.

Chicken, meat, and egg products

The import of chicken washed in chlorine or other chemical disinfectants has rightly caused concern, as an ‘end of pipe’ treatment to mask unhygienic conditions in production, slaughter and processing. 

Whilst the use of barren battery cages is banned in the UK, they are used in most US States. In the UK 21% of eggs are used as ingredients in various products often in the form of whole egg powder. Fresh eggs are unlikely to be imported from the US. At present egg powder imports are discouraged by high tariffs, but the US is likely to oppose the inclusion of such tariffs in a trade agreement. This may well result in egg powder coming into the UK from hens kept in battery cages in the US. This would undermine UK egg producers who would find demand for their egg powder being replaced by US imports.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are given to farm animals at much higher levels in the USA than in the UK. In terms of mg of active ingredient of antibiotic use per tonne of livestock unit (PCU):²

  • total antibiotic use in US farm animals is more than 5 times higher than in UK farm animals
  • antibiotic use in US cattle use is about 8–9 times as high as use in UK cattle
  • antibiotic use in US pigs is more than twice as high as use in UK pigs
  • antibiotic use in US chickens is more than twice as high as use in UK chickens
  • antibiotic use in US turkeys is about 9 times as high as use in UK turkeys.

Regulatory coherence

The US is likely to press for the inclusion of a clause in any agreement with the UK intended to align regulatory standards related to the farming, transport and slaughter of animals.

This would be worrying. US regulations on farm animal welfare are generally substantially lower than those of the UK. Indeed, the US has no federal regulations at all in many of the areas in which the UK has detailed regulations. There is no federal US legislation governing the welfare of animals while they are on the farm. There are federal provisions on slaughter (although this legislation does not cover poultry, and is much less detailed than UK legislation), and on transport (which is also much less detailed and demanding than UK legislation).

The UK has banned barren battery cages, sow stalls and veal crates. There is no US federal ban on these systems, although 12 states have prohibited one or all of these systems.

In light of all these threats, Compassion believes it is vital for UK law to require trade deals to include a clause that allows the UK to decline to accept imports of food that has not been produced to UK standards

Further reading

¹http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2014/11/ractopamine-drug-challenged-110514.html  Accessed 18 March 2017

²“US livestock receive more than five times as many antibiotics as British livestock”, Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, May 2020:

http://www.saveourantibiotics.org/news/press-release/us-livestock-receive-more-than-five-times-as-many-antibiotics-as-british-livestock/

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