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Animal welfare standards will be “watered down by the back door” and UK farmers will be undercut if the government signs agreements with other nations where farm animals are made to suffer needlessly, Chris Sherwood warned.
Animal organisations fear that Britain’s forthcoming deal with Australia could set a precedent for similar arrangements around the world that would lead to increased cruelty.
The government wants deals with New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, India and the US, and is on course to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership alliance, which includes parts of Asia and Japan.
The experts believe the UK could sign up to import meat from pigs held in farrowing crates for long periods, beef from hormone-fed cattle, chickens crammed into overcrowded, barren cages, and milk from genetically modified cows, among other goods.
Mr Sherwood told The Independent the Australia deal could set a “very concerning” precedent.
“Countries like Brazil have big exports of pork and beef, and our concern is animal welfare standards will be watered down by the back door and will undercut our farmers,” he said.
“It’s incongruent with the great messages from the government on animal welfare – we’ve just had the Kept Animals Bill and Animal Sentience Bill, and a commitment in the Queen’s Speech to protect standards.
“The government is on record as saying they want to protect and enhance animal welfare, and all we’re doing is reminding them of that.
“It’s not just the RSPCA – the public care about where animals come from and how they’re treated. These are sentient beings – animals that have feelings and feel pain.”
Many other countries allow pigs to be kept in sow stalls and farrowing crates – pens that are so tight the animal cannot even turn around – and chickens to be more tightly crammed into sheds.
Britain banned sow stalls in 1999, and farrowing crates are legal but controversial.
Canada and the US still have battery cages for egg-laying hens, which are considered so cruel the UK banned them in 2012.
India, which is thought to want to export liquid and dried eggs to the UK, keeps its entire national flock of egg-laying hens in battery cages.
The government is deeply split between factions such as trade secretary Liz Truss who is believed to want to negotiate as many deals as possible and ex-environment secretary Michael Gove, who favours doing deals only if UK animal-welfare standards are not compromised.
“The difficulty the government has is it doesn’t have a trade policy,” said David Bowles, head of public affairs at the RSPCA. “They need a trade policy so that not only do they show other countries before negotiations what their red lines are, but also to convince the public and business and farmers they’re not selling out those standards.
“Although they have a manifesto commitment not to undermine animal-welfare standards, they do not yet have a process of showing how they will achieve that, nor a trade strategy that says what is their purpose on trade – is it as many as possible and hope for the best or just high-quality agreements and ensure they don’t undermine our standards.”
“Certain MPs say we have a free-trade agreement with the EU so why can’t we have one with other countries, but the vital fact they’re missing is that we have equivalent standards on animal welfare to the EU brought up over the past 47 years. But every country we’re doing deals with has lower standards than ours.”
The Trade and Animal Welfare Coalition, part of the Eurogroup for Animals alliance, said it feared an Australia deal would “set the template forfuture agreements, whether for New Zealand, India, Mercosur [Latin America], the wider Trans-Pacific Partnership or the US”, adding that the UK should not “outsource” lower welfare production.
When asked to respond, a government spokesperson gave only the wording that was in the Conservative manifesto: “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”