Rob Mutimer, an outdoor pig farmer in Norfolk, raises piglets on his farm that will eventually be turned into back bacon for breakfast tables across Britain. These pigs have a good life, with straw to snuffle in, a puddle to wallow in, and plenty of space to play. This is why Swannington Farm to Fork, the products from Mr. Mutimer’s farm, proudly carry the “RSPCA Assured” mark from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. However, with the approaching end of the Brexit transition period and ongoing US-UK trade talks, Mr. Mutimer and other UK farmers have concerns about the future. The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, but there is a growing worry that it won’t survive the intense competition from global markets.
The main issue for UK farmers is cost. US pork production costs are nearly half of those in the UK due to intensive rearing methods, such as sow stalls and growth-enhancing feed additives. These practices are banned under EU regulations that the UK must adhere to until the transition period ends in January 2021. Sow stalls restrict the movement of breeding sows, allowing more animals to be housed in the same space and reducing food intake. This results in reduced costs for US farmers, but it goes against the higher welfare standards of UK farmers.
Farmers like Rob Mutimer are concerned about the UK government’s commitment to protecting them from being undercut by US farmers who operate under lower welfare standards. While ministers claim that UK welfare standards won’t be diluted after Brexit, they have not specified how they will safeguard farmers from imports produced to much lower standards, like those in the US. The fear is that without a level playing field, UK farmers will face immense challenges competing with the large-scale US agribusinesses.
The UK government has stated that it will not compromise on animal welfare and food standards, with regulators ensuring that imports adhere to high safety standards. However, experts like Ed Barker from the National Pig Association are not convinced. They argue that lower welfare standards in the US enable producers to lower costs, regardless of specific bans on practices like chlorine washes or feed additives. Mr. Barker’s confidence eroded further when the government blocked an amendment that would have legally upheld a level playing field on welfare standards in the Agriculture Bill.
The UK government faces a difficult task of delivering on Brexit promises, negotiating a trade deal with the US, and simultaneously protecting UK farmers and maintaining public confidence. Therefore, they proposed a global tariff schedule with high protective tariffs on pork to shield domestic producers. Nonetheless, the Department for International Trade has been lobbying to reduce these tariffs as part of any US trade agreement. This creates a balancing act between maintaining standards and meeting US demands for comprehensive market access and the elimination of perceived protectionist EU animal health rules.
The US National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) advocates for “duty-free” imports and a removal of what they consider to be the EU’s “bogus food safety concerns.” They assert that the UK should embrace modern agricultural production methods like those practiced in the US. The UK is now faced with crucial decisions regarding whether to maintain EU barriers to agricultural trade or fully embrace practices prevalent in the US. UK officials have floated ideas like implementing tariffs based on varying standards, but experts are skeptical about the acceptability of such proposals to US negotiators.
Ensuring consumer confidence is crucial in this scenario. Opening UK markets to US products not meeting the same standards risks reawakening concerns about food safety and trade policies that were previously delegated to Brussels. An online petition organized by the National Farmers’ Union, endorsed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and supported by the popular press, has garnered almost 1 million signatures in favor of maintaining UK food standards. Consumer watchdog Which? has also written a letter highlighting the potential threat to food safety posed by a US-UK trade deal. The public sentiment is clear – the majority does not want products like chlorine-washed chicken.
Peter Stevenson from Compassion in World Farming believes that the government will struggle to reconcile the interests of free trading Brexiters, farmers, and consumers. The challenge lies in preventing low-quality imports in every livestock sector while pursuing a trade deal with the US. Stevenson suggests that difficult choices will have to be made.