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RSPCA urges UK government to prioritise animal welfare as Agriculture Bill reaches Lords

Higher animal welfare laws hang in the balance as next week’s Lords vote looms as the House of Lords prepares to vote on crucial amendments to the Agriculture Bill to protect millions of farm animals, the RSPCA urges the government to keep its promises.

6 July 2020, at 9:39am

Next week will see the House of Lords discuss the landmark animal welfare law - The Agriculture Bill - considering a number of amendments which would ensure animal welfare is protected.

Critically, the charity is backing an amendment to enshrine in law the Government’s manifesto commitment that they would not accept imports of food products produced to lower welfare standards - this is not just the chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef which have been widely discussed but pork products from the offspring of pigs in sow stalls and eggs from hens kept in barren battery cages.

Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive of the RSPCA said: “Next week’s vote in the House of Lords is absolutely crucial for animal welfare. UK standards must be safeguarded in future trade deals - if standards aren’t protected, lower welfare, cheaper-to-produce products will enter the UK market.

“This is not just about chlorine chicken or hormone treated beef - eggs from conventional [or ‘barren’] battery systems and pork from pigs produced by sows kept in stalls could be imported from countries where welfare standards are permitted to be lower than our own. And it isn’t only about the USA either - many other countries we’ll be negotiating with will have lower standards than the UK too.

“If these amendments fail it sends an important message to the US that our own farmers can be undercut and spark a race to the bottom for animal welfare.”

Although the Government has made promises in their manifesto that they will not negotiate animal welfare standards, this is not legally binding. The UK inherits laws from the EU banning chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef but there is nothing to stop this legislation being amended in future.

RSPCA polling showed 67 percent of people are opposed to the import of food products produced to standards unlawful in the UK.

Chris continued: “A legally binding guarantee which protects our animal standards needs to be explicit in the Agriculture Bill. Ministers have repeatedly promised they will not sell out on our standards so there should be no reason not to commit this to law.”

The RSPCA has campaigned extensively during the past two years for a number of important animal welfare measures in the Bill, and around 20,000 members of the charity’s supporters lobbied their MPs on the issue.

The animal welfare charity was encouraged that the Bill voted through by the House of Commons in the spring included the development of a scheme to provide financial rewards for farmers in England who improve their animal welfare practices - an approach actively encouraged by the RSPCA - as well as the official recognition of animal welfare as a "public good".

However, campaigners were left disappointed that other key aspects such as protection for farmers in England against lower welfare imports were not included, despite an earlier commitment to this. At a time when the UK is negotiating new trade deals with the USA, Australia and Japan, all of whom have lower legal requirements in some areas for farm animal welfare than the UK, the charity fears that any measures to raise standards will be undermined if England allows entry of produce from animals reared to lower welfare standards, including in systems that would be illegal within the country.

The charity cautiously welcomed the idea of a "trade standards commission" that could play a role in protecting UK farm animal welfare standards in trade deals, but believes it remains no substitute for protecting standards that go above the legal minimum. This week will see amendments put forward to strengthen the role of the commission in protecting these standards.

Method of production labelling, which would allow shoppers to make an informed choice and encourage producers to use higher welfare practices, is likely to be introduced through the Bill - something the RSPCA has long-campaigned for. The charity hopes that an amendment this week will make it legally binding for the Government to introduce such product labelling.

Chris continued: “Along with our supporters, we now anxiously await the discussion and vote in the House of Lords.

“This is a critical moment for the Government to show that their commitment to maintaining standards and protecting British farmers - and farm animals - is more than lip service.”

More details about the RSPCA’s campaign work for farm animal welfare can be found on the charity’s website.”