Animal welfare – another of this government’s sacrificial lambs?

Photo source: Pixabay
Share this article

To the huge concern of vets and farmers, the UK government seems to be preparing to sacrifice our high animal welfare standards in order to obtain a trade deal with Donald Trump. Worryingly, this also threatens our ability to combat deadly disease in humans, writes Cornwall-based vet Danny Chambers.

With the end of the transition period fast approaching, the UK requires a new agricultural policy. But what will this look like? We were given a disturbing indication of this when MPs voted on a crucial proposed amendment to the Agriculture Bill presented to the House of Commons for its third reading in May.

The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto stated that: “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.” Despite this, MPs of the governing party managed to defeat the very amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would have guaranteed that our current animal welfare and food safety standards would be maintained in any new international trade deals.

Neil Parish, the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton who proposed this amendment, explained:

“We have promised not to reduce our high domestic standards. So we should not undermine them through trade deals.”

The UK’s animal welfare and food production standards are indeed widely recognised to be among the highest in the world.

US laws on animal husbandry and food production permit lower standards than in the UK or the EU. The most widely-publicised examples of this include the production of eggs from hens kept in battery cages, the chlorine washing of chicken carcasses and the treatment of cattle and pigs with growth hormones. All these practices are currently banned in the UK and the EU and for very good reasons.

Animal behaviourists and veterinary scientists agree that for an animal to live a fulfilled life that is free from suffering, it must be able to express natural behaviour and be free from discomfort. The washing of chicken carcasses with chlorine to get rid of zoonotic pathogens allows the birds to be reared in much less space, and to lower hygiene standards, than are permitted in the UK. Battery hens have no freedom to express natural behaviour and often mutilate each other or themselves.

There is huge pressure from the Trump administration and powerful US lobby groups to force the UK to drop its high animal welfare and food production standards ahead of any trade deal. Indeed, the former international trade secretary Liam Fox recently said the US “would walk” if amendments to the Agriculture Bill to safeguard import standards became UK law.

If the government accepts US demands in its desperation to agree trade deals, this will result in the British public eating dairy products, meat and eggs produced to lower animal welfare standards than are currently allowed, with all the attendant health risks. Importantly, it would also result in British farmers having to compete against cheaper imports and could put many of them out of business.

“Salmonella Bacteria” by NIAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0

But there is an even more serious problem arising from inhumane intensive farming practices in the US.

The development of resistance to antibiotics is going to be the next public health crisis, and it could be even more serious than Covid-19. The World Health Organisation considers the developing of antimicrobial resistance to be one of the top ten threats to global public health. Growing numbers of people are dying every year as bacteria become resistant to our antibiotics, resistance which has been created by the inappropriate use of antibiotics in people and animals. Globally, just over 70 per cent of antibiotics prescribed worldwide are used in livestock.

The UK is currently a genuine world-leader in addressing this problem. In an effort to tackle this huge threat to public health, vets and government have been working in partnership with farmers to tackle the developing antimicrobial resistance crisis. As a result the sale of antibiotics used in UK farm animals was reduced by just over 50 per cent between 2014 and 2018 and is continuing to fall.

In the UK the use of antibiotics in farm animals is mostly to treat animals when they are sick. In more intensive, less hygienic farming systems, that are more common in the US, larger amounts of antibiotics are used on healthy animals prophylactically (to prevent infections before they occur).  As a result, on average, farm animals in the US receive five times more antibiotics than UK farm animals. Adapting our legislation to accommodate meat produced in this way will contribute to this looming public health crisis.

 A trade deal with the US would also have serious environmental impacts. Importing more food from the States would not only increase food miles, but we’d also be consuming food produced by more energy-intense methods that result in higher greenhouse gas emissions.

The threat to British farming has united organisations that can sometimes be at loggerheads with each other. The National Farmers Union, the British Veterinary Association, the RSPCA, the RSPB, the Soil Association, Greenpeace, the Country Landowners Association and many others have lobbied the government to ensure that we maintain our current animal welfare and public health standards in legislation, and that we prohibit imports of animal products produced to lower standards. So far this has fallen on deaf ears, but the campaign to Save British Farming is attracting widespread support as the public wakes up to the imminent threat to a vital industry and a central aspect of our national life.

Another huge concern for vets and animal welfare advocates is that the majority of our animal welfare laws currently come from the EU, including the recognition of animals as sentient beings – in other words, the legal acknowledgement that they can feel pain and suffer. So far, the government has rejected attempts to get animal sentience written into UK law, leaving animal welfare in a very vulnerable position going forward.

The Agriculture Bill passed the committee stage in the House of Lords on 28 July. It now moves on to the report stage, which means there is still time to make changes to it in the next Parliament. But will MPs listen to the voices of their constituents and of the numerous professional organisations warning against the very real threat to the wellbeing of our animals and the future of UK farming?

British farmers are proud that we have the highest welfare standards in the world, as is the British public. Are we really about to compromise these, and our ability to treat deadly disease in humans, for the sake of a trade deal with Trump?

If so, it would appear that when it comes to ‘Taking Back Control’, some animal welfare and human health standards are more equal than others.

You can sign the author’s petition calling on the government to ensure that future trade deals do not compromise current UK farm animal welfare and public health standards here: