There has been considerable news coverage recently of the trade deals that the UK is starting to roll out following Brexit. And of the changes that these will mean for British consumers and producers. This is exemplified in the trade deal with Australia signed in December. Farmers have expressed varying degrees of concern over the extra-EU production standards – for animal welfare in particular – when compared to the current British ones. 

To over-simplify, with a tariff-free deal there is a possibility of massive imports of cheap produce, that would drive market prices down and ultimately push a large number of British farms out of business, if they can’t compete with the changes. British farming has large overhead costs. Even though intensive scale is fairly common (in the chicken and pig industries especially), Britain cannot compete with certain production systems which churn out thousands of kilograms of meat or milk per day. Concerns have been raised over the sustainability and animal welfare of these large scale production systems. When discussing the trade deal, Westminster confirmed that the current UK food and welfare standards would be maintained. Although noticeably failed to vote for certain amendments that would have made upholding these standards become the law.

But is that true? Are Australian (or American, or Brazilian) cattle and sheep not cared for as well as British ones?

It would be impossible to make a “one and all” sweeping statement. The World Organisation for Animal Health has commented on Australia’s “high animal health status”; though high health is not always synonymous with high welfare; in the UK, we are rightly proud of one of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. 

I think it would be fair to say that farmers all over the world try to care for their animals in the best possible manner they can; given their specific circumstances. At the end of the day, when faced with a specific husbandry problem, farmers have had to come up with solutions that suit their environment. What changes is that in certain countries, some practices are legally allowed. And in others have been banned on grounds of animal welfare. It does not mean that all of the farmers apply these practices – there is a choice there. 

One could argue that it’s easier to ban a certain procedure in a farming system that isn’t under as much pressure (either climate or numbers of animals). The bottom line is that as scientific research moves on, so does recognition of animal sentience and pain; therefore we should always be striving to remove suffering from animals under our care. It is not acceptable nowadays to maintain lesser welfare practices that were introduced decades ago, when there wasn’t any other alternative. There are certainly practices in place in Australia and other cattle-dense countries which would be considered outdated and superseded by better alternatives in the UK, such as hot branding.

Examples of different farming standards

One example in sheep farming is mulesing; this is a procedure done to prevent fly strike at the rear end of sheep (tail and breeches). Fly strike being a serious welfare concern, this technique involves removing strips of skin. This is so that the scar tissue (once healed) will be less wrinkly and with less wool cover. And therefore making it less likely to become attractive to flies. This procedure is banned in the UK and New Zealand. But it is allowed in Australian states, where the use of pain relief or anaesthetic is not compulsory. 

Worldwide wool buyers continue asking for non-mulesed Merino wool and Australian groups – such as RSPCA – have been lobbying the Government for years to ban this procedure. Wool producers rightly comment that doing nothing is not an option, as fly strike is a major welfare concern. Looking at this issue from the outside, it is clearly a situation where the lesser of two evils must be chosen. However, as there are other methods to prevent fly strike in sheep (breeding skin folds out, removal of dirty wool, at the very least making anaesthetics and pain relief compulsory), it should be unnecessary to permanently mutilate them.

Another example of differing standards would be on the requirements for CCTV in abattoirs

This is currently mandatory in the UK, but voluntary (alongside other welfare practices) in many Australian states. This does not mean that animals are slaughtered with more care in the UK, or less welfare in Australia. It does mean however that if there were disputes over a certain individual (or establishment) regarding their welfare standards, it would be harder to prove one way or the other without CCTV proof. The Australian RSPCA has produced a document in which recommendations are outlined for improving livestock welfare at the time of slaughter. 

Whilst only two examples are given above, more can be found in an infographic summary published by the British RSPCA

Vetster option 01 (Blog)

There are many more aspects of differing standards, too many to discuss in a single article. 

I have tried and failed to find one item where Australian welfare standards are higher than in the UK .(But I am happy to be corrected). I do not wish to turn anyone against farmers of the world, who face some of the toughest working conditions among all professions. We should also be careful of not falling into the trap of thinking the UK has completed its journey in improving animal welfare (we haven’t!). 

However, I do believe that Australia and many other countries still have some way to go in improving the animal welfare of their nation’s livestock. And that all parties involved should collaborate for the greater good. (Take a look at the World Animal Protection Index (API) assessment of animal welfare legislation in 50 countries).

What shall I do as a consumer in the UK?

This topic is one that carries strong emotional conflicts. And each new trade deal that the UK will sign with other countries will again spark controversy. Animal welfare should always be the very first priority, before the consumer and certainly before profit. When that doesn’t happen, we fail the animals and we fail as people of this Planet.

Whichever choice you make or wherever you stand on this matter, a sensible approach would always be to carefully inform yourself; reading material from trusted sources, such as government websites, and check the labels of each product you buy. This way you can reassure yourself of the provenance – and implicitly, standards – of the item you are buying. It may take more time to do the weekly shopping; but you will be happy in the knowledge of having made a considered choice.

Full disclosure: the views expressed in this article are my own only.

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