The animal welfare gulf between the UK and two of our likely post-Brexit trading partners has been highlighted by reports of slow progress in removing sow stalls in the US and Canada.
During a visit to the US and Canada as part of her Nuffield Scholarship, National Pig Association (NPA) senior policy advisor Georgina Crayford investigated how commitments by major food companies to phase out gestation stalls were panning out.
It is estimated that currently just 25% of sows in the US are now loose housed, and that is from 40 days days after service. A number of major food companies, including Wal Mart and McDonalds, have committed to phasing stalls out by 2020 to 2025, while pig producing giant Smithfield Foods expects to have ended use of gestation stalls in its operations by the end of this year. Others have made similar commitments of varying timescales.
But Dr Crayford, who spoke to various people within the US pig industry, said: “Although food companies and retailers are driving change following their public commitments, progress is slow, especially since antibiotics took over as the top issue.
“A number of the commitments merely pay lip service. They aren’t real commitments and in many major pig producing states, legislation to force the issue is not expected for many years.
“The US is keen to export pork to the UK after we leave the EU, so they might be willing to make compromises and move to group housing. But with minimal oversight of US pig farms, we would have to question the reliability of any assurances about production systems.”
In Canada, there is more progress but gestation stalls will still be legal until 2025.
The UK banned sow stalls in 1999, with the EU finally implementing a partial ban finally in 2013. However, a recent parliamentary question has revealed that the European Commission is still ‘checking the documentation of the last three Member States to see if they are now fully compliant’. It is not naming them but they are thought to be three of Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and France.
This was described as a ‘shocking state of affairs’ by NPA chief executive Zoe Davies.
‘Disappointingly thin’ response
In July, a House of Lords committee concluded in a report that the greatest threat to farm animal welfare standards from Brexit would come from cheap, imported food produced to lower standards than the UK, on the back of new trade deals.
In its response, the Government agreed that we should seek to ‘avoid high UK animal welfare standards potentially being undermined by lower standard imports’ but gave little indication on how it intended to achieve this. The issue is ‘under active consideration’, it said. It did say, however, that it wanted to build on current EU trade agreements that include provisions relating to animal welfare.
Dr Crayford, who told the inquiry the NPA was adamant UK welfare standards must be sustained post-Brexit with equivalent standards applied to imports, described the Government’s response as ‘disappointingly thin’.
“The evidence is there in front of our eyes that welfare standards in countries we are actively pursuing deals with are vastly inferior and will be more than 20 years behind by the time we leave the EU.
“Lower standard imports could have a devastating impact on our industry but so far the Government has given no indication of how it intends to address this threat.”