Four reasons why animal lovers should be concerned about the Australia-UK trade deal

By James West, Compassion in World Farming

Compassion in World Farming (Compassion) is deeply concerned about the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Australia and the UK. Agreed in principle in June, it appears that the Prime Minister has approved a deal that will immediately allow large quantities of Australian beef and other animal products into the UK, tariff-free.

Photo: Cows in an Australia feedlot (by Animal liberation Queensland – copyrighted)

In announcing the deal, the Australian Government said that, during the first year it is in effect, tens of thousands of tonnes of Australian meat would be allowed into the UK, tariff-free. The quotas would then grow, year-on-year, until tariffs are totally eliminated by the mid-2030s.

Here are some reasons why the deal is a bad idea for people, animals and tackling climate change:

1. The deal is bad news for animals and farmers alike

Such a deal would mean that our own Government could have opened the door to an undermining of the UK’s animal welfare standards. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto committed, “in all of our trade negotiations,” to “not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.” In stark contrast, this deal would potentially devastate the UK’s network of higher welfare farmers.

Extensive pasture-based farming is well established and commonplace in the UK. To protect this set-up, beef reared in feedlots, where the animals spend months in intensive conditions, fed largely on grain rather than grazing on pasture – as is the case with much of Australian cattle farming – should not be permitted tariff free access into the UK. Yet reports of the deal suggest that Australia will, in the first year alone, be able to import 60 times the amount of beef currently exported to the UK.

Grassdale – Australia’s biggest feedlot (by Animal liberation Queensland – copyrighted)

2. The deal will undermine hard-fought UK standards

Compassion welcomes the recent positive steps from Defra to improve animal welfare – such as their Action Plan and proposed live exports ban, which have also been supported by a broad range of animal welfare organisations and the public. Meanwhile, Australia exports hundreds of thousands of live animals every year, on long journeys to southeast Asia and the Middle East. Despite the positive direction of the UK government’s domestic legislation, they are agreeing trade deals that potentially undermine our standards – making further improvements in animal welfare harder to secure and, quite possibly, creating demands for our own standards to be lowered.

I don’t doubt that many Australian farmers care about their animals. However, with no federal animal welfare legislation, the use of battery cages and sow stalls still legal (having been banned in the UK since 1999 and 2012, respectively) and painful practices such as de-horning, castration and branding are all permitted without pain relief, UK and Australian standards can hardly be considered as being comparable.

Cages and intensive cattle farming are not the only areas of concern: mulesing of sheep (cutting off sheep rear ends, including skin and flesh, often without anaesthetic) is also permitted in Australia. Yet, worryingly, in the first year that the deal comes into effect, Australia will be able to export four times the amount of lamb to the UK than it does currently. Do we really want to be importing such cruelty?

Antibiotic use in Australian agriculture is also extremely high. A recent report by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics found that use per animal in poultry is over 16 times higher in Australia than the UK, whilst for pigs it is nearly three times higher.[1]

A recent survey by Which? found that British consumers are overwhelmingly against imports of food produced to lower standards. Of those surveyed:

  • 86% were concerned weakening UK food standards as part of a trade deal could lead to products that are currently banned being served in schools, hospitals and restaurants, where pupils, patients and customers may have little information or choice about the food they eat
  • 95% said it is important for the UK to maintain existing food standards
  • those from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely than those from higher socio-economic households to believe imports of food produced to lower standards should be available in the UK.

When British consumers feel so strongly about this, why is the Government not listening?

3. The lack of understanding by UK government ministers about what constitutes good animal welfare standards is alarming

The Department for International Trade has praised Australian welfare standards, referring to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The OIE does indeed rank Australia highly on veterinary services. But that is not the same thing as having good animal welfare. It is entirely possible to have very good vets, and very poor farm animal welfare standards, as examples in Australian farming show. More importantly, the OIE does not score countries for welfare at all. It is alarming that Ministers seem unaware of this distinction, explicitly citing the OIE rating as evidence of good animal welfare.

Indeed, Australian farming operates at a lower standard than in the UK. World Animal Protection – who do rank countries for welfare, through their Animal Protection Index – give Australia a ranking of ‘E’ on farm animals, with the highest rating being ‘A’. This would not be considered ‘high standard’ by most peoples’ reckoning.

4. The deal lacks transparency

Compassion, working with Sustain, earlier this year produced a briefing on the UK-Australia FTA,[2] detailing the issues that will be of serious concern if this agreement is ratified. Clearly, based on various rankings and the plethora of sub-standard farming practices, there is a gulf in farm animal welfare standards between the two countries. The UK Government must be far more transparent in what it is negotiating – both in terms of the parliamentary scrutiny that is so desperately lacking when trade is considered, but also with the public and civil society. The best trade agreements are those that have widespread support from a broad range of stakeholders.

We urge the Government to set out:

  • how the UK will ensure that the imports from Australia, soon to be given tariff-free access, will be equivalent to UK standards of animal welfare
  • what monitoring and enforcement the UK Government will put in place to ensure that products coming in to meet UK standards
  • what penalties, or restrictions on products entering the UK, will be imposed if it transpires those Australian exports don’t comply with UK law
  • whether, and how, the UK Government will prevent access for food imports from Australia if they have been produced using high levels of antibiotics, and how such checks will be undertaken?

The answers to these questions will be telling in terms of the future of animal welfare protection in the UK’s trade negotiations – the deal with Australia will likely act as a Trojan horse for FTAs with other major agricultural nations, such as the USA.

If Australian standards are considered acceptable, or indeed among the highest in the world, should we expect British standards to be lowered, encouraging the use of feed lots, sow stalls and battery cages? Surely not!

Compassion in World Farming are a member of the Trade Justice Scotland Coaliation

Photo: Free range chickens (by Woodley Wonderworks creative commons licenced)

[1] Differences in Australian and British Farm Antibiotic Standards, Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, 2021

[2] “Ensuring high animal welfare standards in future trade deals”, Compassion in World Farming and Sustain, June 2021