Comment: We mustn’t export production to countries with no animal welfare standards

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council

The UK Government and devolved governments made the correct decision to lift the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone across Great Britain on 15 May, then on 20 May in Northern Ireland, given the reduced risk of highly pathogenic avian influenza from wild birds. However, there has been 24 cases of Avian Influenza in poultry flocks and over 300 wild bird incidents across both mainland Great Britain, and Northern Ireland. This makes the latest avian influenza season the worst we have seen. The situation in the EU has been severe with around 1,200 cases in poultry flocks, and over 2,125 incidents in wild birds, with 85 captive bird outbreaks.

This reinforces the importance of what I have said before and will continue to say about the importance of biosecurity, we cannot be complacent when it comes to avian influenza. We may see the next major threat sooner than 3-4 years, and this will pose a considerable challenge for our sector, in these already challenging times. The Poultry Health and Welfare Group is organising an avian influenza workshop on 13 September, designed to update the industry on the latest information and best practice on how to protect flocks from this threat.

In other news, Defra has launched its Action Plan for Animal Welfare, which will apply in England. Animal welfare is devolved in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but Defra and the UK Government has said they hope the devolved governments will coordinate with them on these priorities. The Action Plan covers 5 areas: Sentience and enforcement; International trade and advocacy; Farm animals; Pets and sporting animals; and Wild animals.

On international trade and advocacy, the Action Plan states: “Our manifesto commitment made clear that in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. To support the reforms set out elsewhere in this action plan, UK farmers should not be undercut by unfair competition. The Government will use the most suitable tools available to make sure this commitment is upheld”.

On farm animals, the Action Plan states: “Taking advantage of our status as an independent trading nation, we will legislate to end the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter. Our departure from the EU has provided us with a much-awaited opportunity to address this long-standing ambition. The government has consulted on a number of other welfare in transport reforms, such as setting maximum journey times, space allowances for animals and temperature controls.

We are now considering this policy area in further detail to determine what will be taken forward in future legislation to improve transport conditions for animals. We have a strong track record for raising the bar when it comes to farm animal welfare standards, such as banning battery cages for laying hens, sow stalls for pigs and veal crates for calves. We want to continue to build on this and we are currently considering the case for introducing further reforms, on areas such as the use of farrowing crates for pigs and cages for laying hens”.

The BEIC will continue as always to engage with Defra and the devolved governments to ensure that a consequence of raising our bird welfare standards is not the export of production to countries with low or no animal welfare standards.

In terms of UK-EU trade, the European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favour of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The agreement was backed by 660 votes to 5, the deal, which was adopted in principle, being in effect from 1 January 2021, is now official. The deal allows for quota and tariff free access to the EU’s Single Market, but it goes without saying that this access is not as frictionless as when the UK was a member of the EU. For farming and agriculture, for example these difficulties have manifested themselves around SPS rules, bringing added cost to our sector and consumers.

The Department for International Trade (DIT) has recently launched public consultations into prospective UK free trade agreements with Canada, Mexico, and India. The negotiations with Canada and Mexico have been framed as key building blocks to UK membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The BEIC met with Defra officials earlier in the year to discussion the laying hen sector’s concerns regarding egg production systems in CPTPP countries that are illegal under both UK and EU law – most notable barren battery cages, which will undermine the UK Government’s own animal welfare commitments, and the expectations of consumers.

We will continue to raise our concerns with parliamentarians and officials that any free trade deals should not undermine our high standards of animal welfare by allowing eggs and egg products, produced to lower standards, onto the UK market through the back door. This is particularly important when it comes to egg products which can then be incorporated in thousands of finished food products, with consumers being unaware of the origin of these products.

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