Post-Brexit Trade Deals and Low Welfare Imports: An urgent cautionary warning for the UK

November 2023

Low welfare imports pose plenty of risks to consumer safety, UK farmers, and the overall reputation of the UK being a country with high food safety and animal welfare standards. This insight takes a deep-dive into the current state of post-Brexit trade deals in the UK, risks associated with these decisions, and advice for policy makers on mitigating these harms. – Charlotte Flores


Despite significant concerns raised by stakeholders, advocacy groups, UK farmers, and the general public, the UK government has yet to take action to address the risks of allowing low-welfare imports of animal products into the UK market. The UK government’s inaction on the issue of low-welfare imports of animal products is disappointing and concerning, given the significant risks to animal welfare, food safety, and the UK’s agricultural sector. 

As it currently stands, none of the animal welfare standards required in British farming, apart from those related to welfare at the time of slaughter, are legally applicable to imports, and the ramifications of allowing low-welfare imports of animal products could be felt for decades to come. 

The interests of conscious UK consumers have also been dismissed in preference of striking trade deals. Our annual survey, which polled a representative sample of 1,000 people in the UK, found that 84% – 5 out of 6 people – support putting restrictions or bans on low-welfare imports that do not meet UK production standards:

Furthermore, support for these measures are consistent regardless of political alignment as pictured in the graph below

Low welfare imports pose plenty of risks to consumer safety, UK farmers, and the overall reputation of the UK being a country with high food safety and animal welfare standards. This insight will take a deep-dive into this issue and cover; 

1) The current state of post-Brexit trade deals in the UK

2) The risks associated with these decisions, and; 

3) Advice for policy makers on mitigating these harms and advocating for proactive change

Recent Changes in UK Agricultural Trade

Brexit left the UK at a crossroads in regards to agricultural trade and animal welfare standards. Around 80% of UK animal welfare laws pre-Brexit were based on EU regulations, rules, and directives, and farming policy/trade in the UK had been determined and subsidised by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) since 1973 (1). In fact, government research showed that the CAP subsidies were the difference between profit and loss for 42% of farms in the UK (2).

The UK is the 5th largest importer of agricultural goods in the world, and although the country is relatively self-sufficient in regards to meat and dairy production, the farming industry is heavily reliant on imported inputs of animal feed (3). Pre-Brexit, more than 70 percent of UK agricultural imports came from the EU (4), but according to the API from July 2022-July 2023, only 50.9% of the UK’s agricultural inputs came from the EU (5). While this figure still comprises a majority of agricultural imports, these numbers are subject to change and have been steadily dropping since the UK’s departure from the EU. 

New import restrictions imposed by the UK on animal products from the EU have made it more difficult and expensive for businesses to import from EU member countries, increasing the appeal of trade deals from other sources and further contributing to the risk of becoming too reliant on food imports (6).

Emerging Trade Deals and New Agreements with Non-EU Countries

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. 

The Costs of Low Welfare Imports

Low welfare imports have a number of costs, for animals, humans, and the UK at large.

  • One of the most concerning costs of low welfare imports is the impact on animal welfare. Animals used to produce these imports may be subjected to cruel and inhumane practices which can cause animals significant physical and psychological distress. Furthermore, in cases where live animals are being imported from other countries to be slaughtered on UK soil, the transportation risks and harms are greatly increased for these animals. By allowing these products to be sold in the UK, we are condoning and contributing to these practices.
  • Animal-derived products have been implicated in the development and spread of a number of global pandemics, and low welfare imports pose higher food safety risks. Animals raised in poor or crowded conditions are more likely to become sick and carry diseases, and stress can also increase these risks. These diseases can then be transmitted to humans through food-borne illnesses. In fact, according to the CDC, three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals (14).  The UK should consider these heightened public health concerns when evaluating further trade-agreements. 
  • In addition to the costs for animals and consumers, low welfare imports also have a negative impact on the British farmers. British farmers are being asked to compete with cheaper imports produced to lower standards, which is not a fair competition. For farmers who have already been financially harmed by the loss of CAP subsidies from the EU, this extra competition is not welcome during this time of mass uncertainty. Requiring UK imports to meet British welfare standards would not only protect our farmers domestically, but could incentivize farmers abroad to adopt higher welfare standards to be able to export to the UK. 
  • Consumers are also vulnerable to being misled in the wake of new FTA’s that allow for low-welfare imports. UK consumers may buy low welfare products without realising due to their being unaware of the different animal welfare standards used in other countries. Misleading labels or loose restrictions on marketing claims could contribute to this. We have already seen one instance of food fraud just this year when South American and European meat products on supermarket shelves were falsely labelled and sold as ‘British’.
  • Finally, allowing low welfare imports into the UK could damage the UK’s reputation as a world leader in animal welfare. The UK has a long history of upholding high animal welfare standards, and British consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that are produced to these standards. If the UK government allows low welfare imports into the country, it could undermine this reputation and British consumers’ values. 

The UK government must take all of these costs into account when negotiating post-Brexit trade deals, and must not continue to sacrifice the UK’s high animal welfare standards in order to secure trade deals.

Policy Levers to Mitigate Harms of LW Imports