US hens have half the living space of UK birds and are dipped in chlorinated water after slaughter to kill bacteria growing on them as a result of the birds “literally sitting in each other’s waste”, according to a new video being launched today by the RSPCA.
Aiming to highlight the welfare differences between US and UK farm animals as trade talks resume between the two countries in September, the UK’s largest animal welfare charity is taking the unusual step of releasing a video that “exposes the realities of animal welfare” and warns consumers against US dairy, egg and meat imports.
Examples of US-UK welfare differences identified by the RSPCA include the absence of US federal laws protecting chicken or turkey welfare, US egg hens having only about half the living space of UK hens, and only 5% of US laying hens being free range compared to 52% in the UK.
For pigs, the UK banned sow stalls in 1999 while major US pig producing states still use them. “Sow stalls leave pigs very little space [and] prevent them from even turning around,” the RSPCA said, while US beef cattle “can be treated with hormones which have been banned by the EU.”
The 2019 UK Conservative party manifesto pledged it would “not compromise” Britain’s “high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”. In June however, Downing Street was accused of reopening the door to imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef, after a leaked memo instructed ministers to have “no specific policy” on animal welfare in US trade talks.
The RSPCA believes lower welfare agri-food imports will weaken the UK’s animal welfare standards and hurt farmers. Its video comes with a petition asking the government to include legal guarantees in the post-Brexit agricultural bill that will ensure “imports produced to lower animal welfare standards than our own will not enter the UK”.
September’s fourth round of US trade talks is preceded by this week’s EU-UK talks. The RSPCA additionally fears a no-deal Brexit would increase pressure on Britain to sign a US-favourable trade agreement.
“And it’s not just about this government or this trade deal,” said the RSPCA CEO, Chris Sherwood. “We need to be future-proofing our agriculture systems here for the next 10 or 20 years. To do that, what we need to see in the agriculture bill is a cast iron commitment, clause number one, that protects our farmers and our animals from lower welfare imports.”
RSPCA Assured is the charity’s food labelling scheme, and operates independently of the main organisation.
Farmer and director of the UK’s Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden, said though he supported the RSPCA’s actions, more needs to be done. “It’s no good being slightly better than the US. We need to be much better. If we are going to transition to a sustainable food system then we need to stop producing cheap pork and cheap chicken in the UK.” He acknowledged that would increase food prices, but said cheap food has hidden costs for the environment and public health.
The RSPCA video is narrated by Farm Sanctuary research director Lauri Torgerson-White. In it, she warns UK consumers against food from America’s “industrial animal system … [which is] designed to benefit huge, often multinational corporations at the expense of animal welfare, farmer wellbeing and the earth.”
Commenting on the RSPCA’s video and petition a UK government spokesperson said in an email: “This government will not sign a trade deal that will compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. Our food regulators continue to provide independent advice to make sure all food imports comply with our high standards. Decisions on these standards are separate from any trade agreements. We are focused on getting a deal that works in the best interests of the UK.”
Jim Monroe, from the US National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said: “Over the last 10 years, the United States, on average, has been the top exporter of pork in the world. In any given year, the US pork industry ships products to more than 100 countries. That’s because we produce the safest, most nutritious and most affordable pork in the world. We do so while maintaining the highest standards of animal welfare. Any characterization to the contrary is preposterous.
“NPPC supports a stronger trade relationship with the United Kingdom, but will only support a US-UK free trade agreement if the UK is willing to eliminate all tariff and non-tariff barriers and embrace Codex and other international production standards.”
Dr Ashley Peterson, seniorvice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council said: “Poultry processors consider the welfare of the birds a top priority. Not only is it the right thing to do ethically, but it does not make economic sense to mistreat the birds.”
“The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has guidelines and directives addressing appropriate handling of birds under the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act, and chicken processors strictly adhere to their animal welfare guidelines. This whole process is routinely audited internally, by independent third party auditors and by customers. It is monitored on a continuous basis by FSIS inspectors.”
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This article was amended on Monday 17 August 2020 to include a reference to the RSPCA’s farm assurance scheme RSPCA Assured.