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Home > News > A 'massive missed opportunity' - Government stance on import standards leaves pig sector exposed

A 'massive missed opportunity' - Government stance on import standards leaves pig sector exposed

13th Oct 2020 / By Alistair Driver

The NPA has described the Government’s decision to reject key amendments to the Agriculture Bill intended to protect import standards as a ‘massive missed opportunity’.

Victoria Prentis Ag BillChief executive Zoe Davies has warned that a lack of legal backing on import standards could result in UK pig producers, yet again, being undermined by cheap imports, compromising the UK’s ability to produce its own pork.

Last night, MPs rejected a number of amendments added to the Bill by the House of Lords, including Amendment 16, which would have required free trade deals to only allow food imports that meet UK legal standards.

But while the amendment from Labour peer Lord Grantchester was rejected by 332 votes to 279, a number of Conservative rebels voted for it, including EFRA chair Neil Parish and former Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers (see below for full list).

Crossbench peer Lord Curry’s Amendment 18, which would have given the Trade and Agriculture Commission significantly more powers to scrutinise future trade agreements before they are finalised, was not selected for a vote by the Speaker.

You can view the debate (from 6pm) HERE and the Hansard transcript HERE

While much of the debate covered the high-profile issues of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef, a number of MPs in favour of the amendments highlighted the significant differences in standards of production between UK and US pork, notably the continued use of sow stalls in the US.

Labour MP Ruth Cadbury said: “If we do a trade deal with the US that has no conditions on animal welfare, our farmers will be at risk, because they will have to compete with low-cost agricultural mega-corporations, such as those US pork farmers still using sow stalls.

“To prevent the cruelty of practices such as sow stalls, we need a law which says that, in all trade deals, any imports must meet the same standards of animal welfare that British farmers are required to meet.”

To view a Pig World article outlining what the US pig sector wants from a UK trade deal and the vast differences in production standards, CLICK HERE 

But Farming Minister Victoria Prentis (pictured, top right) described the claims made by MPs from all parties that the Agriculture Bill, alongside the new Trade Bill, could pave the way for imports produced to lower standards than permitted by law in the UK as ‘fear-mongering’.

“We are not going to be importing chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef. That is the law of this land,” she said.

“There is no question of ​‘not yet’. This Government are not going to change it under any circumstances. We have said very clearly that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards.”

She claimed ‘existing tools’, including regulation and parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, were sufficient.

But Shadow Farming Minister Luke Pollard said a failure by the Government to back ‘legal guarantees that our high UK food and farming standards will not be undercut in post-Brexit trade deals, whether with the USA, Australia or any other country’ will result in ‘lower-quality food on our plates’.

He highlighted the huge level of support among farmers, environmental and animal welfare groups and consumers for legal protection on import standards.

“Our farmers risk being undercut by cheap imports from abroad within months. If the Government are serious about keeping their manifesto promise to safeguard standards, they should put that guarantee into law,” he said.

NPA reaction

Zoe Davies1NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “While not surprising, the Government’s refusal to back the Lords’ amendments is very disappointing and leaves the pig sector vulnerable to cheap imports.

“This is a massive missed opportunity to provide the necessary legal protection and assurance from government that our sector needs. Vague promises about protecting standards are not enough.

“The US, for example, has made it clear that is not prepared to compromise in future trade deals on issues like the use of ractopamine in pigs and sow stalls, which are still widely used in US pig production, but were banned in the UK in 1999. There are also vast differences in areas like environmental protection, piglet castration and antibiotic use.

“The Government has given no clear indication of how, in the absence of legislation, it would prevent imports of significantly cheaper pork from the US and elsewhere produced using methods that are outlawed in the UK.

“Following the UK sow stall ban in 1999, retailers continued to import large volumes of cheaper pork from the EU produced using sow stalls. The impact was catastrophic as UK producers were unable to compete and went out of business – the pig herd halved in size in just a few years. The Government must learn from previous experience and do more to ensure that history is not repeated.”

More quotes from the debate

On sow stalls... 

“I want to talk about sow stalls, which were banned here in 1999. No doubt the Minister will be aware of the new cruel confinement law, as it is called in California, which not only bans the use of sow stalls in that state, but bans the sale in California of pork produced in other American states that still use sow stalls.

“I am advised that that includes Iowa and Minnesota. Could the Government please explain why it appears that California is able to ban food products produced by what we regard as cruel means in other states of the United States of America, but that we somehow have difficulty in doing the same in deciding our new rules?”

Labour MP and former Defra Secretary Hilary Benn

On the need for additional scrutiny of trade deals and the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission... 

“Yes, we will get a certain amount of scrutiny of the trade deals when they are done, but the deal will be signed and then presented before Parliament. There will then be the option of objecting to it, or voting it through,” he said.

“That is why the work has to be done. We do not need the whole Trade and Agriculture Commission; we could have a slimmed down version that could consider every individual deal over the years, as we sign it, to ensure that we do not trade away those standards, and that we improve standards across the world—that we raise the standards of animal welfare and the environment. Surely that is laudable.”

EFRA chairman Neil Parish 

On cheap imports... 

"What is the USP of British farming’s food exports? It is quality. If we allow the undercutting of our farmers through cheap imports—cheap because of the poor quality of their production—we undermine our reputation and our ability to trade internationally and be successful. It is important for Members to understand that amendment 16 is about strengthening Britain’s hand in negotiations."

Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron 


Moe industry reaction...  

Batters“Once again the Commons has debated the Agriculture Bill without any binding commitments on how to safeguard our farmers’ high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection in our trade policy.

“While I was very heartened to hear many MPs express support for safeguarding our food standards, it was particularly disappointing that they were unable to vote on Lord Curry’s amendment that would strengthen the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission and with it the role of Parliament to have proper scrutiny of new trade deals.

“The future of British food and farming is at stake. Without proper safeguards on future trade deals we risk seeing an increase in food imports that have been produced to standards that would be illegal here. I hope the Agriculture Bill returning to the House of Lords gives a new opportunity for the Lords to put forward an amendment that will give the Commission more teeth and enable MPs to have their say; one that can be heard by the House of Commons, with a final vote to see those safeguards put in place.”

NFU president Minette Batters

“This result is a severe blow for animal welfare and a betrayal of the Government’s own manifesto commitment to maintain and improve on health and welfare standards.

After such a strong show of support in the Lords, it is bitterly disappointing that the majority of MPs have chosen to ignore the groundswell of public and professional feeling and have voted against a clause that would have safeguarded our own renowned standards and offered crucial protections to the reputation and livelihood of the UK’s farming industry."

British Veterinary Association president James Russell

“We are very disappointed the House of Commons has rejected key amendments on import standards, climate change and pesticides in the Agriculture Bill, that has been proposed by the House of Lords.

“Putting these protections into law is vital to protect us against trade deals that could lower food production standards, threaten our environmental and climate change commitments, and undercut British farmers.

Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the Soil Association