MPs ramp up pressure on import standards with Agriculture Bill amendment

MPs have put further pressure on the Government over import standards by tabling an amendment to the Agriculture Bill calling on it to enshrine its commitments to upholding food standards in future trade deals in law.

The amendment was tabled by members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affair (EFRA) Committee following a hearing this week with representatives from the agriculture, animal welfare and trade sectors.

During the hearing, MPs took evidence on how the UK can ensure that imports under new trade agreements are produced to the high animal welfare and environmental standards expected by the public.

The amendment, reiterating the points made in a 2018 EFRA Committee report on the Agriculture Bill, would ensure that food products imported as part of any future trade deal meet or exceed British standards relating to production, animal welfare and the environment.

EFRA chair Neil Parish (pictured left, with Defra Secretary George Eustice and Jim Shannon, chair of the APPG for Eggs, Pigs and Poultry, at an APPG event) said: “British consumers rightfully expect that the food we eat is produced to very high standards.

“The evidence the Committee heard this week highlighted that the negotiation of new free trade deals present exciting opportunities to uphold and even boost our high production standards, but the Government must ensure that consumer preferences for environmentally-friendly and humanely produced foods are respected.

“Lowering food production standards should not be a bargaining chip to be used in future trade deals- allowing imports to be produced in ways that are illegal here would severely undercut British farmers.

“For these reasons, we are calling on the Government to uphold its commitments by amending the Agriculture Bill.”

See Neil Parish explain why EFRA has tabled the amendment:

The Agriculture Bill is currently going through the Commons, before moving onto the Lords. While it is questionable whether the amendment will be accepted in the Commons, NFU president Minette Batters is confident the amendment will be tabled again in the Lords and will stick.

Moral compass  

Batters Eustice NFU conferenceAt February’s NFU conference, she told Defra Secretary George Eustice the Government must retain the amendment when the Bill returns to the Commons.

“This will test the moral compass of the Government,” she said. “That amendment has to stay in and, if it is taken out, we will know the road we are on. My worry is that we are talking a lot about raising the bar for UK farmers when we have no assurances on the standard of food imports. That does one thing – it puts these guys out of business.”

Mr Eustice said he would ‘have discussions’ with other departments about maintaining our standards in trade deals.

He insisted the ‘issues around animal welfare and food standards’ could be addressed in future trade deals, pointing out that the US has insisted in negotiations on market access for British beef that its abattoir methodologies are used. It would, therefore, ‘not be extraordinary’ for the UK to do the same and insist on our conditions for US market access, he said.

Pig production standards

While much of the focus has been on chlorine-washed chicken from the US, there are significant differences between UK pig production standards and those in some countries the UK is trying to forge deals with. In the NPA’s submission to the Department for International Trade’s consultation on the UK global tariff, senior policy adviser Ed Barker highlights aspects of US and Canadian production that are illegal in the UK.

These include:

  • Use of feed additive ractopamine and hormone use in the US. Ractopamine is banned by the EU and other WTO members.
  • The majority of US states are permitted by law to keep sows in stalls for their entire 16-week gestation period. Sow stalls have been banned in the UK since 1999.
  • The use of antibiotics for growth promotion, banned in the UK, is still permitted in the US.
  • It is legally permissible to castrate male piglets in the US, and there are no laws around when it should be done or around the use of analgesia or anaesthetics. The practice is banned under the Red Tractor assurance scheme, which covers 95% of the UK pig herd.

Recent AHDB analysis shows, as a result of these variables, that the average cost of US pork production is 40% lower than the UK’s.

Petition on import standards

More than 15,000 people have now signed an NFU petition calling on the Government to commit in law to introducing a ban under future trade deals on food imports that would be illegal for British farmers to produce.

The petition, which you can sign here, was launched at the NFU Conference in February and will continue to run over the coming weeks, as the UK kicks off trade negotiations with the EU and US.

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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.