The UK government is currently negotiating and/or closing on a number of post-Brexit trade deals with countries including the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand.
The UK-Australia FTA (free-trade agreement) was signed in 2021, and although animal welfare was discussed, and the UK remained adamant in its requirement for import standards to be met, there are concerns with the deal as it stands (7). Namely, the agreement does not agree equivalence, meaning that animal welfare regulations in each country are not required to be the same in order for products to be imported. Furthermore, while the UK refused to liberalise some tariffs on imports of animal products, these refusals only apply to pork meat, chicken meat, and certain types of egg products – more liberal policies were adopted on beef, lamb, and dairy imports.
Post-brexit trade deals with Canada, Mexico, Chile, and other participating countries, have also been put into place as a result of the UK signing onto the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This is the biggest zero tariff trade deal made by the UK government since Brexit but some are concerned about the fact that it will allow imports of eggs produced using battery cage systems (which have been banned in the UK for over a decade) as well as high-carbon beef, and low-welfare pork (8).
The preliminary steps towards a UK/US trade deal post-Brexit have already been taken and are in place to continue in earnest in the early months of 2024 (9). The US has identified the post-Brexit UK as a “large market for US products”, and the countries expect to have finished most of the negotiations for a new deal by spring of 2024 (10).
Concerningly, in its negotiating objectives, the UK government has not ruled out importing US products made through processes and using chemicals banned in the UK, including chlorine-washed chicken, and the use of antibiotics and growth hormones (11). In fact, the inclusion of concessions on agriculture is a long-standing point of tension in negotiations both between current leaders, Sunak and Biden and former leaders, Boris and Trump. Rishi Sunak condemned the inclusion of hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken in the UK market earlier this year, but the UK Department of Business and Trade believes that if agricultural barriers aren’t up for discussion, the US will walk away from a deal altogether (12).
Many of the countries we are currently negotiating or closing with have lower welfare standards than the UK. For example, the US has no federal legislation governing the welfare of farmed animals and allows the use of a multitude of cruel farming practices banned in the UK such as the use of battery cages and sow stalls; Canada allows the use of castration, ear notching, tail docking and teeth trimming on pig farms as well as the use of sow crates which do not allow pigs the opportunity to turn around or stretch their limbs; Mexico has little to no safeguards for the rearing of pigs, cattle, and chickens; and in many of these countries, potentially harmful antibiotics and chemical treatments banned in UK farming are used throughout the livestock industry.
While it is the case that the WTO does not generally allow discrimination in regards to trade deals with other countries, two amendments to WTO law allow some discrimination on the basis of animal welfare standards in negotiating international trade. Specifically, WTO regulations allow countries to impose trade restrictions that are deemed necessary to protect human, animal or plant life and health. They also allow regulation to protect public morals- including those related to animal welfare – “provided you can show that the legislative apparatus in that country, or public opinion, or some evidence about a particular animal welfare concern rises to the level of public morals” (13).
As our survey data shows, there is overwhelming and cross-party public support for the UK to uphold its animal welfare standards in trade deals by restricting imports of low welfare animal products.