US-UK imports of meat raised with antibiotics risk undermining EU farmers

Meat and livestock make up a considerable share of UK-EU trade, and the UK plays a central role in the EU meat market, as both a supplier and a consumer [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Trade of meat from animals raised with antibiotics between the United Kingdom and the United States threatens the progress recently made on antibiotic resistance and risks adversely affecting both British and EU meat producers, warns a new report published on Tuesday (1 December).

While the conversation thus far has predominantly revolved around the infamous chlorinated chicken, the report by the UK Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) highlights another concern over Britain’s stance on imports of meat raised using antibiotics.

It found that US cattle, pig, and poultry farms are routinely using antibiotics that are not permitted in the EU, and often at low levels in feed for prolonged periods, to make animals grow faster and/or suppress diseases.

The report warns that this creates the ideal conditions for the development of antibiotic resistance, widely recognised as one of the biggest threats to global health and food security today.

The EU has taken a number of steps to reduce the unnecessary use of antimicrobials in agriculture.

In recent years, the meat sector has made significant progress in the reduction of the use of antibiotics. For example, the EU poultry sector has seen their use slashed by 82% in Italy and by 75% in the Netherlands, with significant reductions also seen elsewhere in the bloc.

The EU is now proposing to go further with a ban on all preventative use of antibiotics from 2022, which would also require producers exporting meat to the EU to do the same. 

However, the report highlights that the UK government is reluctant to adopt a similar stance.

Futhermore, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, it would not be possible for the UK to restrict meat imports based on the use of antibiotics. Imports of such meat could also enter the UK market in the event that a free-trade deal is negotiated without assurance of adherence to the standards that exist in the UK.

Targets for anti-microbials must allow for 'massive' variation within livestock sector

Ambitions to lower the use of antibiotics in farming must take into account the “massive” amount of variation between member states and also between species, according to a leading livestock sustainability consultant who also highlighted the pressing need to digitalise the animal health sector.

Richard Young, director of the SFT, warned that on top of negatively impacting British farmers, who risk being undermined by cheaper, lower standard imports, this could also affect the trade of meat between the UK and EU in the future.

Meat and livestock make up a considerable share of UK-EU trade, and the UK plays a central role in the EU meat market, as both a supplier and a consumer, and Young warned that, without a trade deal, “all UK exports of meat to the EU will be treated as from a ’third country’”.

“That probably wouldn’t have a huge impact immediately, but from January 2022, it could become a significant issue because if UK exporters couldn’t prove they were using EU standards on antibiotics in livestock production, then, in theory, it would not be let in,” he said. 

Young also raised concerns about the possibility of US meat being imported into the UK, then being sent on to the EU, particularly in the case of processed meat products.

Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of EU farmers association COPA-COGECA, told EURACTIV, that it is “not in the interest of the UK agri-food value chain to lower their standards, not internally or externally to the EU27. In case of an infringement, the UK food products risk losing their reputation in the eyes of the consumers”.

“This would be against the interests of the farmers, in both the UK and the EU27. It would endanger all the investments and hard work that has been put in place for the high-quality European food,” he warned. 

Assurances of origin

The report comes on the back of increasing concerns that European meat producers may be undercut by cheaper imports that do not meet the high standards of animal welfare and sustainability found in the EU, or those outlined in the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy. 

Asked how EU producers can be protected in the event that these meat imports enter the UK market, Pesonen stressed that if the UK government deviates from the current EU standards, “we must have assurances on the origins of the products entering the UK market and being traded to the EU27.”

He stressed that “all products in the EU internal market must respect the rules of the EU”.

One way that could help protect producers is via the introduction of EU/non-EU origin labelling, something stakeholders have called for to safeguard European meat producers and help consumers make an informed choice.

However, Pesonen warned that this may not go far enough.

“We cannot deviate from [our standards], not even with the relevant origin labelling,” he emphasised. 

EU food origin labels should be placed on the cards, stakeholders say

Adding another element to the current food labelling debates in the EU, stakeholders have called for an EU origin label to be taken into consideration, saying this would encourage consumers to support the European livestock sector.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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