This week, the Agriculture Bill returns to the House of Commons having been debated and amended in the Lords. I am really pleased that Peers have used the opportunity to amend this Bill to uphold animal welfare and food production standards in future trade deals, something I deeply regret that the Commons failed to do back in May. As an MP, the only vet in the Commons, and a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, I was proud to add my name to the amendment to the Bill to uphold these standards. I voted for the amendment – and against the Government. Frankly, I was absolutely gutted that the amendment did not pass. I believe we missed a real opportunity to make a powerful statement from the UK that we can be a beacon in these areas: if you wish to trade with us, then you must come up to our high standards in animal health and welfare and farming.
Some say that this will complicate trade deals, but I disagree. In the Department for International Trade and the Foreign Office we have the best negotiators and diplomats in the world. In any negotiation there has to be give and take. Provisions on animal welfare have been included in free trade agreements such as between the EU and Chile and South Korea. In fact, this led to improved slaughter standards in Chile, an animal welfare improvement.
These issues again were debated in the Trade Bill in July in which I voted for two important amendments; the first was to give Parliament the ability to approve trade deals and the second was to uphold animal health and welfare, environmental and food standards in new trade deals. I feel very strongly about this, so much so that I voted against the Government on these amendments. Unfortunately, these amendments were rejected. One of these amendments was an Opposition amendment. I firmly believe that issues such as animal health, welfare and the environment cut across party divides.
Some say that this is protectionism, but I disagree. This is about our values. Over a million people, myself included, signed the NFU’s food standards petition. We should show the world where we stand on animal welfare and food production standards and putting it in law does just that. The ‘protecting’ bit does hold true, but in a different context: we would be protecting the welfare of animals all around the world. I have also heard some say as long as the food is safe, then let the market and consumers decide. In my view, that leads to an unethical race to the bottom. Veal from calves raised in crates may be safe to consume, but that does not make it right.
And what of the chlorinated chicken debate? Quite rightly, it is banned in the UK and EU. Some will say that the process is safe, but a 2018 study published by the American Society for Microbiology reported that the chlorination process was not 100% effective in killing the food-borne pathogens, and merely led to them being undetectable in the lab. But this ignores the true reason we should not be importing these products. This carcass disinfection process merely covers up and tries to mitigate the sub-standard animal welfare standards in the rearing of this poultry. There is now talk of other types of products that use sub-standard animal welfare being controlled by steeper tariffs rather than the ban that exists on specific products like chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef. This would be the thin end of the wedge; once the door is opened, then more and more poor animal welfare foods could enter our market. We must stick with the existing bans which the Government has made clear will be transferred into UK law from EU law and uphold our standards for other products.
I will continue to stand up for the farmers in Penrith and The Border and across Cumbria and the wider UK. We have the best farmers and produce great food using high standards. We should be very proud of that. I will continue to work with Government, but please know I am prepared to again vote against them on this, as I have already done in both the Agriculture and Trade Bills, to ensure our high standards in animal health and welfare and food production are upheld.
This is an opportunity to raise animal welfare and food production standards both here and globally and show what our values are: we should seize it.