Faith-based animal welfare groups have raised concerns over the Government’s new Agriculture Bill, warning that it could lead to imports of food that would be illegal to produce in the UK.
Catholic Concern for Animals (CCA) warned that key elements of the Bill, which is next expected to be debated in the Committee stage in the House of Lords on 7th July, seem more concerned with potential trade deals rather than the protection of UK farming standards and animal welfare.
Chris Fegan, CCA Chief Executive, said the group is “very, very worried” about some of the current wording of the Bill.
“Some parts of the Bill are to be welcomed, including the proposal of a new scheme to provide financial rewards for farmers in England who improve their animal welfare practices, however it seems that major elements of the Bill are much more concerned with potential trade deals with the USA – and indeed elsewhere – rather than protecting and indeed enhancing UK farming standards and animal welfare both in the UK and overseas, which should of course be the priority,” Mr Fegan told The Catholic Universe.
“It is the strong opinion of CCA – and also, I understand, a view which is shared by animal advocacy colleagues and also other key stakeholders such as the National Farmers Union – that proposals in the Bill will allow for the mass importation of ‘animal products’ reared to much lower welfare standards, including in systems that would be illegal in the UK.
“CCA totally opposes this terrible idea which would be a total disaster and which will lead to chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef being imported to the UK and sold in British shops,” Mr Fegan added.
Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare (CEFAW), a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in partnership with major UK Churches and other organisations including Compassion in World Farming, recently published a briefing on the Bill, warning that US imports of animal products could raise a number of issues, with many products that are prohibited in the UK and EU slipping through the net into the trade deals.
These include dairy products from cows treated with growth hormone bovine somatotropin (BST), which is prohibited in the UK and EU on animal welfare grounds; egg products from hens kept in battery cages, which is illegal in the UK and EU; and pork from herds where sows are confined in sow stalls, which is banned in the UK.
Other potential products CEFAW warn about in the briefing are Ractopamine-treated pork, which is prohibited in the UK and EU on animal welfare grounds; meat with high levels of antibiotics, up to 16 times greater than in the UK; and the aforementioned hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken, both of which are prohibited in the UK and EU.
CEFAW is officially supported by both the Catholic Church and CCA, with both the Bishop for the Environment, John Arnold, and Mr Fegan sitting on the Partner Reference Group for the project. In its briefing it points out that Britain’s exit from the EU means that decisions will need to be made on whether current farmed animal welfare standards are maintained, improved or weakened.
‘US trade negotiators want the UK to lower its farmed animal welfare standards so the US can export animal products produced to much lower welfare standards,’ the briefing warns. ‘Without explicit provision in the Agriculture Bill to ensure that all imports meet current UK standards on food safety, animal welfare, and the environment, there is a serious risk that trade deals will undermine UK standards, and UK farmers will either be driven out of business by low-quality imports or will be forced to seek ways to lower welfare standards to compete.’
The warnings by faith-based groups also comes as one million people have signed a petition, organised by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), calling for laws to prevent future trade deals leading to food imports that would be illegal to produce in the UK.
Questioned on the issue by the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) last week, Environment Secretary George Eustice insisted that the Government would protect food and welfare standards in trade deals.
He pointed to the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto’s commitment on the issue.
And he highlighted a recent letter he wrote with International Trade Secretary Liz Truss in which they sought to reassure MPs that existing standards banning the import of chickens washed in chlorine or anything other than water and beef fed with hormones would remain.
Mr Eustice told the EAC: “Our manifesto commitment is very clear about protecting food standards and animal welfare standards through trade deals and there are well-established mechanisms that would enable us to do that.”
NFU president Minette Batters said: “The fact that more than one million people have signed a petition urging the Government to put into law rules that prevent food being imported to the UK which is produced in ways that would be illegal here is a clear signal of how passionate the British public feel about this issue.
“It is now clear that it is simply not credible for the Government to continue to just pay lip service to this issue, when there is such public support for action.
“They must now give guarantees to the British people that they have listened to their concerns and will make firm commitments to address them.”
The NFU is calling for an independent trade, food and farming commission which reviews trade policy and makes sure that all food imports are held to the some standards expected of British farmers.
Ms Batters said: “Trade policy is complicated, but what the public are telling us is quite simple. They care deeply about their food, where it comes from and how it is produced.
“They do not want to see chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef on their supermarket shelves and nor do they want to see food imported which has been produced in lower welfare or environmental systems than is legally allowed in this country.”
Picture: An archive photo, dated 8th May 2018, shows a tractor ploughing a field in Leicestershire. (Rui Vieira/PA).