Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Import of agricultural goods

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 5th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 12:15 pm, 5th March 2020

I fully accept that the provision would need to be thought through and worked through in future. My point is that in general we must be careful about such changes, because I do not want our agriculture sector to be put at a disadvantage.

We do not want what I have just been outlining to happen. I suspect that the Minister and the vast majority of her colleagues do not want it to happen either. I mentioned the chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef, and it is worth spending a moment to remind ourselves of the exact nature of the kinds of low-standard food imports that we need to guard against.

When it comes to a trade deal with the US, we know that by and large its regulations on farm animal welfare are substantially lower than those of the UK. My understanding is that the US has no federal regulations at all in many of the areas in which the UK has enacted detailed regulations. The RSPCA raised, in evidence, the fact that 55% of the pork meat and bacon that we eat is imported. Virtually all of it comes from the EU, which follows comparatively high standards of production.

If we start going to the US, where they still use sow stalls and inject pigs with ractopamine, both of which are rightly illegal in UK pig farming on animal welfare grounds, we completely undermine our moral commitments against those practices, and allow undercutting of our farmers, who are committed to such higher standards. I remind members of the Committee that ractopamine is a feed additive used to manipulate growth in pigs, which has been shown to be highly detrimental to pig welfare, causing lameness, stiffness, trembling and shortness of breath. There is a reason we do not use it. It is the same for hormone-treated beef, which is produced in the US by injecting cattle with growth hormones to generate greater mass more quickly. That is banned in the EU on animal welfare and public health grounds.

The issue with the chlorinated chicken produced in the US is that the chickens have been kept in such dismal and intensive conditions that the chlorine is required to wash off the pathogens that they have become infected with during rearing and slaughter. The principle is animal welfare, but there is also a real question over food safety. Of course, we heard evidence on that. It is fair to say that there is dispute about the comparative rates of food-borne illnesses in the US and the UK but, as we heard from Professor Keevil of the University of Southampton, there are now studies that suggest that chlorine washing is not as effective as was once thought, and can make pathogens undetectable without actually killing them, so that they may remain capable of causing disease.

I feel strongly that those are not products that we want on our shelves or in our freezer cabinets. I will echo the words of the president of the National Farmers Union, who last week delivered this statement to a clearly discomfited Secretary of State:

“To sign up to a trade deal which results in opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would not only be morally bankrupt, it would be the work of the insane.”

I might not have used exactly the same words, but I agree with the sentiment, and I think that the Secretary of State was discomfited because he knows that she is right.

It is crystal clear that we need a safeguard. How on earth do the Government expect to negotiate their way out of this, when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has clearly said that chlorinated chicken must be part of any UK-US trade agreement? Why not come clean and admit that in the negotiations there will be trade-offs, one of which, sadly, could be selling out our farmers and our environment?

New clauses 30 to 32 are particularly interesting, and members of the Committee who have read them will note that they are detailed. They may think, “Gosh, what a clever bunch they are on the Labour side.” They may not—but it is actually better than that. Let me explain where the new clauses came from. I suspect that some Members already know, and I hope that the Minister was warned when she took the job. The new clauses—the exact words—were tabled to the previous Bill by none other than the current Secretary of State, George Eustice. That Bill never reached Report and there was no opportunity to debate the new clauses. I am grateful to eagle-eyed experts from an organisation that shall remain nameless—they know who they are—for drawing them to our attention.

We judge that it would be of use to the Committee to consider the new clauses. They are deeply probing and have an illustrious pedigree, because they first saw the light of day during the brief, tricky period when the current Secretary of State was on the Back Benches, having resigned his post over a difference of opinion with the then Prime Minister about our relationship with the European Union. To some extent, we are slightly puzzled that those amendments have not been re-tabled by the Government for this version of the Bill. It would be useful to hear the Minister explain why the Government apparently now feel that these worthy proposals, tabled then, are not worth revisiting now. I will choose my words carefully, because the Secretary of State is clearly not part of the Committee. I ask the Minister, why does she not agree with the proposals? Perhaps she does.

We were particularly struck by what these new clauses seemed to be looking to achieve. Members of the Committee will agree that they deal with complex and technical matters on which a degree of expertise is needed in matters of animal health and veterinary pharmaceutical practice. Our understanding is that the aim here was to place in primary legislation many of the protections and safeguards on food safety and animal welfare that already currently exist in secondary legislation, both retained EU and domestic. The force of the proposals would be to ban the sale of animals or products from animals that have been treated with a range of compounds whose use is currently illegal in this country, except in restricted circumstances where they are being used under veterinary supervision for veterinary therapeutic purposes, and only then if residues are acceptably low.

It is truly a fascinating read to see what these compounds include. Schedule 1 lists testosterone, progesterone, oestradiol 17β, stilbenes and trenbolone, which are all hormones permitted as growth promoters in US beef production. The beta-agonists listed are used as growth promoters, more commonly in pig production, and I believe that ractopamine, which I mentioned earlier, would be classified under that category.

Most interestingly, new clause 31 would prohibit the sale, for hygiene reasons, of any animal product that comes from animals being treated with any substance other than potable water for the purpose of removing surface contamination. By my understanding, that would essentially preclude the sale of chlorine or oplactose-acid washed chicken in this country.